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Changing Women’s Roles as Viewed in Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper

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The yellow wallpaper is symbolic of the Cult of True Womanhood, which binds women to the home and family. As in the case of Charlotte Gilman, women were constricted to the set parameters that men determined. Women are conditioned to accept these boundaries and remain in place, in the private sphere. “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was dammed immediately as the enemy of God, of civilization, and of the Republic” (Welter 372). Getting beyond the yellow wallpaper, women defied the corrupted power that men wielded over women, escaped their confinement, and created for themselves a new ideological role, one that included entry into the public sphere, or the market place.

In the face of the prevalence of discrimination and “masculine self-interest” (Roland and Harris 78), Emma Hart Willard “contended that women were entitled to the same dignities and freedoms as men . . .” (Lipman-Blumen 136). As early as 1819, she published a “Plan for Improving Female Education” which would not only enable women to teach their children, but would be a means of enlarging their world beyond the domestic sphere and into the workplace (Lipman-Blumen 136). However, it was the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, with the adoption of the Declaration of Sentiments--fashioned after the Declaration of Independence--that facilitated the eventual redefinition and movement towards New Womanhood. The work History of Woman Suffrage notes that at such meetings “it is striking how many women doctors are mentioned as either attending the meetings or corresponding with women's rights leaders. . . . Their stories dramatize . . . the prejudice that they faced . . .” in their struggles to remove the shackles of their jailers (Giele 48).

Women such as those Charlotte Gilman portrayed in her work forged ahead and challenged patriarchal ideologies. Women could move beyond the constrictions of the ideology, the Cult of True Womanhood. The existence of the institution of marriage, in which men played the dominant role and wielded control, placed women at the mercy of their male counterparts. The Cult of True Womanhood allowed the perpetrators to be the beneficiaries while calling for women’s complicity in the denigration of self. Such women made the emergence from the private sphere a reality, despite the seeming impediment of feminine biology. As a result, the romanticizing of woman’s role in the family and home

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