In an article that appeared in Scribner’s Monthly in July of 1890 the aptly named Duffield Osborne enumerated the reasons that women should not swim: their hair might get wet or a wave might knock them over. And this nonsense was not limited to men; writing that same year in Ladies’ Home Journal, Felicia Holt titled her article on the problem “Promiscuous Bathing.”
Warning of the effect that bare toes on the beach would have on public morality, Holt wrote, “I fear the girl will soon begin to calculate the effect of what someone late called 'artistic bareness' on the mind of masculinity. It would take an imagination of an entirely different order of magnitude to understand that the revolutionary potential of swimming for women lay not in self-display but in the experience of strength and self-assertion.
II. “She wanted to swim far out, where no woman had swum before.”
With that sentence Kate Chopin signaled her readers that for Edna Pontellier, protagonist of The Awakening (1899), learning to swim would become the means to her personal declaration of independence, an act that resulted in social ostracism, and finally, disaster. Radical as her depiction of a woman's search for an authentic self was, Chopin found it difficult to imagine a heroine escaping Divine wrath much less the wrath of men. Herself the daughter of a successful Irish businessman and a French mother, Katherine O'Flaherty had grown up in a family of self-reliant women; her father died when she was just five years old. At age twenty she married Oscar Chopin and the couple moved to New Orleans. With the move from St. Louis to the deep south and the birth of six children in eight years, Chopin absorbed the shocks of a myriad of social expectations that diminished a woman's sense of autonomy. In the novel Chopin drew pointed tableaux of Victorian social life that, to contemporary critics, only made Edna's increasingly desperate attempts at self-assertion seem the more irrational as well as selfish. Swedish writer Per Seyerstad, first to write a modern biography of Kate Chopin (Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography, 1969) was also to resurrect The Awakening for generations of grateful readers who have grown up with it. John R. Stilgoe, a Harvard historian who really ought to know better, cannot resist categorizing Chopin's revelation of a woman's inner emancipation as a story that “borders on the pornographic.” It must be the combination of female self-assertion and feminine pulchritude that has male minds bollixed.
Image: Louis Valtat - Bicyclette, c.1895, Musee de la voiture, Compiegne.