Gender in Modernism Essay Example


Gender in Modernism


Modernism is used to describe the movement in the arts, literature, architecture, philosophy, and religious faith that was driven by large scale transformations in the western society. The era of modernization was precisely characterised by industrialization and changes in socialization, and there were also rapid inventions in science and technology. The period was primarily influenced by the World War I and modernists rejected religious belief and the reality of enlightenment thinking.

Artists such as Edourd Manet started breaking away from notions such as perspective, subject matter and modelling in the 1860’s. They were the drivers on modernism in the visual arts. In dance, innovation was pioneered by composers like Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webeern, who experimented with new forms and approaches that had not been used before. Their works saw a change in balletic and analytical methods that were previously used (Kathleen 2014). In literature, various works on urbanization and industrialization were quite beneficial in driving modernism. The modernist literature showed a lot of fragmentation and disillusionment since the effects of the First World War had significantly undermined people’s belief in the foundations of western culture and society (Kathleen 2014).

Gender is largely constructed through cultural and social systems (Bonnie 2014). Unlike sex, it is not defined at conception and is a reflection of the roles society ascribes to a given individual. Gender can interact not only with sexual orientation but with race, class, economic stature and nation. It is not a mask for the feminist or woman, but they become inextricable from it (Bonnie 2014). Women at times tend to write and talk more about gender because in many societies it is imposed upon them hence intriguing and stimulating their creativity (Bonnie 2014). Modernism largely influenced perceptions that the corporation had of either gender. It changed the way people perceived the female gender especially, and this was reflected in works of literature and many artistic works including paintings and drawings. The period resulted in the “new woman” that was quite different from the pre-modernist lady.

Pre-Modernist Perceptions to the Female Gender

Modernism did embrace issues such as class, gender, alienation, the pursuit of knowledge and senselessness at the time. The movement was initiated by an international feeling of depression when people felt that things were neither reliable nor concrete at the time. Modernism dealt with changes in the human personality at the time by embracing rejection and disruption to move beyond simplistic (Wren 2010).

Gender became an important issue that modernism addressed since issues pertaining gender had always being an issue of concern in society and literature. Women intelligence and judgement was regarded with a lot of contempt in a male dominated society (Marsden 1911). At the time, women would only be seen to compliment men in their lives rather than independent individuals or spiritual entities. In literature, the woman had no place in society and was depicted as weak, stupid and dutiful. The depiction was quite helpful in driving the male superiority agenda.

In a male-centred and male-dominated world, women were for many years defined by the male gender. Women were associated with disorder, chaos, savagery and unreason by many male philosophers and social theorists. They were mere conveniences rather than individuals that could positively influence change in the society. Women were useful in performing household chores and in copulation (Wren 2010). Order, theory and logic were associated with men, and the female was the complete opposite of that. In her popular article, “Feminism”, Ellen Glasgow stated that “in the past, men have confidentially asserted that woman exists not as an active agent of life but as a passive guardian of the life force and that it is nature’s purpose that woman sit and watch”.

Philosopher Schopenhauer insisted that one could realise that a woman cannot handle a lot of mental and physical effort by just looking at her. According to the philosopher, women are not human, and they suffer from short-sightedness, childishness and stupidity. He went on to imply that men are the only existent people and that women fall for men and children (Glasgow 1913). Women were also largely associated with evil; this is due to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve that was dated centuries ago, where Eve tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. Until the birth of modernism, women were largely associated with these traits.

Drivers of change on Feminism

Mary Coolidge was among the first people that questioned the place of the woman in society. She questioned whether behaviours that were described as feminine were an inalienable qualities or whether they were results of attitudes attributable to coercive social habits of previous eras. To answer this, she studied societies that stressed gender differences from infant stage in comparison to primitive societies in which all genders were equal. Her study concluded that the perception of feminine was not biological but was as a result of the imposition of values and traits by society.

The civilised man had succeeded in modelling a woman according to his desires and standards. Women, therefore, had to conform to the standards that men had set for them in order to gain their approval. Women were never given an opportunity to act as they felt since characteristics and traits not in line with “feminine” were repressed from infancy, the result being a woman that in largely dependent on men for support and guidance (Coolidge 1912).Writings by Dr.Alder further agreed with Mary Coolidge’s argument that there is no biological basis for women inferiority. He asserted that men and not women handled the myth that women were inferior. He concluded that it would take women a long time to be free and independent since from the beginning, they were made to feel that they are not at the same level as their male counterparts.

Dora Marsden also largely contributed to the change in perception on feminism. In her article “Bondwomen” she concluded that the issue of female inferiority was indeed a social construct. She however claimed that it was not as a result of the downgrading of women by men because it is impossible for outside force to give or deny freedom rather it is born of the individual’s soul (Marsden, 1911). She insisted that the reason for the perception of female inferiority was because many women indeed saw themselves as inferior and accepted so without question. For this, reason, the women sought protection and comfort from the men, and they were willing to sacrifice both their image and identity for centuries (Marsden, 1911). Women hence had to choose to feel equal so that they could be independent of men in their lives.

Elen Glasgow shared similar sentiments with Marsden. She insisted that as a result of female stereotyping by men, they applied the same misconceptions to themselves and believed in them. For so long, women had denied their humanity that they lived in denial. The deconstruction of the feminist view was challenging because it was established in a male-dominated society, and women were keen to adapt the ideals men had engineered. Women had hence reshaped their bodies and minds and, as a result, defied nature (Wren 2010). In the 20th Century, industrialization began taking form and women were allowed to work outside their homes.

The women were successful in using their knowledge and question the place of the woman in the Western society (Coolidge 1912). Between the two world wars, there were gradual changes that led to the development of the new woman. She aspired to economic and financial independence. Such kind of freedom came along with the need and desire for rights such as sexual oppression, freedom to be single or married and obtain work positions. She desired for intellectual freedom and actively used her inherent knowledge, her abilities and talents in pursuit of true identity. She not only became a threat to males but was also a great source of inspiration for writers and artists at the time.

Literature in the modernist period depicted the woman as someone who insisted on her rights to have a family and career depending on her choice and desires. Modernist literature portrayed the “new woman” as one that emphasized on the identity of interests that human beings have (Wren 201). She perceived diversity as not a product of sex-lines but as a result of what an individual contributes to the wellbeing of the society. Various writers were able to incorporate the “new woman” in their works.

Ernest Hemingway “Snows of Kilimanjaro”

There seemed to be a lot of modernism influence on the writer as he wrote. The author openly acknowledged the effect of the changes in the society had on women and their status in society. The character Hellen, in the story, is a reflection of the “new woman”. He however struggles with the change of status and freedom that the character possesses as a result (Wren 2010). The writer introduces the character Hellen as a caring, nurturing and motherly type of woman. She is worried and concerned about the physical and emotional wellbeing of her husband, Harry who suffers from an injured leg. The traditional role of the character is further strengthened by the fact that she is portrayed as naïve and single-minded when she repeatedly denies the fact that her husband might die. Her husband’s responses to her nurturing behaviour further show her traditional aspect.

In the book, Harry despises her and has no respect for her thoughts and opinions. However, the reader is given an opportunity to read between the lines that Hellen may not be as traditional as she seems when Harry says that indeed Hellen and her bloody money have been supporting him for quite some time. In a traditional setting, it would be expected that the husband helps the wife contrary to the picture portrayed. This is, in fact, the reason that Harry despises his wife. He has slacked in his writing and feels threatened by her independence. His insecurity is portrayed by the fact that he says she is inferior to him. At some time, he blames her for the death of a particular artist but later realises that he is to blame for the death. He comes to terms when he views her as a good woman that loves him as a writer, husband and proud possession (Hemingway 1985).

The reader is furthermore presented with a modernist perspective of Hellen when she goes out to hunt game for her husband since she knew he loved it. The pre-modernist perspective of the woman could rarely allow her to be the provider. It was not only a man’s role but his responsibility to provide. Hellen is further portrayed in a masculine manner when the writer says that she came back to the camp wearing jodhpurs and a rifle with her (Hemingway 1985). Soon Harry’s reflection directs him to the fact that what she most wanted was “someone she respected with her” (Hemingway 1985). Hellen indeed gave him a new life while he traded his old life for security.

The old woman usually traded her old life for protection and security, but this scenario portrays a totally different woman. Soon Harry comes to terms with Hellen’s modernist traits; it appears that the hold that tradition and the feminine myth has on Hemmingway prompts him to display her womanly traits again and blur those long held associations with those of the new woman (Wren 2010 ). The writer is thus successful in showing the change in the female status in his story. One of the main ideas he tries to bring out is the fact that men are attracted to modern women yet they were not so comfortable, or they feared the change that these women would present in comparison with the traditional woman.

Such kind of men finds it tough to let go of the traditional woman and the high perception of feminist that society had created. Modernism had a great and profound effect on society. It played a huge role in redefining gender roles in the arts. Many other writers including Scott Fitzgerald “Great Gatsby” and William Faulkner “The Sound and the Fury” continued to show in their literary works the impact modernism had played in defining gender.


Many artists and authors still found a lot of difficulty in embracing the modern woman in their works. They still couldn’t come to terms that with modernism, the woman was now independent and had the ability to make reliable decisions and be a productive member of society. Although they continued to portray the traditional woman in their works, they were willing to blur ancient gender roles and represents female characters from a feminist perspective. Decades after modernization many societies still repress women. It is important to accept the fact that change is gradual and that different community react differently to change. It, however, becomes undeniable the enormous role that modernization played in levelling the playing ground for both genders in real life and well represented in many works of art.


Bonnie, S. 2004. The Gender of Mordernism. Walder, D. (Ed.) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coolidge, M. (1912). Why Women are so. New York: Holt.

Glasgow, E (1913). ProQuest Historical Papers. New York Times.

Hemingway, E. (1938). The Snows of Kilimanjaro. New York: Scriber.

Marsden, D. (1911). Bondwomen. The Free Woman. The Egoist Archive.

Wrenn, H. (2010). The Woman in Modernism. English 428. (17): 1-5.

Kathleen, K. (2014). Modernism. Retrieved from on 25th Oct 2015.