E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime and the Rise of Women's Liberation
One of the central themes of E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime is the tranformation of the leading female charactes of the novel from stereotypical repressed Victorian women into liberated and even feminist heroines. Doctorow's choice of the women's movement as a theme is appropriate to the period of his novel, which is set in the decade between l906 and l9l5. This was an heroic period in the women's movement, and the newspapers and books of the day were full of the scandalous affairs of women who were supposed to represent either the downfall or the triumph of their sex. In this essay, we will examine the rise of the women's movement as it is reflected in the story of Ragtime to see how Doctorow utilized the events of the day to develop his mythical American archetypes.
The women's movement already had a long and vigorous history by the turn of the century, yet women in America remained nearly as oppressed as they had been half a century earlier, when the feminists of the Seneca Falls resolution voiced the following complaint:
In marriage, a wife was compelled to pledge obedience and to give her husband "power to deprive her of her liberty." In business, man "monopolized nearly all the profitable employments." And in morals, woman suffered from an iniquitous double standard dictated by men who claimed it as their right to "assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God."
In the Victorian atmosphere where the family unit was considered sacred, and the morals of women suspect, the feminists of the latter l9th century inevitably ran against the tide of public opinion. The whole question of female sexuality was considered taboo, as some feminists found out when they first gave voice to radical ideas:
In the 1870s Victoria Woodhull, a friend of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cade Stanton, endorsed free love and licensed pros...