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Kate Chopin: Early Feminist Writer

There are many early feminist writers who wrote prolifically in the late 19th century up to the early phase of the 20th century. In this study the focus will be on early feminist writers that came from the South. This means that they are female writers who are not only from Southern States but also were inspired by the events and the social changes that occurred in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. One of the most important of these writers was Kate Chopin. Her works became popular during her time and many of her short stories were published in some of the most popular magazines in the United States. Kate Chopin is the quintessential early feminist writer because she was not afraid to portray women in a different light.

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Early Feminist Works

A significant portion of Kate Chopin’s literary output can be considered as early feminist writing. According to one commentator early feminist writing has strong links to Southern States as female writers from the post-Civil War period witnessed the transformation of their beloved land and some of them decided to adapt to the times. These writers deemed it necessary to add a degree of realism to their writings as well as to go against conventions when it came to describing the folly of men and the oppression felt by women in the hands of those who tried to stifle their creativity as well as their need for self-expression.

Kate Chopin’s short stories as well as her other literary works epitomizes early feminist writing due to the scathing and yet subtle description of male folly when it comes to being overly domineering and the delusion of thinking that they know all the answers especially when it comes to family and relationships. Aside from Kate Chopin there are at least two female writers from the South who produced excellent works that also could be considered as fine examples of early feminist writing. Ellen Glassgow and Grace King also hailed from the same region and also experienced the negative impact of the U.S. Civil War.

These women writers are now celebrated by feminists as trailblazers because their writing have a feminist bent and yet it must be clarified that their works – at least in the works of Chopin – there is a conscious effort to tone it down and this is made clear through the following commentary:

…the woman’s place … is still in the home rather than in politics or the professions; marital fidelity and strong maternal feelings, which keep home and family intact, are just as axiomatically demonstrated. Impetuous heroines may be somewhat more rebellious and unconventional than in the past; however, such unconventionality brings trouble rather than happiness (Green & Caudle, p. 14).

One example of early feminist writing can be found in the works of Ellen Glasgow (Goodman, p. 1). In her first novel, The Descendant, Glasgow was not afraid to write about bastards, socialism and women artists, “…who enjoy the privileges of marriage without the actual ceremony” (Mattews, p. 4). In her 1916 Life and Gabriella Glasgow was not afraid to point out the weaknesses of men and that women are suffering because of their behavior (Matthews, p. 6). In Chopin’s Lilacs men were portrayed as less than dignified when overpowered by the charms of the female protagonist.

There is another contemporary, Grace King, another Southern lady who wrote in the same vein (Heidari, p. xix). In Grace King’s characters the males “….frequently suffer from debilitating illness, abandon their women, or die untimely deaths…” King also added that, “…in the postbellum period the South was moving towards a matriarchy, away from the patriarchal culture of the antebellum years” (Flora & MacKethan, p. 980). Aside from focusing on the shattered existence of women in the South Grace King also created stories that have unconventional characters such as in Monsieur Motte (Perry & Weaks, p. 218). In comparison, Chopin also displayed unconventional writing in Desiree’s Baby a short story that will be discussed in detail later.

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Chopin’s Short Biography

She was born Kate O’Flaherty on February 8, 1850. Her father was a rich Irishman businessman who became a widow and married Kate’s mother Eliza Faris when Eliza was still a teenager – Kate’s father was thirty nine and her mother was barely sixteen (Toth, p. 7). The O’Flaherty’s lived a comfortable life and it has to be pointed out that her father is a slave owner. Her Roman Catholic background, her socio-economic status as well as the fact that there is a great disparity in the age of her parents, all of these figured prominently in her literary works.

Aside from her family and educational background the U.S. Civil War also played a major role in shaping Kate Chopin’s world view. According to one historian she suffered from psychological trauma when victorious yet violent Union soldiers came to gloat after their success and terrorized Kate’s family (Toth, p. 31). It was also suggested that perhaps the soldiers did something more than that and the display of unbridled lust would force Kate to write about the problems of male ego and the need for women to stand up to them (Toth, p. 31). So from her father’s actions to those of strangers Kate developed a reservoir of male characters that she could use later on in her fiction writing (Walker, p. 1). Her experiences in boarding school as well as her experiences in the South will give her the necessary inspiration to become a prolific writer.

Chopin’s Short Stories

Desiree’s Baby was written on November 24, 1892, and published in Vogue on January 14, 1893, the first of nineteen Kate Chopin stories that Vogue published. It is about Desiree an orphaned girl who grew up to be a beautiful and proper Southern lady. By all appearances she was a nice white girl and it did not take long before she married Armand Aubigny, like her, a member of the crème de la crème of society. But when she bore her first child, the baby was not white but showed traces of Negro blood. Her husband asked her to leave his house and never to return.

Lilacs on the other hand was written a year later, between May 14 and May 16, 1894, and published in the New Orleans Times-Democrat on December 20, 1896.

It was the story of a young woman who led a double life. For the most part of the year Mme. Adrienne Farival was an accomplished artist who love the good life and soaked in the attention and adoration of men while indulging in her vices. But every spring time she suddenly transformed into a young devotee of the Virgin Mary and as if a spell was cast upon her she would leave everything behind to stay a few days in a convent.

In A Respectable Woman, a short story written on January 20, 1894, and published in Vogue on February 15, 1894, Chopin told the story of a woman, Mrs. Baroda who secretly admired Gouvernail, her husband’s best friend. Her admiration turned to lust but what is holding her back is the belief that she is a respectable woman. But it will not be a fight won easily. At the end of the story the author hinted that Governail will come to visit every year and therefore Mrs. Baroda’s struggles will never end.


Desiree’s Baby is a good example of early feminist writing because it is not only unconventional but it also touches on controversial issues such as interracial marriages or illicit affairs between whites and blacks. But instead of telling a simple story where there is a conflict between the members of the Negro race and their slave masters, Chopin brilliantly created a backdrop wherein the male character, Armand Aubigny, was portrayed as selfish and egotistical man. He did not really love Desiree, he was in love with the fact that she was beautiful on the outside and that she belonged to a wealthy family.

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For Armand it was all about status and trying to raise a family based on the idea that there are some people meant to rule while there are others who were born to be slaves. When Desiree gave birth to a baby that has traces of Negro blood Armand could not accept that her wife was of mixed race. He banished her from his home together with her baby. He did not even care enough to arrange for transportation to bring her back safely to her mother.

In despair Desiree wandered into the wilderness to end her life. But at the end Armand discovered that he was of mixed race and not his wife. Armand will forever be tormented after reading the letter that says, “I thank the good God for having so arranged our lives that our dear Armand will never know that his mother, who adores him, belongs to the race that is cursed with the brand of slavery” (PBS, par. 44). Chopin was able to demolish the male ego by implying that they are not always correct in their judgments.

With regards to Lilacs Mme. Adrienne Farival led a double life. For many women in the late 19th century there is only one narrow way prepared for women. They must marry, bear children, take care of the family and live a domesticated life. Mme. Adrienne Farival was not that kind of woman. After Mme. Adrienne Farival arrives from her annual pilgrimage she would ask for a bottle of Chateau Yquem and a box of cigarettes, these are vices that was frowned upon in the 19th century. But the most telling of all was the part when she told her assistant, “…Sophie! If Monsieur Henri is still waiting, tell him to come up” (PBS, par. 75). In this short statement Chopin was able to communicate so many things at once.

By asking for her lover, Monsieur Henri to come up Adrienne was actually saying that she is more powerful that him and that she has the power to let him wait for her indefinitely. Also, by asking Henri to come to her room while she was taking liquor and cigarettes also implies that behind closed doors she behaves in a way that will make the nuns in the convent to despise her. Word reached the Mother Superior and when it was time to visit them once again, Adrianne discovered that she was no longer welcome.

In A Respectable Woman Chopin was able to portray a conflicted woman. Mrs. Baroda was a beautiful and yet bored. She had everything she needed but what she really craved for was companionship. She wanted to experience this kind of relationship from her husband, she was tired from all her obligations and thus, “She was looking forward to a period of unbroken rest, now, and undisturbed tete-a-tete with her husband…” (PBS, par.2). To her disappointment her husband invited another guest. But then she discovered that Gouvernail was no ordinary man for he was able to awaken her long dormant passions.


Kate Chopin represents the best of early feminist writing, especially the kind that came from the South. Her writings were the best examples of how women writers in the 19th century attempted to break away from conventions and yet still careful not to appear as subversives. This is very much evident in Lilacs wherein Adrianne wanted to enjoy the world and yet tried to wash away her sins through an annual pilgrimage to a convent. Early feminist writing was also exemplified in A Respectable Woman when Mrs. Baroda wanted to indulge her desires and yet held back by the idea that she must be a respectable woman.

Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. “Desiree’s Baby.” 2009. Web.

Chopin, Kate. “Lilacs.” 2009. Web.

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Chopin, Kate. “A Respectable Woman.” 2009. Web.

Flora, Joseph & Lucinda MacKethan. The Companion to Southern Literature: Themes,Genres, Places, People, Movements, and Motifs. Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.

Goodman, Susan. Ellen Glassgow. MD:The John Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Green, Suzanne & David Caudle. An Annotated Bibliography of Critical Works. Westport, CT: Greenwood Pubishing, 1999.

Heidari, Melissa W. To Find My Own Peace: Grace King in Her Journals. Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

Matthews, Pamela. Ellen Glasgow and A Woman’s Traditions. Virginia: The University Press of Virginia. 1994.

Perry, Carolyn & Mary L. Weaks. The History of Southern Women’s Literature. Louisiana: Louisiana University Press, 2002.

Toth, Emily. Unveiling Kate Chopin.. MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.

Walker, Nancy. Kate Chopin: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

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