Women’s Roles in Ragtime
In the early 1900s, the time period in which the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow takes place, expectations were that women should be submissive, obedient, and dependent upon their husbands. Women were considered weak, fragile, and in need of protection from men. In Ragtime, anarchist Emma Goldman challenges the perceived role of women in their chauvinistic society; impacting the lives of characters such as Evelyn Nesbit, a symbol of sex and desire, and Mother, a housewife starting to find her own identity as an independent woman.
Emma Goldman is first introduced to the reader when Evelyn attends Goldman’s meeting, where she expresses her disbelief in the institution of marriage. Goldman compares marriage to slavery, saying that it is oppressing to women. She disputes the idea of women only being useful for sex and homemaking. “The truth is, Goldman went on quickly, women may not vote, they may not love whom they want, they may not develop their minds and their spirits, they may not commit their lives to the spiritual adventure of life, comrades they may not! And why? Is our genius only in our wombs? Can we not write books and create learned scholarship and perform music and provide philosophical models for the betterment of mankind? Must our fate always be physical?” (P54) The scene of Goldman’s meeting is the beginning of turning point for women in the novel, because after her bold ideas about equality are presented to the reader, we begin to see how Mother changes drastically and how Evelyn comes to realize her own self worth.
Evelyn Nesbit is seemingly the opposite of Emma Goldman and her beliefs. She is the “first sex goddess”, a “celebrated beauty” (P4) and represents the sexualized female in America. Younger Brother, for example, practically worships her for her beauty, even though he has never met her. “Mother’s younger brother was in love with Evelyn Nesbit … He thought about her all the time. He was desperate to have her.” (P5) Evelyn uses her beauty to become a prominent figure in society. “There sits among us this evening one of the most brilliant women in America, a woman forced by this capitalist society to find her genius in the exercise of her sexual attraction.” (P54) Evelyn was also dependent upon the men in her life. After being raped at age 15 by Stanford White, she continued to play the role of his mistress. Evelyn’s marriage to Harry K. Thaw was more like prostitution, as Emma Goldman points out to her after her meeting. “After all, Goldman went on, you’re nothing more than a clever prostitute. You accepted the conditions in which you found yourself and you triumphed. But what kind of a victory has it been? The victory of the prostitute. And what have your consolations been? The consolations of cynicism, of scorn, of contempt for the human male.” (P56) Another example of her marriage being like prostitution was Evelyn’s visiting of her husband in jail, where he uses her for sex and then gives her money. She is also willing to lie during the trial of her husband, because they are paying her to do so. “She had agreed to testify in his behalf for the sum of two hundred thousand dollars. And her price for a divorce was going to be even higher.” (P26) Evelyn is famous for her beauty, loved by men, cannot detach herself from her husband, and proves Emma’s point that marriage can be like slavery. “Because like all whores you value propriety. You are a creature of capitalism, the ethics of which are so totally corrupt and hypocritical that your beauty is no more than the beauty of gold, which is to say false and cold and useless.” (P57) It is at this moment in the plot that Evelyn becomes aware of her own rights and capabilities, realizing the power to change her life for the better is in her own hands and not anyone elses.
In the middle of the spectrum, between Emma Goldman and Evelyn Nesbit, lies Mother, the typical Victorian housewife. In the beginning of Ragtime, the readers get the sense that her relationship with Father is shaky. “The marriage seemed to flourish on Father’s extended absences.” (P11) It seems that their marriage is held together by sex because it makes Father feel dominant and in control of everything, while Mother remains submissive. “He was solemn and attentive as befitted the occasion. Mother shut her eyes and held her hands over her ears. Sweat from Father’s chin fell on her breasts. She started. She thought: Yet I know these are the happy years. And ahead of us are only great disasters.” (P12) However, Mother undergoes a drastic change of lifestyle when Father leaves for an extended period of time. While he is away, she is given the task of running Father’s business, and realizes that she can do more than just assume the role of the homemaker. “Mother could now speak crisply of such matters as unit cost, inventory and advertising. She had assumed executive responsibility.” P112 When Father returns, he notices his wife’s new independence. He feels like his presence is no longer needed in the home, as everything had been running smoothly without him. “At night in bed Mother held him and tried to warm the small of his back, curled him into her as she lay against his back cradling his strange coldness. It was apparent to them both that this time he’d stayed away too long.” (P110) Once again, Goldman is tied into this newfound independence, when E.L. Doctorow mentions that Mother had been reading Goldman’s book. “He found also a pamphlet on the subject of family limitation and the author was Emma Goldman, the anarchist revolutionary.” (P112) Goldman’s ideas of the free woman had shifted Mother and Father’s roles in the family, where Father was once the most superior power. Her lifestyle alteration leads to her own sexual awareness and the understanding that she no longer loves Father, a feeling that was most likely there the whole time but never recognized until now. “…she was checked in her response, which was to condemn him for an idiot, and when he left the room she could only wonder that she had had that thought in the first place, so separated from any feeling of love.” (P226) Although Goldman does not directly affect Mother like she does so with Evelyn, Mother’s newfound independence is an example of Goldman’s beliefs.
Emma Goldman impacted the two other major female characters greatly. Goldman directly affects Evelyn, the representation of everything she speaks against. Evelyn is a symbol of sex in America, and represents the male infatuation with beauty. From Goldman, she grasps the negative connotation of her ignorant lifestyle. Goldman’s movement for women as a whole is a part of Mother’s change, as the readers know that Mother had been reading Goldman’s books. Mother is an example of what Goldman had been trying to prove all along, that women can become independent, that they can do things greater than just being a wife, and that they free themselves from their oppressive marriage. Goldman’s beliefs are a crucial factor of Ragtime’s plot, because they cause Evelyn, Mother, and the society as a whole to change.
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In the early 1900s, the time period in which the novel Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow takes place, expectations were that women should be submissive, obedient, and dependent upon their husbands. […]