Kate Chopin as a Feminist

Instructor: Liz Breazeale
Author, woman, feminist - all of these words describe Kate Chopin, writer of the novel 'The Awakening'. Learn about Kate Chopin as a feminist in this lesson and test yourself with a quiz.

Who is Kate Chopin?

Kate Chopin is the author of the novel 'The Awakening' and several other short works. She's commonly thought of as the forerunner to the 20th century's early American feminist and modernist writers. American modernism was a writing style focusing on realistic portrayals of an individual's life, as well as psychological realism.

Much like women of today who dare to question society's norms, Chopin was quite a controversial figure during her lifetime (a woman?! Writing books about women?! No!). But there's a silver lining, in that she was hailed as a literary genius within a few years of her passing, and her work is widely read and studied even to this day. So why was Chopin such a lightning rod? Well, it's still the same for a lot of women today, and it starts with the F-word: Feminism.

Portrait of Kate Chopin herself
Kate Chopin

Chopin's Early Life

Before we get into the controversies, let's get some background on Kate Chopin. Chopin was born Catherine O'Flaherty in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1850. She grew up speaking both French and English, as her mother's family was French. This shows in her fiction, as many characters are bilingual, or fluent in two languages. Chopin was very close to the women in her family, and made lifelong friends in Catholic school in St. Louis, and this also shows in her work, as the protagonists of her novels are strong, independent individuals.

But tragedy struck year after year - her father died in an accident, her great-grandmother passed, and her half-brother died in the Civil War. Despite this, Chopin grew into a lively, beautiful young woman, with a love of music and a great sense of humor. When she was twenty, she married Creole Oscar Chopin. A Creole is someone descended from the original colonists of New Orleans, and this bestows a high status. The couple country-hopped all over Europe before returning to live in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The F-Word

You know how today 'feminist' is still seen by some people as a dirty word? Well, it wasn't so different for the women of Kate Chopin's day. Even though early feminists wanted the same thing women today want - basic equality - women like Kate Chopin were derided and scorned for their assertion that women were just people who had dreams and desires.

So where did Chopin develop this radical notion? Well, when we last left her, Chopin married her husband at the ripe old age of twenty and moved to New Orleans. She and Oscar lived very comfortably and had six children. When Oscar died of malaria, Chopin had to raise those kids on her own. So she packed up, left New Orleans, a gaggle of kids in tow, and moved back to St. Louis. While in St. Louis, widowed at thirty-two, Chopin was encouraged by friends to write. She began to write a few years after the death of her mother.

Chopin's work was influenced by her observations of the world around her, and boy, that world was full of conflict. She watched the emergence of the feminist movement, which had a big effect on her work. Many literary critics, both modern and at the time of Chopin's writing, have conflicting views of Chopin's feminist label. Some say Chopin was hugely influenced by the strong women who raised her, and, due to this, she was merely an individual writing about women, but she just happened to be a woman. In other words, they believe that Chopin's work would've been the same whether written by man or woman. Others believe that Chopin was definitely an early feminist voice, and that she not only took women very seriously, but that she undermined the patriarchy, or a society ruled by men, by writing about strong female characters who go against society's norms. Still others believe Chopin was surprised to be labeled a feminist, as she might have felt that she was just writing the world as she saw it. Regardless, Chopin has been widely embraced as a feminist voice.

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