Willa Cather and Feminism

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Willa Cather makes an argument for the “modern woman” in My Ántonia (1918) by using the oft brazen sexuality of her female characters. While there are shades of a clearer take on the viability of an independent woman in Lena Lindgard’s aversion to marriage and Antonia’s willful determination as a single mother jilted by her lover, Cather uses the increasingly unabashed sensuality of both Ántonia and Lena in the second book of her novel (entitled “The Hired Girls”) as a means by which to capture the wildly independent spirit a woman is capable of successfully possessing. Although there are secondary characters that fulfill more of the stereotypical traditional female roles of pioneer women, Cather’s focus on the young women of Black Hawk, Nebraska is a stunning call to arms for young women of her day to live their lives not only in a way that achieves some sort of independence, but also in order to enjoy the pleasures of life by taking time to place value in freedom from the confines of traditional society. Completed just a year before women obtained their right to vote in the United States of America, Willa Cather suggests to her audience that women’s rights transcends legalities and that modern feminism is not limited to election day. Cather, in My Ántonia, is championing for the right for women to behave “like men” socially, for women to maintain control over their lives on all conceivable levels, and for women to use their femininity to achieve their happiness by whatever means they can do so. Claudia Yukman writes that the young women depicted throughout most of My Ántonia are immigrants for whom neither social class nor personal history have the meanings they once did. The playing field for all of these young adults, males included, is leveled by the common opposing force that is the harshness of the landscape. (97) This wild pioneer backdrop allows Cather a means by which to push the envelope of the society in which she created and disregard many...
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