A Woman’s Place and Purpose
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, feminist thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic engaged in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of women’s lives. Some criticized the institution of marriage, identifying patterns and inequities within the traditional sex roles arrangement and suggesting ways of achieving parity. Others questioned the traditional notion of maternal instinct, rejecting the notion that motherhood is the ultimate goal of all women or that biology is destiny.
The early feminists in the United States, such as Margaret Sanger (1883–1966) who led a crusade to legalize birth control, fought for certain rights for women, including the right to vote. They were not able, however, to change widespread assumptions about a woman’s place within the home. During World War II, American and British women were encouraged to enter the workplace where they enjoyed a measure of independence and responsibility. After the war, though, they were encouraged or forced to give up their jobs to the returning male troops. Hundreds of thousands of women were laid off and expected to resume their domestic and family roles in the home.
In the 1950s, special emphasis was placed on training girls to seek and conform to a feminine ideal of perfect wife and mother. Women who tried to gain self-fulfillment in other ways, for example through graduate education and careers, were criticized and deemed dangerous to the stability of the family. They were pressed to find fulfillment exclusively through their support of their husbands. Television shows such as Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best popular magazines such as Good Housekeeping , and advertisements that featured women happily cleaning their homes, all encouraged the image of woman-as-housewife throughout the 1950s. The small number of women who did work outside the home often suffered discrimination and exploitation as they were relegated to low-paying clerical and service jobs or positions in traditionally femaledominated careers of teaching and nursing. The 1970s, however, brought this history and persistent social and economic patterns under the harsh scrutiny of the women’s rights movement.
The restricted 1950s life of Rebecca’s mother, Marion, exerts one pull on Rebecca. It urges her toward settling down and having children. But Marion’s example also urges Rebecca toward a wider sphere of travel and exotic experiences. Rebecca’s visiting Paris suggests that wider sphere; the fact that it occurs in 1991 pinpoints the time at which Rebecca confronts the decision to become pregnant and commit herself to the life of a mother. The title of the story seems to suggest the convergence of two plots or patterns in a woman’s life, leaving that intersection unresolved.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Kate Walbert, Published by Gale Group, 2006