The Women’s Movement
Interest in women’s equal rights was a subject of great controversy during the early years of Oates’s career leading up to “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The 1960s and early 1970s marked the escalation of the women’s movement. Economic shifts meant that more women worked outside the home, and Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment, resulting in many political battles during the long ratification process, which it ultimately failed. Many men and women reconsidered the traditional balance of power in their relationships, families, and the workplace. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, which made it illegal to pay men and women different wages for the same work. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a woman’s right to privacy allowed for legal abortion in the first trimester of a pregnancy.
Although relations between the sexes had been a perennial topic in literature before this period, the 1960s saw a rise in the number of works that attempted to illustrate the oppression of women by a male-dominated society. Gates is one among a number of writers who has devoted attention to the psychological and cultural processes that promote conflicts, even violence, between men and women. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” has often been viewed by critics as a story with feminist themes, as Gates explores the pressures on young women to equate their self-worth with physical beauty. Furthermore, she demonstrates how men can emotionally exploit women and present a real, physical danger to them by preying upon their misguided notions of self-worth.
A Transforming American Society
Other dramatic changes in American culture provide an additional backdrop to Oates’s story. Gates has frequently been praised for her nearly photographic portrayals of the social milieu in which each piece of her fiction is set. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is no different; in its few pages readers can grasp many factors at work in America during the late 1960s, particularly those affecting young people. These include the haphazard growth of American suburbs, and the resulting loss of community cohesiveness; changes in family bonds, evident in Connie’s lenient mother and a father who “didn’t bother talking much” to his family; sexual permissiveness; and a youth subculture that obtained its identity through music and other popular art forms.
The Youth Subculture
Young Americans increasingly suspected that the American dream their parents had embraced might be either unattainable and/or undesirable. The post-World War II baby boom generation had altered the face of the country, and they began to raise their voices on both political and social issues. Opinion over the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War heightened the conflict between generations, and the anti-war sentiment among young people reached its peak in the late 1960s. In Chicago, hundreds of anti-war demonstrators protested at the 1968 Democratic national convention; many were beaten by police. Over 250,000 gathered for a November, 1969, march on the nation’s capital to declare their opposition to the war. Tension mounted to such an extent that many college campuses closed down early in the spring of 1970 to prevent further unrest after four students were shot and killed by members of the National Guard during an anti-war rally at Ohio’s Kent State University.
This mood of protest and disillusionment, along with the energy and idealism that often inspired it, filtered into the era’s music. Many songs glamorized drugs and sex. Multi-act music festivals such as Woodstock provided an opportunity for young people to gather en masse and espouse peace and love through “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.” Critics who have attempted to explain Oates’s allusions to popular music in “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” do not always agree on the interpretation of her references. However, many observe that the music listened to by the story’s characters bears much in common with the style popular just before Gates wrote the story in 1966. Expectations of innocent romance are partly what blinds Connie to Arnold’s intentions, and Arnold speaks in phrases reminiscent of popular romantic songs. For these reasons, critics often argue that Gates endorses the shift from music that ignores reality to music that embraces it. This endorsement is signaled in her dedication of the story to Bob Dylan, who for many personified the mood of political consciousness in music.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Joyce Carol Oates, Published by Gale, 1997.