Gender roles are a tool used by society to set acceptable boundaries and ideals upon the sexes, and during the early part of the twentieth century in America those gender boundaries began to blur. As a result of the 19th Amendment, men must have felt their decreasing importance because women were no longer solely dependent upon them, and gender roles shifted as woman began to occupy territory that was traditionally held by men. The “New Woman" entered the workforce, and refused to accept traditional female gender conventions. In response to the “New Woman," Theodore Roosevelt and other leading males sought to reinforce the ideal of the male as the protector and provider. As woman took on characteristics commonly associated with men, men now had to grapple with a changing gender identity that often left them confused and frustrated. Willa Sibert Cather's life reflects the fluctuating gender conventions of early twentieth century America as she struggled to define her gender identity. In her youth, Cather chopped her hair and dressed like a boy. She also spent time dissecting frogs and called herself “William Cather, M.D." Cather's cross-dressing reveals her unconventional core and her desire to define herself regardless of societal expectations. Cather also had many close relationships with woman, and these close relationships have led many scholars to label her a lesbian. Cather, however, left us a mystery surrounding her gender preference because she never openly called herself a lesbian. Cather's supposed lesbianism is useful because it reveals the ambiguity of her personality. Cather is paradox because she sought for self-definition, but she also suffered from an identity crisis. By using the shifting nature of gender roles in the America during the early decades of the twentieth century and Cather's confused and unconventional life as a backdrop, I would argue that My Ántonia (1918), The Professor's House (1925), and “Neighbor Rosicky (1932)" reveal the consequences of gender roles. Cather's novels and short story should be analyzed for her interest in exploring male reaction to prescribed gender roles which, ultimately, reveals Cather's attitude towards the existence of gender conventions. Cather advocated for a more fluid and balance way of defining male and female roles. Cather's novel My Ántonia and The Professor's House reveal the consequences of gender roles because both Jim and Professor St. Peter are frustrated, fearful, unsatisfied, ambiguous, and unhappy with the roles that they have been playing. In sharp contrast to these two novels is Cather's delightful short story entitled “Neighbor Rosicky." In this short story Cather presents a protagonist who is whole and balanced. “Neighbor Rosicky" is Cather's statement regarding the importance and beauty of self-definition. Ultimately, her literature can be viewed as a rejection of both male and female gender qualities which demonstrates that Cather and her fiction cannot be reduced to an identity agenda.



College and Department

Humanities; Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature



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Willa Cather, gender roles, My Ántonia, The Professor's House, "Neighbor Rosicky", males, self-definition, authenticity, lesbianism, twentieth century