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Motherhood and Self-Realization in the Four Waves of American Feminism and Joyce Carol Oates's Recent Fiction

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Julia Hillenbrand

The author examines motherhood and female self-realization in feminist discourse and Joyce Carol Oates’s recent fiction. While the first and second wave of feminism repudiated motherhood, the third wave claimed the right to enjoy it. The present fourth wave is now reviving the reservations about motherhood of the first two waves. This book demonstrates how Oates’s writing reflects these shifts and how Oates takes up and transforms feminist standpoints in her work without writing conventional feminist literature. Literary criticism has only marginally dealt with Oates’s mother figures. Drawing on Gender Studies and, in particular, on the transnational relation between French and American feminism, this book fills this gap.

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4 Motherhood and Self-Realization in the Four Waves of Feminism

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4   Motherhood and Self-Realization in the Four Waves of Feminism

4.1   First-Wave Feminism

4.1.1   First-Wavers’ Starting Point: The Victorian Ideal of Womanhood

First-wavers struggled to alter the concept of womanhood that was significantly determined by the Victorian ideal in the nineteenth century. The ideal prescribed separate spheres for both sexes, relegating women to the private or domestic domain while reserving the public realm for men.1 The dichotomy rested on the claim that men and women were essentially different. Men were believed to possess comparably greater reason and, therefore, to be able to act in the public sphere; women were held naturally more emotional and thus responsible for intimate interpersonal relationships.2 These assumptions resulted in the husband’s main function as provider whereas women were in charge of childcare and the maintenance of a comfortable and presentable home for their spouse.3 They were also the moral center of the family.

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