What are the cultural expectations of women today? Who still does most of the housework, cooking, and child care in American families? How do women manage a career, contribute to the family income as a full and equal partner? Why do fathers give away the bride at a wedding? Is marriage more of an economic exchange than a romantic declaration of love? How do women choose the lives that are the best compromise between what society expects of them and what they truly want, and need? These are the kinds of questions students explore in Tracy Botting’s Thinking and Writing course, “Angels and Fallen Women.” Tracy’s intellectual interests in nineteenth-century English and American literature, American Regional fiction, and the relationship between Women’s literature and lives, led her to organize her students’ thinking and writing around representations of good and bad women in nineteenth century literature.
In studying the ideals for female behavior in that era (domesticity, purity, piety, and submissiveness) students learn to examine more critically the ideals of their own age. According to Tracy, many young women today are confident that they can do anything they want to—that they are completely free and unfettered by social expectations. But in reading and discussing the adulterous Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and the near-angelic March sisters in Little Women, “Angels and Fallen Women,” students learn to see nineteenth century ideals as demanding the impossible from women. As Tracy explains, if there has been change in the female condition over the last two hundred years it is the ability to choose: to obtain an education, to have the economic power to feed and house ourselves, and our children, should we choose to have them; to choose not to have children, not to marry, not to be heterosexual, not to be materialistic, and a hundred other permutations of personal choice. The young women and men enrolled in Tracy’s class grapple with these complicated social questions that inevitably arise in the study of American literary and cultural history.