Energy, Empowerment, & Entrepreneurship: Female Figures in American Literature

“Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,” begins Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet in “The Author to Her Book” (1678), adding “Who after birth did’st by my side remain / Till snatcht from thence by friends, less wise than true / Who thee abroad exposed to public view” (Bradstreet 1-4). Here, the Puritan author demonstrates how there are other roles in society women can fulfill, but they do not necessarily take advantage of those roles due to the possible, fearsome consequences. Both the narrator and Bradstreet herself struggled with traditional male images symbolizing poetic creation. Many critics — specifically literary critic Patricia Cadwell — now praise Bradstreet for her efforts for being “the founder of American literature” and her role in exposing the evils of patriarchal tradition (Cadwell 138). In truth, various works of American literature emphasize the female figure’s thirst for equality through the continuation of restrictive, outmoded ideologies pertaining to gender rights. Through the figures’ journeys, readers are inspired to continue forwarding the empowerment of women. In regards to Bradstreet, the early poet exposes the realistic struggles of women through their exposure of the evil, patriarchal tradition and the nonexistent changes 200 years later. Her emphasis on the necessity for support of the fearless, undermined female figure who bravely, as later author Nathaniel Hawthorne states, “strike their roots into unaccustomed earth” (Hawthorne 13), encourages readers to seek new ideologies, following in the footsteps of those before them.

To explain further, in writing The Scarlet Letter (1850), Romanticist Nathaniel Hawthorne brings light to the truth about female oppression while simultaneously using the infamous Puritan adulterer, Hester Prynne, as a model of a woman who dares to push social boundaries. By writing about an extreme event 200 years before his time, Hawthorne emphasizes how little the standards have changed for women in America. To continue, in stating that “Women derive a pleasure, incomprehensible to the other sex, from the delicate toil of the needle” (Hawthorne 6), the novelist underscores that women do have a clear, domestic role. Nevertheless, the Romantic novelist does not believe that such a role is the only one that women can fulfill. He later demonstrates Hester’s inner strength to stand alone against a group of male magistrates: “Never! […] I will not speak!” (50), she declares, refusing to name the father of her illegitimate child. Here, Hawthorne brings light to the perception of women in Puritan society and how Hester’s character is made to signify the change in society or the move from a blind faith in tradition and into a new era of mutual understanding (Baym). Similarly, American playwright Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953) emphasizes the corrupted image of women in Puritanical America through their involvement in the Salem Witch Trials. In writing “‘She is telling lies about me! She is a cold, sniveling woman, and you bend to her! Let her turn you like a — ’ ‘Do you look for whippin’?’” (Miller 22), the author demonstrates, through figures Abigail Williams and John Proctor, how women who fought back against the lies of society were continuously shunned and dubbed “wicked” (20). Through their perilous journeys in Puritanical America, both Hester Prynne and Abigail Williams are satirical symbols of the non-developing status of women in American society demonstrated, by Miller and Hawthorne, through their “so-called” preposterous actions that further blind society from seeking a solution.

Furthermore, as demonstrated in Puritan author Mary Rowlandson’s narrative, Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson (1682), these preconceived notions about female figures and womanhood manipulate the vulnerable minds of society. When taken captive by a tribe of Native Americans, the eponymous author continuously doubts her newfound survival strengths, as she demonstrates in writing “I thought my heart and legs, all would have broken, and failed me” (Rowlandson 3). Here, the author brings light to her perspective on her own mentality, that is, essentially, degrading due to the lack of strict, Puritanical standard of women, but, it is her later realization of her self-power that empowers her to break stereotypical tradition. As a result, present day critics — such as Rebecca Blevins Faery — refer to the narrative as a “proto-epic in scope in the founding of national identity (and literature)” (Faery 259), for its removal of Puritanic notions towards the behavior of women. It is through the eponymous author’s fear in disobeying the identity her society has painted onto her, that she discovers an alternative reality for herself: a hungered addiction for the wild, empowering, feminine animal within. Additionally, American author Ralph Waldo Emerson supports the idea of a personal identity in his memoir “Self-Reliance” (1841). In regards to Mary Rowlandson, Puritanical notions are what “scare [her] from self-trust” (Emerson 44); but, it is her “feminine rage” that “the indignation of the people is added” (Emerson 43). Nevertheless, Emerson’s writings introduce readers to the unfortunate reality of past American society; regardless of his efforts, women, similar to Mary Rowlandson, are continuously perceived themselves to be incapable of self-sufficiency. As the eponymous author further engulfs herself into a world of preconceived notions, she strengthens the impenetrable sphere of stereotypes, that surrounds the world and American literature thus far.

Notwithstanding the dubbed “fearsome” ideology surrounding the entrepreneurship of female figures, Romantic poet Emily Dickinson bursts into the sphere of American literature with her arduous, cleverly hidden pinpoints to the reality of independent women in American society. As she writes in her poem “I’m “wife” — I’ve finished that”, “I’m “wife” — I’ve finished that — / That other state — […] / It’s safer so — ” (Dickinson, “I’m wife” 1-4). Here, the poet reveals, through a young girl’s contradictory feelings, the reality of marriage and its prevention of female self-identities, labelling women as the possession of their husbands. Additionally, Dickinson implies, with this innovative ideology, that a woman who is not married is capable of more, without having others interfere such as a husband might. As literary critic Mary Loeffelholz reflects in her journal Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory, the poet’s primary role is in breaking the boundaries of female stereotypes through the figures in her poems: “Over and over in these poems and prose passages, borders and boundaries exist to be breached” (Loeffelholz 111). Likewise, in continuation of this revolutionary trend, Dickinson presents a similar message in her poem “We outgrow love like other things,” in writing “[w]e outgrow love like other things / And put it in the drawer” (Dickinson, “We outgrow” 1-2). Here, Dickinson describes how people can outgrow love like an antique fashion mirroring how, in society, women are taught that their looks are important in the pleasing of men. Women were rarely independent and declined to practice reason; but, Dickinson demonstrates here that these looks will continuously outgrow each other, removing the need for male judgement on the image of women. In short, Emily Dickinson truly was a feminist writer who lived ahead of her time, through her painting of the female figure’s identity and her exposé of societal falsehoods. Truly, Dickinson is a literary incarnation of the fearless Joan of Arc; she raises her sword high in the air and ripping apart the gilded fabrics of American literature.

As coined by American author Mark Twain, the Gilded Age was a revolutionary period in American literature that brought light to the “underbelly” or false perfections of the American society. Similarly, Realist author Kate Chopin highlights in her short story “The Story of an Hour” (1894) the gilded truths within female figures, specifically pertaining to those held in the restrictive chains of marriage. “‘Free, free, free’” begins the story’s protagonist Mrs. Louise Mallard, who has just received word of her husband’s death, “‘free! Body and soul free’” (Chopin 757). Here, the author highlights the protagonist’s hidden emotions within her marriage and how Louise’s initial reaction was due to her chains being removed from an accustomed Earth, not a shattered heart. Additionally, this story brings light to the risk women writers faced in being absolutely objective: it was a risk to being morally ambiguous, and the only acceptable way to depict such immoral scenarios was to — as literary critic Karin Garlepp Burns writes — “undermine the exaggerated objective mode” (Burns, “The Paradox” 30). On the other hand, in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), illustrator Edward Winsor Kemble’s image “Indignation” demonstrates the inner anger of female figures; the title itself is ironic as it is defined as anger or annoyance provoked by what is perceived as unfair treatment (in this case unfair treatment of women). In a moment of anger where her eyes were “ablazing higher and higher” (Twain 199), Kemble depicts Mary Jane Wilks with an image of rage and disgust on her face (Figure 1) contradicting the stereotypical image of women in American society — at the time — as depicted in Charles Dana Gibson’s plethora of “Gibson Girl” images — specifically “The Hero… Discovered in the Act of Carrying on Two Conversations at a Time” (1903). For example, Kemble displays Mary Jane as an uptight, rigid woman, whereas Gibson paints women wearing very low-cut, loose dresses highlighting how they are merely objects meant to appeal to the likeness of men (Figure 2). Regardless of Kate Chopin and Edward Kemble’s attempts to instill the image of independent, proud women, Mark Twain — who was somewhat tolerant of empowering, female figures claiming his daughter “was all [his] riches” (Burns, “Mark Twain”) and his “gilded” world — discards these ideologies amongst the glamour and ostentatious lifestyle of the Lost Generation. As depicted in the 2000 Penguin Modern Classics cover of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), women are viewed, merely, as objects of lust and pleasure (Figure 3): the “beautiful little fool[s]” with painted, gold faces (Fitzgerald 17).

Furthermore, as demonstrated in American author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), the resurgence of empowering, female figures is diminished through the temptations and scandals of elitism and the lavish lifestyle of the wealthy. In ironic connection with the writers of this era — coined “The Lost Generation” by author and mentor Gertrude Stein — the robust, astute minds of these women are lost within dreams of satisfaction and fulfillment of “the American Dream” (as coined by James Truslow Adams). In writing “[s]he wanted her life shaped now, immediately [… ] of love, of money, of unquestionable practicality” (Fitzgerald 151), the author emphasizes — through the female protagonist Daisy Buchanan — the image that women are fundamentally incapable of making up their minds without an intelligent man by their side. This overarching claim entraps women in cultural and gendered constructions of being a rich wife and “‘nice’ girl” (149). As aforementioned, upon speaking of her daughter’s future, Daisy remarks “‘I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’” (17). Daisy is not a fool herself, but, this is somewhat sardonic. While Daisy refers to the social values of her era, she does not seem to challenge them. The older generation values subservience and docility in females, and the younger generation values thoughtless giddiness and pleasure-seeking. In writing “[s]he is a victim of a complex network” (Fryer 165), literary critic Sarah Beebe Fryer unveils Daisy’s true intentions, highlighting how readers should continue to support her decisions despite them often being against the empowering morals of female figures. Regardless, Daisy Buchanan is regarded as the counterexample of female empowerment as she is presented with the opportunity to provoke her knowledge; but, in turn, she wallows away in her silence. In conforming to the social standard of American femininity in the 1920s, Daisy is, essentially, held back by the leash of pearls around her neck, preventing her from continuing the parade of fearless female figures as literature has so far presented.

Regardless of her degradation to the societal power of women, F. Scott Fitzgerald introduces the idea of “unattainable girl”: a female figure who is out of reach from the controlling, wanting power of another figure. As written in American playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), twenty-two year old Beneatha Younger is an incarnation of the “unattainable girl” through her difficulties with her conservative mother and her anti-marriage attitude: “‘I’m not worried about who I’m going to marry yet — if I ever get married’” (Hansberry 50). Here, the author brings light to Beneatha’s hidden strength shown through her defensive attitude towards her own morals “by forgoing blasphemous outbursts” — as American author Mary Ellen Snodgrass writes in her article “A Raisin in the Sun” (Snodgrass). Not only is Beneatha not interested in getting married and being cared for by a man, but she is also convinced that she alone can choose the direction and outcome of her life. Similarly, Mary Anne, a Vietnam soldier’s girlfriend in Tim O’Brien’s Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction “Song Tra Bong” (1990), echos Hansberry’s emphasis on the gilded strengths of women through her exercising in total agency over her life “with different forms of expressions” (53), and addiction to the wild nature of Vietnam. An unnoticed counterexample to stereotypes of American women’s participation in war, Mary Anne, who enters as a soldier’s girlfriend but leaves as a soldier herself, “ma[kes] you think about those girls back home, how pure and innocent they all are, how they’ll never understand any of this” (O’Brien 108). Here, O’Brien emphasizes in the short story how the women who go to war don’t fulfill their typical gender roles, but rather, take on characteristics generally associated with men because the intense circumstances of war demand those qualities in its soldiers: “she quickly fell into the habits of the bush” (94). As American literature dictates, those who do not follow the status quo of their role as women unravel American society and the accepted standard of gender and identity. Neither Beneatha nor Mary Anne don their skirts in place for camouflage, but, through their energetic attitudes, they paint their faces red preparing for a never ending, fearsome fight towards changing the outlook of female figures.

In terms of The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1995), American author James McBride demonstrates the empowering, determined work ethic of female figures throughout their fragmented lives and haunted pasts. His mother, Ruth McBride, is perceived by her children as an empowering, spirited matriarch. However, a layer of Ruth’s personality retains the sorrows and regrets of her childhood. As she states, “‘We had no family life. That store was our life’” (McBride 41), the author brings light to Fishel Shilsky’s unloving, patriarchal nature in which he ruled his household. In turn, Ruth successfully runs her family with love, along with a similarly tight rein; she disciplines her children to answer directly to her, demonstrating her assertive, controlling power regardless of her haunted past. Additionally, McBride emphasizes his mother’s unseen strength through the difficulties she faced as a single mother of twelve children who strived to grant her children with the best education possible. Through her hard work ethic, Ruth is able to send her children to some of the finest colleges in the country which is, as Frances Winddance Twine, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, states in praise, “an amazing accomplishment for even the most privileged of white women” (Twine 152). Moreover, the critic agrees with McBride’s revealing of the hidden strength of women in stating “we should not assume that there are no more like [Ruth], in America’s past and in its future” (154). In short, Ruth McBride forges her own strange life, but she triumphs as the matriarch of an outstanding family, creating a self-sufficient world for them. While the book’s title is in reference to the color of God, truly, it is a reference to the myriad of colors within the book that satirically emphasizes how people cannot be defined by their color — whether they are black or white, or pink or blue.

In the case of fearless female figures, American literature has dubbed them, thus far, as “feeble” (Bradstreet 1), “delicate” (Hawthorne 77), “careless” (Fitzgerald 179), and “coy and flirtatious” (Tim O’Brien 95). All of the following statements are degrading and subject to the opinion of men that are far from the supportive, romantic equals women desire to coexist with. On the other hand, women are regarded as “liberated” (Hansberry 63), “sivilize[d]” (Twain 283), “nonchalance” (James McBride 8), and “free” (Chopin). Notwithstanding the development of history or the years in which these pieces were created, the trend of male figures shaping the role of what the female figures represent is continuous. However, in the case of female figures like Beneatha Younger, the element of love and infatuation in another figure comes into play bringing light to the question of what role do male figures truly play in a female figure’s story. Are women disregarded as “fearless” or “empowering” simply because they have found a man to live with for the rest of their days? Is marriage a binding contract to an unequal communion between man and woman? To writers — such as Emily Dickinson — marriage is “safer” than the “pain” of being single in society (Dickinson, “I’m wife” 4, 10), but, to female figures such as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan — regardless of her careless persona — love is “mak[ing] a fool of” yourself while looking into “well-loved eyes” (Fitzgerald 96, 131). Ultimately, as seen in present day American society, it is unclear whether feminism and the role of empowering female figures alludes to revolutionary women who never marry, or to those who find love and continue to remain strong regardless. American literature rewrites this psychomachiac struggle over and over again, never revealing the answer and furthering the inequality between genders; but, nevertheless, encourages readers to shatter societal, preconceived notions, breaking the gilded sphere of stereotypes.

Works Cited:

Baym, Nina. “Revisiting Hawthorne’s Feminism.” Hawthorne and the Real: Bicentennial Essays, edited by Millicent Bell, Columbus, Ohio State Univ. Press, 2005, pp. 107-24. Google Books,’s+Feminism&ots=2fKELQ6eDa&sig=gPA0ETgGdki-YQQREcABDfsxHTk#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Bradstreet, Anne. “The Author to Her Book” (1678). The Heath Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed., vol. 1. Edited by Paul Lauter. Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 390.

Burns, Karin Garlepp. “The Paradox of Objectivity in the Realist Fiction of Edith Wharton and Kate Chopin.” Journal of Narrative Theory, PDF ed., vol. 29, no. 1, Winter 1999, pp. 27-61.

Burns, Ken, producer. “Ken Burns’ Mark Twain: Part 2.” SAFARI Montage. PBS, 2001. Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.

Cadwell, Patricia. “Why Our First Poet Was a Woman: Bradstreet and the Birth of an American Poetic Voice.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, vol. 30, 1996, pp. 136-44. Gale Literary Sources, Accessed 23 Feb. 2017.

Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour” (1894). Kate Chopin: Complete Novels and Stories, by Chopin, edited by Sandra M. Gilbert, 2nd ed., Library of America, 2008, pp. 756-58.

Dickinson, Emily. “I’m ‘wife’ – I’ve finished that.” The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, by Dickinson, edited by Thomas Herbert Johnson, Little Brown Company, 1960, p. 94.

————————“We outgrow love, like other things.” Wikisource, 1 Mar. 2013,,_like_other_things. Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance” (1841). American Literature: Essential Short Works. Convent of the Sacred Heart School (Greenwich, CT), 2010, pp. 39-44.

Faery, Rebecca Blevins. “Mary Rowlandson Maps New Worlds: Reading Rowlandson.” Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, vol. 66, 2001, pp. 256-67, Accessed 5 Apr. 2017.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby (1925). Scribner, 2004.

Fryer, Sarah Beebe. “Beneath the Mask: The Plight of Daisy Buchanan.” Critical Essays on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, by edited Scott Donaldson, Boston, Hall, 1984, pp. 153-65.

Gibson, Charles Dana. The Hero…Discovered in the Act of Carrying on Two Conversations at a Time. JPEG file, 1903.

Hansberry, Lorraine, and Robert Nemiroff. A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Vintage Books, 1994.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter: And Other Writings. Edited by Leland S. Person. W.W. Norton, 2005.

Kemble, Edward Winsor. “Indignation.” Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: An Authoritative Text, Contexts and Sources, Criticism, by Mark Twain and Thomas Cooley, 3rd ed., New York, W.W. Norton, 1999, p. 199.

Loeffelholz, Mary. “Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 1, no. 2, Fall 1992, pp. 121-22, Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

McBride, James. The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (1995). Riverhead Books, 1996.

Miller, Arthur. The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts (1952/53). Penguin Books, 2003.

O’Brien, Tim. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (1990), Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009, pp. 85-110.

Rowlandson, Mary. “Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson” (1682). Project Gutenberg, Accessed 13 Feb. 2017.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. “A Raisin in the Sun.” Encyclopedia of Feminist Literature, 2006, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017.

Stubbs, John C. “Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter: The Theory of the Romance and the Use of the New England Situation.” PMLA, digital ed., vol. 83, no. 5, Oct. 1968, pp. 1439-47.

Twine, France Winddance. “The White Mother.” Transition, no. 73, 1997, pp. 144-54, Accessed 2 Apr. 2017.

Unknown, illustrator. The Great Gatsby. Penguin Modern Classics, 2000.




Figure 1: Image of Mary Jane Wilks in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn illustrated by Edward Winsor Kemble.

“The Hero…Discovered in the Act of Carrying on Two Conversations at a Time”

Figure 2: Image of a man simultaneously carrying two conversations with two “Gibson” girls in Charles Dana Gibson’s Eighty Drawings: Including “The Weaker Sex: The Story of a Susceptible Bachelor”.

“Cocktails and Conversations”

Figure 3: Cover of the 2000, Penguin Modern Classics edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for which the illustrator is unknown.


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