Willa Cather’s Feminist Tendencies
Willa Cather tends to portray static characters with little depth, yet she seems to
approach her female characters with an air of liberalism that allows for a more
well-rounded exploration of society than is found in the works of other conteporary
authors. Cather depicts women as both the classic “mother woman” and the independent
individual. Allowing her to free the female character from heir reliance on men. Her
women are not just mothers, daughters, or wives; they are characters of their own -- able
to grow and explore. A flare is given to Cather’s pioneer stories by the dynamics of some
of her female characters. The independent women in Cather’s tales expand the window
through which their society is judged, while the “mother-woman” frame of that window is
solidified through the traditional values that they represent. In My Antonia Cather
explores the diversity of the female race through two generations of women. Cather
further elaborates on the duality of the woman’s role of society in Sapphira and the Slave
Mrs. Burden, the first woman introduced in My Antonia, represents the traditional
values of society. Her description is that of a bird: “she was apt to carry her head thrust
forward in an attitude of attention”, “she was quick footed and energetic in all her
movements” and “her voice was high and rather shrill.” Mrs. Burden is in a constant flight
about her home. She is an obedient wife and a “mother-woman.”. She is a homemaker, a
teacher to Antonia, the woman of the farm and the greatest help to her neighbors. Cather
uses Mrs. Burden to extol the values of the vaguely known townspeople. She respects the
Christian ideals of her small Mid-Western town and is nonjudgmental. She is pure of heart
and soul as she accepts the actions and choices of those to whom she hopes to set an
example. Mrs. Burden is the foundation of society and a foil to the independent girls of
her grandson’s generation.
Antonia is one of Cather’s few dynamic characters. She explores all the possible
options for her life before becoming the “mother-woman.” As a young girl Antonia was
“quick, and very eager” to learn the ways of the new world in which she found herself.
When she moves to Black Hawk, as a young woman, she is exposed to a larger world.
She is taken aback by the freedom and opportunities that life in a town offers. At first
Antonia is weary of exploring the options available to her, but as she slowly discovers the
excitement of Black Hawk she begins to change. When a tent was erected for dancing
lessons Antonia was hooked on freedom. The eagerness in her takes over and “at the first
call of the music, she became irresponsible.” Antonia rebels against the traditional values
of her society and rejoices in her independence. Cather utilizes the adolescent tendency
towards rebellion of the status-quo to explore the dynamics of the female character.
When Antonia bears a child out of wedlock unlike “another girl [who] would have kept
her baby out of sight,... [Antonia]... must have its picture on exhibition at the town
photographer’s, in a great gilt frame.” The character of Antonia exposes the feminism of
Cather. Cather allows her women to be free, not of social judgment, but of social
restraint. At the closing of the novel we find that Antonia has discovered herself and
settled down and raised a family. Antonia has found what she has searched for, happiness,
through her freedom and gone from an independent individual to a “mother-woman.”
Cather expanded upon the feminism demonstrated by Antonia through Tiny
Soderball and Lena Lingard. Both girls are as independent as Antonia. They are viewed
by the townsfolk as a “threat to the social order.” But Black Hawk residents had nothing
to fear. Lena and Tiny would go on to be successful, contributing, businesswomen in
distant cities. Both girls were nonconformists and rebelled against the idea of marriage.
As Lena stated she didn’t “want to marry [a former beau] or any other man.” Neither
would subject themselves to unhappiness in order to please the values of society.
Cather also demonstrates that a married woman can be independent. Mrs. Harling
is able to raise four children care for her house hold and please herself. Through Mrs.
Harling, Cather demonstrates that a woman can find balance and joy in married life and
motherhood. “On nights when [Mr. Harling] was at home... Mrs. Harling paid no heed to
anyone else.” “In his absence his wife was the head of the household.” Mrs. Harling
found the median between service and self satisfaction. She knows her priorities and is
able to succeed in her life. Cather also demonstrates the possibility of fulfillment through
In Sapphira and the Slave Girl Cather makes the same distinctions between her
female characters. Sapphy, although not dependent on her husband, conforms to the
expectations of society. She is an aristocratic slave owner that controls her own fortune.
In her prime she was the ideal “mother-woman,” watching after the children and leading a
“respectable” life. “She stayed at home after her two younger sisters were married to care
for her invalid father.” Sapphy is preoccupied with society’s perception of her. She cares
not for her own happiness, or the happiness of those close to her, but rather for the
opinions others in society hold of her. Cather allows her character to become almost
completely one-dimensional as she illustrates an extreme example of conformity and quite
possibly paranoia. She explores the traditionally conforming woman in a new light.
Instead of conforming to society’s notion of the woman’s role as wife, she explores the
role of conformity in the other aspects of life that result in a woman’s “respectability.”
Rachel, Sapphy’s youngest daughter, cares not of what is thought of her but rather
for the well being of those less fortunate than she. One of the first statements that Cather
makes of Rachel is that she “had always been difficult, -- rebellious toward the fixed ways
which satisfied other folk.” Rachel is so rebellious that she assists one of her mother’s
slaves in escaping. She resists society’s insistence on obeying one’s parents and does what
she believes is right. Cather created a truly compassionate woman in Rachel. She is
willing to rebel against any injustice, even if it means being ostracized by her own mother.
Even though Cather explores the independence of women in her writing she also
exposes their vulnerabilities. In both My Antonia and Sappirha and the Slave Girl Cather
exposes the harsh realities that women had to face in their time. Cather speaks about the
mountain girls “being fooled” and about the “three Marys” being “forced to retire from the
world for a short time.” In My Antonia the title character even suffered through the
societal defeat of having a child out of wedlock. Though some of the women that have
this problem rejoice in it as a gift most of them have to face the harsh reality that the must
raise their child alone on the outskirts of society. Cather takes time to equally explore
both the freedom that women have, their dynamism, and their pressures.
Cather, like several female writers of her era, approaches female characters by
addressing the differences between women. Cather develops dynamic characters that
relate the struggles of womanhood. The feminist tendencies of Cather allow her to create
outcomes for her characters that don’t have to involve love stories and births; her stories
can end in business adventures and self-discovery. Although Cather explores modern
ideals for women, she does not abandoned the traditional values of husband and family.
Cather portrays women young and old, rich and poor, and develops them into well
rounded citizens. She allows her characters to free themselves from the social restraint of
society and live the lives of their dreams.
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