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This American Story: Kate Chopin, the First Feminist

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American politics and culture are two subjects that I never tire of writing about. However, when documenting current events and issuing an opinion on them, sometimes I feel that I tend to ignore the past. Not past events, specifically, but individuals who made our nation exactly what it is today. As history never fails to repeat itself, perhaps their stories might allow us to view what is going on in the present from a totally different, but none too far removed, perspective.

This is why I am beginning a new weekly series here at Blogcritics centered around a man or woman whose life can tell us a truly unique American story. Some names are those which you have undoubtedly have heard before, while others might be completely new. In any case, there is always much to learn, so why waste any more time beating around the bush?

Kate Chopin was a lady far ahead of her time. Born in St. Louis just a decade before the Civil War began, she followed the path of conventionality for women of her era and married at the age of twenty. Becoming a mother soon after, eventually having a grand total of six children, nothing out of the ordinary appeared to be coming her way for years on end. During the early 1880s, however, her husband died and left her destitute. Residing in rural Louisiana, she packed up her kids and moved back to her city of birth, where her mother was able to support her.

Unfortunately, Kate’s mother passed on the following year, leaving her daughter in severe emotional turmoil. After seeking professional help, Kate decided to enter the writing industry as it was a potentially profitable outlet for her feelings. Said feelings led her to pen social commentary which effectively laid the groundwork for first wave feminism. Her best known short story, 1894’s aptly titled The Story of an Hour, is about a wife who confronts her inner demons and finds that, despite society wanting her to, she does not fully love her husband and is relieved to hear of his demise. Succeeding this was her indisputably most controversial work, an 1899 novel called The Awakening, which delved head-on into the sticky subjects of adultery and non-marital cohabitation.

Critics of the latter were so fierce in their condemnation, not only of the book but of Kate herself, that she opted never to have any other fiction published. She died only a half decade later, in 1904 at the age of 53. Despite her literary career lasting for, more or less, only ten years, her ideas of individuality and illumination of the hypocrisy, as well as ignorance, harbored by too great a number ring true today. She was the epitome of a fearless visionary, and did not allow the opinions of others to stand in the way of relating key messages regarding the lost hopes and dreams of women pinned down by archaic cultural norms. Indeed, Kate Chopin lived her own rendition of the American Dream, and left a torch burning for others daring enough to take her place.

Needless to say, there were, and still are, no shortage of women willing to do this. If Kate could have lived to see the end of the 20th century, there is little doubt that she would have felt her painstaking efforts paid off in dividends.

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About Joseph F. Cotto

  • http://rwno.limewebs.com Warren Beatty

    Joseph, you say that you are starting a series on a man or woman who can tell us a truly unique American story. Perhaps your next article can be about yourself. After all, though not unique, yours is truly an American story. I took the liberty of using your name in this article at Conservative Daily News. Will you be kind enough to answer the question I pose: what, precisely, is a staunch centrist?

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/joseph-cotto/ Joseph Cotto

    Warren,

    This is really not the place, unless you somehow intend to bring Mrs. Chopin into the conversation, but I would be happy to define “centrist” if the article you linked to were posted in full. It ends after roughly two paragraphs.

  • http://rwno.limewebs.com Warren Beatty

    Joseph, I must apologise for the quite incomplete article to which I linked. I don’t know what happened. I will communicate with you once I discover what occurred.

  • jamminsue

    Joseph, Thank you! I will let one of my English Lit professors know you posted this. She had us read the two stories you mentioned in her class. I believe she will be pleased to know you mentioned Chopin (and the stories) in this public forum)

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/joseph-cotto/ Joseph Cotto

    jamminsue,

    No problem; I hope that your professor finds this to be interesting. Mrs. Chopin was a very important figure to American history in both the political and literary senses, and deserves far more credit than she is given for this.

  • Emily Toth

    I’m very happy to see this posting, as I’m the author of Kate Chopin’s biography: UNVEILING KATE CHOPIN (Univ. Press of Mississippi, 1999). She was, as you say, a very important independent thinker who paved the way for so much. A couple of corrections: she did write and publish half a dozen stories after THE AWAKENING, and she was 54 when she died, in 1904. It was much too soon. A statue to her is being put up in St. Louis in March.

    Emily Toth
    Professor, Louisiana State University
    [personal contact info deleted by comments editor]

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/joseph-cotto/ Joseph Cotto

    Professor Toth,

    Glad to see that you liked the article. I regret mistyping her age, but such inaccuracies can sometimes slip through even the tightest of fingers. It is great to hear about the upcoming statue; such a dedication is much deserved and long overdue. Still, better late than never, as the saying goes.

  • http://rwno.limewebs.com Warren Beatty

    Joseph, the article I cited is now (hopefully) complete and answers your “comments” #26 and #48 that correspond to this article.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/joseph-cotto/ Joseph Cotto

    Warren,

    I will answer your question, as well as state a few other much-needed observations, in a feature length article tomorrow.