Throughout most of history women generally have had fewer rights than men. The Women's Rights Movement began in cities of the northeast in the early to mid-1800's and soon emerged in cities of the Midwest and western states. It was not until the 1890's that women in the southern states joined the bandwagon. The Awakening by Kate Chopin, set in the coastal region of Louisiana, was written and published during this time. Industrialization, urbanization and changing social norms in the United States were great influences in the writing and controversial reception of this work. Many reviews focus strongly on the self-gratification aspect of Edna's actions and condemn it as selfishness. It is my contention that pressures of a changing society, a time when women were struggling for selfhood, a time when some women, like Edna, found themselves totally lost, played a pivotal role in Edna's decisions and ultimate demise. .
To establish the basis for my argument it is important to outline the history of society's attitudes toward women. Throughout early history, wifehood and motherhood were regarded as women's most significant contribution to society. Early Roman law described women as children, forever inferior to men. The myth of the natural inferiority of women greatly influenced their status in society. Early Christian theologians such as St. Jerome in the fourth century and St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century perpetuated this view. Women were considered not only intellectually and physically inferior to men but also a source of temptation and evil (Epstein 21:317).
While American culture emphasized individualism, American women were conditioned to accept a passive and submissive role and were taught that God and nature sanctioned it. The characteristics desired in a woman were domesticity, piety, purity, and submissiveness. This ideal, known at The Cult of True Womanhood, was presented to women of the nineteenth century by women's magazines, annuals, and religious literature (Welter 151).