Although we have reached the twenty-first century, a period of sophisticated technology and progress, the debate about gender is still going on. It is present in many fields of our lives, for example when we compare the treatment of women in specific cultures, consider different terms regarding the presence of feminine forms within a language or concern ourselves with gearing the status of homosexual alliances to those of heterosexuals.
Compared to the problems of the last century, these issues seem to be the lesser evil, for both women and homosexuals have already gained a higher position and extended their rights in the developed countries. Despite their ability to widen the range of possibilities they are still facing impertinent treatment. It must have been even worse in the last century – what about gender during the fin de siècle then?
The last century was concerned with reshaping the image of usual relationships and behaviour radically. According to Levenson, ‘shifts in gender relations at the turn of the century were a key factor in the emergence of Modernism’ (Levenson, 1999, p.174). Relationships were no longer clearly defined or restricted to a specific combination; also the same sex became challenging, even if this meant the disobedience of the conventional idea of sexuality. Moreover, stereotypes concerning female roles started to be violated. Hence the ‘women’s movement’ is the most essential characteristic in the period of the gender crisis which was intended to be a fight for their freedom and rights (Pykett, 1995, p.14). The preoccupation with the representation of the female in politics, such as the right to vote, was amongst the most important topics raised. This was due to changes of the people’s social and cultural life, evoked through the feminist movement.
Although this discussion was not only confined to femininity, it seemed to be focused on it. The reason for this is the dominance of female writers in this era; male writers were reputed to fear the ‘women’s new power’ because they depicted themselves as ‘independent, educated, (relatively) sexually liberated, oriented more toward productive life in the public sphere than toward reproductive life in the home’ (Levenson, 1999, p.174). A woman of this type was therefore referred to as the ‘New Woman’ (ibid.). A majority of modernist writings deal with the feminist issue thus, portraying female protagonists reflecting upon their lives and perceiving men out of their perspectives.
Apart from this interpersonal level, women were characterised in a derogatory way even on an academic level. The female species was compelled to start a revolt because all new emerging sciences downgraded them to an ‘inferior status’ (p.179). Significant examples are Sigmund Freud’s theories which are quintessential amongst modernist gender theories: they confirm that girls/women envy their father’s genitals, as they are only ‘castrated men’ (ibid.).
In the course of this essay I will deal with the presentation of gender in selected works of the following female writers: Virginia Woolf and her both rival and friend Katherine Mansfield, as well as Jean Rhys, the modernist writer who died only twenty-three years ago. Building up on the theoretical facts I have mentioned before, I will elicit the meaning of gender in the first half of the last century as well as gender-related problems which the protagonists encounter. Examples from the novels and short stories will be included.
Virginia Woolf embodied a highly engaged feminist, always concerned with ‘cultural, economic, and educational disabilities within […] a patriarchal society’ (Abrams, 1999, p.88). She stated that women were unable to realize their creative potential, as they were repeatedly inhibited by men who saw their position only in domestic life. This became a main issue in the women’s revolution: fighting for the dissolution from housework, their ‘exclusive legitimate territory’, and the self-actualisation of their dreams (Fullbrook, 1990, p.97). Mary Datchet in Night and Day is a good example of that; she symbolizes a woman’s quest for independence and the right to earn her own money. Although she is doing unfulfilling amateur work as a typist without being paid, she is amongst the few emancipated women who run their own business; the ‘enjoyment of leisure […] would [be] intolerable’ for her (Woolf, 2000, p.76). The occupation of a typist, which is also referred to in Mansfield’s short story Pictures, was the only kind of employment women were allowed to perform if they could not entirely be prevented from working. Katharine Hilbery, on the contrary, is unsure whether to be employed or not. As Mary says, Katharine ‘doesn’t understand about work. She’s never had to’, whereas she herself regards it as a ‘thing that saves one’ (p.412). On the other hand Katharine always observes people working, looking into offices through windows like a voyeur, visiting her friend several times at work and experiencing the trouble she has with her colleague Mr Clacton who cannot tolerate his inferiority to a woman.
In addition to that, there are several examples which express the traditional male attitude towards women who wanted to occupy themselves with something relevant or assert themselves through a demanding job: Katharine’s father, for example, articulates that ‘the office atmosphere is very bad for the soul’ and that he feels relieved about his daughter having not become a ‘convert’ (p.99). This expression sounds ironic, for it is actually used in the context of religions. It implies that working is as much a basic principle of one’s life as religion is and that he supports the general way of thinking of his fellow men.
Another episode about Katharine’s cousin Cyril, who has fathered two children with a woman without actually being married to her, shows that women had better not overstep the border of their affairs. Katharine interferes in the occasion to convey her opinion on the topic, but her father is the only one to adjudicate upon this problem, and therefore he leaves her with her ‘disagreeable work’, a woman’s duties within the household (p.112). Women who crossed those cultural and social boundaries and, in Rodney’s words, led such ‘odious, self-centred lives’ were regarded as sinners (p.70). This applies to both Mary and Katharine, the latter, however, is the real prototype of such ‘incomprehensible creatures’ (p.418).