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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 prostitution in her weekly newspaper... Horace Greeley, among others, had previously stated that he could not support the feminists because they were too closely tied to the cause of free love. Now, Woodhull's pronouncements, and her widely publicized association with feminists, appeared to confirm Greeley's allegation...
The typical attack upon the women's movement, on every issue from labor reform to suffrage, was that women's sexual instincts were too delicate (or too dangerous) to be loosed upon the world. Such scandals supported the patriarchal contention that women could not be trusted with equality, but they also served to keep the women's issues in the forefront of the American popular imagination.
The three scandals of women at the turn of the century that Doctorow weaves into the tapestry of Ragtime are the shooting of Evelyn Nesbit, the outcry against prostitution that was raised by Theodore Dreiser's novel Sister Carrie, and the persecution of the radical socialist Emma Goldman. Each of these stories shows a slightly different aspect of the condition of women in late Victorian times, and Doctorow clearly feels that they represent turning points in the popular attitude toward women. The influence of these famous figures on the lives of the fictional women of Ragtime, Mother, Sarah, and the Little Girl, is profound, if slow in its development.
The story of Evelyn Nesbit with which E. L, Doctorow opens his novel was the "Champagne Murder" scandal in which Nesbit's depraved husband, millionaire playboy Harry Thaw, shot and killed her lover, the prominent architect Stanford White, at the opening night of a musical at Madison Square Garden. Nesbit was a famed beauty, a photographer's model who had been seduced by White at age 16 and had married Thaw at 20, apparently without abandoning her relationship with the older man. In the tabloid press and magazines of the day, Nesbit was depicted as the ideal of beauty and charm:
She had an oval face, copper curls, hazel eyhes, a voluptuous mouth, and a splendid figure. When Taw eventually came to trial, and his wife was called to give evidence, columnist Dorothy Dix wrote: "Her beauty consists in something as vague and intangible as that of a lily or any other frail or delicate thing. It is something that lies over her face like a gossamer veil, infinitely appealing.
The sordid details of Thaw's murder trial revealed that Evelyn Nesbit was far from an innocent, and that her lovers were both sadistic debauchees. Nevertheless, Nesbit's reputation as a fatal beauty was only enhanced by the scandal.
In Ragtime, Doctorow has the suggestible character known as Mother's Younger Brother conceive an insane passion for Evelyn Nesbit, based on his reasoning that "t
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Names referenced in this essay
Evelyn Nesbit, Sister Carrie, Emma Goldman, E.L. Doctorow, Doctorow, Theodore Dreiser, Sarah, Harry K. Thaw, Victoria Woodhull, Horace Greeley, Walker, Coalhouse Walker, Jr., Dorothy Dix, Stanford White, Susan B. Anthony, Tateh, Elizabeth Cade Stanton, hazel eyhes, Mameh,
Movie referenced in this research paper
E. L. Ragtime,
Locations mentioned in this essay
America, New York, Seneca Falls, California, Mexico, Latvia, Chicago,
Facility mentioned in this report
Madison Square Garden,
Companies mentioned in this report
Keywords included in this report
Evelyn Nesbit, Sister Carrie, Ragtime, Emma Goldman, Dreiser, feminist, New York, radical feminist, Theodore Dreiser, radical feminism, young women, real women, socialist, female sexuality, scandal, stable marriage, Stanford White, radical idealism, free love, Thaw, late victorian, Midge Decter, Victorian society, prostitute, Madison Square Garden, Sarah, suffrage, sexual stereotype, Oxford University Press, Victoria Woodhull, sexual slave, sexual mores, fatal beauty, World War I, American Woman, female orgasm, Horace Greeley, Seneca Falls, Dorothy Dix, social equality, double standard, Little Girl, Gibson Girl, a good man, opening night, public opinion, tabloid press, moral, weekly newspaper, North Pole,