Women Choices in the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century


Women’s empowerment is an ongoing social movement founded on the notions of equality, fairness, and justice. Within the past three centuries, numerous issues have emerged that reveal that such a journey has been a risky and challenging one. From the mid-19th century, these members of society encountered numerous predicaments, including a lack of opportunities and the requirement to complete domestic chores. By the early 20th century, some women had attained education and better social gains. However, the plight of the greatest majority remained the same. The consideration of Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants,” Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby,” and O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” could shed some more light on this issue. While some improvements in social standings were recorded between the late 19th and early 20th century, the studied American literature works reveal that choices of women regarding divorce, marriage, and abortion remained limited.

Women’s Historical Background: Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century

During the last quarter of the 19th century, numerous social changes began to take shape that had the potential to influence the future of women. For instance, historians acknowledge that slavery became less pronounced in different parts of the United States. The number of indentured individuals continued to shrink while some were earning their freedom (Thuan 219). Nonetheless, the society promoted various practices whereby women had to obey their husbands and fathers.

Within the coming years, new changes emerged that began to redefine the position of women in their respective societies. The increasing number of feminist writers condemned the place and plight of these individuals in their respective communities. They were kind to attack most of the established social realities that appeared discriminatory and incapable of guiding women to pursue their goals. These issues made it easier for more people to start embracing the idea of female education. The need to allow most of them to find job opportunities appeared to gain some traction during that time (Guo and Du 29). However, the majority of the women in the wider American society remained outsiders to most of the economic and political establishments already in place.

As described in many literary works of the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, women remained with little or no choices. Their husbands were the ones who controlled their experiences, goals, and even decisions. They had to focus on the concepts and moral attributes promoted in the wider society. Failure to follow such attributes would attract contempt or punishment in some the societies. During the period, cases of slavery and the absence of opportunities worsened the situation for most women. Society continued to compel them to act in accordance with the dictates of their communities (Alashjaai 202). This scenario worsened their fate, thereby disorienting their overall experiences and outcomes in society.

The emergence of schooled feminists at the beginning of the 20th century became a new opportunity to support the plight of more women. Through the presentation of engaging themes and topics, such writers ridiculed and attacked men for promoting discriminatory tendencies. The effort would set the stage for a renewed approach toward economic empowerment. However, such an outcome could not be easily realized since more men continued to control most of the aspects of the wider society (Bausch and Cassill 109). American literature, therefore, succeeds in presenting a renewed form of imagination that captures the nature of this society. The writers of the time also examined how women’s decisions remained limited and how people identified them as housewives.

The works described below provide a detailed analysis of the choices most of the characters had to make as members of the wider society. In “Hills like White Elephants,” the presented young girl is unable to decide what to do with an unwanted pregnancy (Alashjaai 203). The narrator states: “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white” (Bausch and Cassill 229). The message here is that the choices of women are limited due to the insurmountable challenges and mountains that are described using such a long mountain. His husband appears to push for an abortion while requiring her to make the final choice.

While such an option exists, the reader realizes that the girl’s decision to keep the baby was not a topic for discussion. Such a portrayal presents a clear image of the issues women had to grapple with during the period under investigation despite the advances made in the literature. The same evidences are notable in the other two works, whereby women are unable to choose the best men to marry them. For instance, O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” describes how the options of women remain limited. Specifically, they do not have much say when it comes to the choice of men (Thuan 221). The underlying test from the text is only when the man in question is not able to kill the women.

Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills like White Elephants”

In this work, the author creates an inspiration story from an unwanted pregnancy. The described individuals have found themselves in a dilemma following an untimely and unexpected pregnancy. Set in the early 20th century, women appear to occupy a unique position in society whereby they are required to follow the orders of their parents and husbands. Fortunately, the girl presented in the text finds herself compelled to make a choice between having an abortion and or carrying the child till birth (Alashjaai 201). However, the girl realizes that any choice should make should depend on the expectations and position of the American man.

Being unable to speak Spanish is another aspect whereby she seems to be dependent and incapable of achieving personal expression. While she could be wishing to keep her baby, the society appears to dictate the choice she has to make. The girl says: “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (Bausch and Cassill 232). The emerging message from this quote is that it presents desperate entreaty and emotional feelings. The reader would compare the emerging issues with the manner in which people pursue abortion and the ethical concerns they raise. However, the case for Jig is different since she is guided to abort, a requirement that does not consider her wishes at all. The American goes further to say: “But I don’t want you to,’ he said, ‘I don’t care anything about it'” (Bausch and Cassill 232). This quote shows the nature of power struggle and how Jig’s choices remain limited regarding the issue of abortion.

Kate Chopin’s “Désirée’s Baby”

In this story, Chopin describes a white couple that has been blessed with a black child. This occurrence triggers a sudden change in the behaviors and responses of the husband. It becomes quite clear that Désirée has an African descent. The birth of a black child compels her husband, Armand, to distance himself from his wife and child. Before getting the baby, he would treat the existing slaves with affection. However, this new outcomes leaves Desiree worried and incapable of making a favorable choice. Chopin writes: “When he frowned she trembled, but loved him. When he smiled, she asked no greater blessing of God” (Bausch and Cassill 179). This quote indicates how Désirée is reduced to only two things, a lover and a slave. Her husband begins to mistreat her, a scenario that resonates with the problem of discrimination. The author writes: “He thought Almighty God had dealt cruelly and unjustly with him; and felt, somehow, that he was paying Him back in kind when he stabbed thus into his wife’s soul” (Bausch and Cassill 181). This form of mistreatment shows conclusively that the wife has no options even if she has done nothing wrong.

As a wife, Désirée should stay at home without the possibility of a divorce (Guo and Du 30). From the text, the reader finds out that Armand also has the same kind of ancestry as Désirée. This portrayal shows conclusively that a unique kind of misogyny exists whereby women find themselves confused and incapable of pursuing their goals in life. Without the option to make the most appropriate choice, Désirée realizes that racism and gender inequalities remain pervasive challenges in the studied American society (Guo and Du 31). With such predicaments, Désirée’s hand remains tight since she is unable to change her fate. The author writes: “‘ Good-by, Armand’, she moaned. He did not answer her. That was his last blow at fate” (Bausch and Cassill 181). This quote portrays Armand’s arrogance and how he is leaving Désirée without a choice in her life.

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

In this story, the theme of women’s choices is evident whereby the grandmother tries to describe what a good man could mean. The reader observes that The Misfit matches such a description simply because he is not capable of shooting a woman. In this case, women appear to be compelled to marry men irrespective of their behaviors, goals, and moral values. The only thing women need to consider when looking for a man is if they might die in their hands or not (Thuan 223). The author writes: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness” (Bausch and Cassill 120). Grandmother also believes that a woman needs to be moral if she it to meet the threshold for goodness.

As observed in the text, women appear to have limited choices when it comes to the process of finding good men. Some of them would be identified as appropriate even if they have poor judgment, are gullible, or capable of following things blindly. This complexity compels women to in whatever situation they find themselves in without questioning. This why the authors indicates that “the truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it” (Bausch and Cassill 124). These explorations show how women are unable to dictate their choices or goals in life.


The above discussion has revealed that women have for many years experienced numerous challenges stemming from the societal and cultural ideologies associated with their communities. From the late 19th century, some women managed to get good husbands and be in a position to lead better lives. American literature would continue to examine this reality and the plight of more women in this society. However, their choices remained limited since their cultural backgrounds and gender dictated their choices and positions. In marriage, such individuals had little or not say when it came to most of the critical issues, including divorce and abortion.

Works Cited

Alashjaai, Nouf F. “The Interpersonal Relationship between Jig and the American in Hemmingway’s “Hills like White Elephants”.” The English Literature Journal, vol. 1, no. 6, 2014, pp. 200-205.

Bausch, Richard, and R. V. Cassill, (editors). Norton anthology of short fiction. 6th ed., Norton, 2000.

Guo, Li, and Qianru Du. “An Analysis of Désirée’s Baby from Reader-Response Criticism.” Scholars International Journal of Linguistics and Literature, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021, pp. 28-32.

Thuan, Le Thi Bich. “Character Analysis Through Politness in A Good Man Is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor.” International Journal of Applied Linguistics & English Literature, vol. 6, no. 4, 2017, pp. 218-226.

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