Female Autonomy in Elizabeth Stoddard’s "The Morgesons"

Term Paper, 2017

17 Pages, Grade: 3,0


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Female Autonomy and Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America

3 Cassandra Morgeson: Childhood, Education, and Rebellion

4 Cassandra Morgeson: Adulthood, Autonomy, and Attitudes Towards Men

5 Veronica Morgeson: Childhood, Early Adulthood and Marriage

6 Conclusion

6 Bibliography
6.1 Primary Sources
6.2 Secondary Sources

1 Introduction

A woman’s life in nineteenth-century American society was limited to the domestic sphere, or the household as well as church, and restricted with regard to current and future duties as mothers and wives. While young girls on the one hand need to learn how to fulfill their future duties as mothers and wives, their mothers and teachers on the other hand need to pass their knowledge regarding these duties on to their daughters. Certain gender roles served as the framework for women in society, mainly shaped by the Cult of True Womanhood. Other factors that influenced the role of women were the therewith connected virtues, which a woman was supposed to embody, as well as the common and well-known definition of a ‘True Woman’. With regard to the protagonist in The Morgesons the author “simply disregards the ‘cult of true womanhood’” (Weir 430). Autonomy with regard to women was rare, or even non-existing, and normally unwished-for, especially from the perspective of men, husbands or fathers, who expected every woman to simply take care of household and descendants.

Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons, set in mid-nineteenth-century New England, “features a heroine who passionately undertakes the voyage of self- discovery and firmly rejects the established social institutions” (Weir 427) and thereby a protagonist, who aims at autonomy and self-definition. Cassandra and Veronica Morgeson, two young women as well as sisters, are both educated the same way regarding their role as women and are confronted with the same social norms by their social environment, especially their family, but develop differently.

Cassandra Morgeson as the female protagonist emanzipates herself intellectually and economically (cf. Griem) and refuses to accept society’s rules, to fully get involved with church and religion, and to be obedient in school and respect the teacher’s authority and follow their instructions without doubting. The goal of raising a girl is to educate her to be a good and useful wife and mother. The focus primarily lies on the intellectual and social development of young women, or girls, rather than on later actions of a woman who already is wife and mother, on “the development of a rebellious, ignorant New England girl into a mature, passionate woman” (ibid. 428). Therefore Cassandra Morgeson is depicted from the age of ten (cf. Stoddard 13) up to her marriage. Later stages in her life are left out. As a reader we do not get to know what Cassandra does after her marriage, not even if she becomes a mother ans has children later on. Presumably she continues to strive for autonomy and to never fully accept society’s rules and framework for her role as a woman. Her revolt against gender norms and her quest for autonomy as a woman is the core of the story. The protagonist “recognizes man’s essential isolation in a world in which social institutions are decaying, nature is indifferent, and the existence of God problematic” (Weir 428).

Veronica Morgeson, Cassandra’s younger sister, is way more quite than her sister and differs in terms of her general behavior as well. Compared to her older sister she does not show any rebellious behavior but is described as “odd” (Stoddard 158). She does not strive for autonomy as Cassandra does and generally rather follows the expectations of society and her mother. She marries the alcoholic Ben Somers, who dies soon afterwards, and she gives birth to a child that is supposed to reflect her helplessness and loneliness in th situation as a young widow (cf. Weir 430).

Several dimensions with regard to Cassandra’s autonomy can be identified: her rebellious behavior as a child and teenager, disobedience concerning authorities like her parents and teachers, the rise of her romantic and sexual desires towards men as an adult, the therewith connected rejection of piety as well as the other three virtues that are presented in the Cult of True Womanhood purity, submissiveness, and domesticity. These dimensions will be further discussed in this paper.

2 Female Autonomy and Womanhood in Nineteenth-Century America

For the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Natalie Stoljar defines autonomy as follows: “acting on motives, reasons, or values that are one’s own.” Autonomy therefore requires to be awared of one’s motives, reasons, and values, and is based on the courage to act in a way that contradicts society’s motives, reasons, and values. Especially with feminist literature autonomy plays a central role in the process of analyzing. “Early feminist literature regarded the notion of autonomy with suspicion because it was thought to promote unattractive ‘masculinist’ ideals of personhood” (Stoljar) and thereby labels female autonomy as masculine and the opposite of a women’s ideal image. Certain ideals, which were opposed to men and masculinity, defined women and their femininity in the “patriachal society of the 1800s” (Cruea 187).

The Cult of True Womanhood, the prevailing ideal during the 1820s to 1840s, “prescribed a female role bound by kitchen and nursery, overlaid with piety and purity, and crowned with subservience” (ibid. 188). Here, women were portrayed as housewives and mothers, only useful in the context of the household and a family, including husband and children. Piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity were virtues connected to womanhood and femininity. Virginity was another major factor for women to be seen as virtuous and a True Woman (cf. ibid.). With regard to piety women were supposed to get “prepared for marriage by keeping herself chaste for her future husband and learning the skills necessary to manage a household and rear children” (ibid. 188). Women were restricted in their actions and behavior not only based on the four virtues but on a more general level based on their duties as wives and mothers: “Motherhood was valued as the most fulfilling and essential of all women’s duties” (ibid. 188). Young girls were taught at home, church, and school that motherhood is the essence of their existence (ibid.). Schools and colleges that girls attended only served the purpose of preparing them to later educate their children and fulfill the duties as a mother, especially of sons (ibid.). Male descendants were compelled to search for pious women: “Religion or piety was the core of woman's virtue, the source of her strength. Young men looking for a mate were cautioned to search first for piety, for if that were there, all else would follow” (Welter 152).

“Intellectual women […] were condemned as ‘unfeminine’” (Cruea 189), ans, of course, women who did not conform to the ideals of femininity and the social norms were also condemned as unfeminine and not as true women. “While a True Woman was assumed to be a pillar of moral strenght and virtue, she was also portrayed as delicate and weak, prone to fainting and illness” (ibid. 189), which is ambivalent but represents institutionalized thinking in the nineteenth century. The idea of the ‘True Woman’ as the idealized wife and mother defines a women’s role as follows: “A True Woman’s role within this ideology was to serve as ‘Queen’ over her household, which was supposed to reflect her husband’s wealth and success, and to prepare her children to continue her husband’s legacy of sucess” (ibid. 190). The legacy of success only includes male children since they are considered providers on a financial level while female children solely serve as future mothers and wives who educate the children properly according to their gender. Not only is the definition of a True Woman at that time a central aspect of womahood but as already mentioned also femininity: “Purity was as essential as piety to a young woman, its absence as unnatural and unfeminine” (Welter 154). That certain features were labeled as “unnatural and unfeminine” is due to society’s strict rules for each gender and the connected virtues and duties, which were not supposed to be broken or changed in any way.

‘Real Womanhood’ later emerged as an alternative to ‘True Woman- hood’ (cf. Cruea 191) and therefore defined women differently. Besides True and Real Womanhood the Woman Movement in the nineteenth century promoted Public Womanhood and New Womanhood (cf. ibid. 187). Real Womanhood differs from True Womanhood “in its attitude toward health, education, marriage, and, most importantly, employment (ibid. 191). “Because of the risks of marriage, Real Womanhood also permitted women to work for an income” (ibid. 193), which is still close to the ideals of a True Woman. However, real womanhood is not the absolute opposite of True Womanhood: “While a career was not encouraged because it would distract from domestic responsibilities, work played a central role […]” and women were supposed to be “‘employed’ in charitable, domestic, or salaried work” (ibid.). The main duties within the domestic sphere maintained. Education was therefore also an important factor for ‘Real Womanhood’ because marriage was “potentially risky […] since a woman had little chance of divorce” (ibid. 192).

3 Cassandra Morgeson: Childhood, Education, and Rebellion

Cassandra Morgeson is described as “possessed” (Stoddard 9) and “evil” (ibid. 27) during her childhood and teenage years. She shows signs of disobedience concerning authorities — teachers and her parents — and begins questioning society’s ideals and structures quite early: “‘Say good-morning, Cassandra,’ said mother, in a low voice. ‘No,' I answered loudly, "I am not fond of my grandfather’” (ibid. 19). She has an ambivalent attitude towards her family and doubts their actions and status in general: “Morgeson-- Born-- Lived-- Died-- were all their archives.” (ibid. 15). This implies that she is more ambitious regarding her life and actions. She “feels isolated and alienated from her family” (Weir 429), which is intensified by her actions, which contradict their expectations. Despite her young age she speaks her mind, both with her family members, even with older people, and with authorities as well as with stranegrs, and has a critical view of her family: “It is certain that they were not a progressive or changeable family. No tradition of any individuality remains concerning them” (Stoddard 15). Progress can be seen in Cassandra’s rebellious behavior as a teenager and child as well as her increasingly autonomous behavior as an adult.

Her disobedient behavior is also shown when Cassandra is kept from coming back to school in Surrey since she misbehaves while in class with her teacher:

Going back, I happened to step on a loose board under my seat. I determined to punish Mrs. Desire for the undeserved praise I had just received, and pushed the board till it clattered and made a dust. When Mrs. Desire detected me she turned white with anger. I pushed it again, making so much noise that the visitors turned to see the cause. She shook her head in my direction, and I knew what was in store, as we had been at enmity a long time, and she only waited for a decisive piece of mischief on my part. As soon as the visitors had gone, she said in a loud voice: "Cassandra Morgeson, take your books and go home. You shall not come here another day.” (ibid. 21)


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Female Autonomy in Elizabeth Stoddard’s "The Morgesons"
University of Bonn
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literature, women, morgesons, nineteenth century, american classics
Quote paper
Lioba Frings (Author), 2017, Female Autonomy in Elizabeth Stoddard’s "The Morgesons", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/368938


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