From True Woman To New Woman: Limiting Ideals Of Femininity In Bread Givers

  • Words 1847
  • Pages 4
Download PDF

In the novel Breadgivers, Sara Smolinsky comes of age in a shifting and uncertain era. The Gilded Age was a time of change for many different aspects of American life, particularly family life and gender relations. As work became more modern and industrialized, the expectations and ideals for women followed suit. The “True Woman” of the past was gradually giving way to the “New Woman” of the future, with true womanhood expecting women to be “angels of the home” and new womanhood encouraging women to enter the public sphere. The deep-rooted cultural expectations of women’s domesticity and the true womanhood ideal did not give way to the educated and individualistic new woman overnight. These two contrasting ideas were each part of the cultural milieu during the Gilded age and even persist, at the very least to some extent, to this day. Though Sarah does make herself into a new woman by the end of the book, she does not completely let go of the values of true womanhood. She embraces new womanhood but also recognizes the need for family and community in order to lead a full and fulfilling life, and would likely reject the argument that Elizabeth Cady Stanton makes in “The Solitude of the Self,” that humans operate in profound solitude from one another and thus no one (especially women) should be dependent on or wholly responsible for another person.

It’s important to understand that the only women who ever even had a chance at fulfilling the true womanhood ideal were white, upper-middle/upper class women. The ideal true woman was a domestic creature who would seek fulfillment in life by marrying a suitable man, keeping house, and raising children. The women who were able to fulfill this standard of womanhood must be of the class to afford to stay home. For Immigrant families such as Sara’s, African American families, working class or poor families, or basically any family that wasn’t white and relatively well-off, the ideal of the true woman was forever out of reach. Sara, her mother, and her sisters certainly could never have afforded to stay completely within the domestic sphere even if the patriarch of the Smolinsky clan did try to provide for his family.

Click to get a unique essay

Our writers can write you a new plagiarism-free essay on any topic

Though Sara nor any of the women of Sara’s family are able to enjoy the leisurely aspects of true womanhood, they are certainly under the yoke of all the oppressive aspects of the true womanhood ideal. From a very young age Sarah bucks under the weight of her father’s expectations. The true woman is expected to be completely dependent on men throughout her life: first her father, then her husband. The idea was that the man would provide for his wife and she would focus on the children. To no woman’s surprise, complete filial piety rarely works to a woman’s advantage. Sara’s father does not work or provide in any way for his family, instead choosing to spend his days studying the Torah.

Sara rejects the idea that she must submit to and be completely dependent on a man. When the novel begins, the family is on the brink of starvation. Sara and all her sisters must go out and earn wages and Shena, Sara’s mother, bargains for every penny and eventually rents out a room to bring in money. All the women in the Smolinsky family must work hard and live in poverty because of Reb Smolinsky’s insistence that he is a holy man is above worldly pursuits such as wage-earning. Reb insists throughout the novel that women exist only to serve men and even that the only way into heaven for a woman is through her subjugation to a man. Sara is deeply resentful of this idea. After seeing all her sisters be forced into unhappy marriages because of her father’s greed and selfishness, she is furious with her father but is unable to do anything. Sara finally decides to strike out on her own after her father sinks all their money into buying a store filled with fake groceries.

Sara seeks to escape the expectation that she must remain in the domestic sphere. Sara sees this as a form of imprisonment after the grueling years of working alongside her sisters to support her father. Sara decides that she wants to better herself, to become her own person independent of her domineering father. She confronts Reb as she decides to leave his household for good, telling him: “My will is as strong as yours. I’m going to live my own life. Nobody can stop me. I’m not from the Old Country. I’m American!” (Yezierska 138). Sara rejects the role of the traditional dutiful daughter, a role that has led her sisters to lives of misery. She embraces an American identity, which here can be interpreted as her embracing the idea of new womanhood.

Sara embraces the individualism aspect of new womanhood. She is delighted when she is finally able to rent her own room. Sara’s small room is the beginning of her journey of self-actualization. Had she stayed under her father’s yoke she never would be able to realize her dreams of pursuing knowledge and becoming a teacher. Sara refuses to stay at home to support her father. She also refuses to be married off like her sisters. The true woman is characterized as being a completely selfless being. Sara’s father sees her as selfish and crazy for choosing herself. Sara makes the radical choice to live her life to further her own goals rather than in service of a man. By renting a room for herself she is asserting herself as an independent being and embracing the new womanhood idea of independence.

Sara’s determined pursuit of her own education is another example of how she embodies the new womanhood idea. Sara has been interested in the pursuit of knowledge since she was young and works extremely hard to reach her goal of becoming a teacher. Sara holds on to her love of knowledge and puts herself through school by working as a laundress during the day and taking classes at night. Sara even rejects marriage to a man she is attracted to, Max Goldstein, because marrying him would mean giving up her education and becoming a wife rather than a teacher as she dreams of. Her father discouraged this, telling her that her only concern in life should be serving men: “A woman’s highest happiness is to be a man’s wife. You’re not a person at all.” (Yezierska 206). Sara defies her father and convention by refusing an advantageous marriage. This is very much a rejection of true womanhood and her family’s values which state that marriage and children should be a woman’s only goal.

Though Sara starts her journey of self-actualization and education thinking she will reject all old-world values in favor of new world American values, she does not leave behind all true womanhood values. Sara is initially ecstatic to finally become a teacher and thinks this is when she has finally become a person: “How grand it felt to lean back in my chair, a person among people” (Yezierska 237). Sara accomplishes her goal of getting educated and becoming a teacher but it does not make her as happy as she thought it would. “The goal was here. Why was I so silent, so empty?” (Yezierska 269). Though Sara has finally become a self-sufficient educator, she finds herself feeling like she is missing something. Throughout the years that she works to better herself, Sara is extremely isolated. She doesn’t make any long-lasting connections with other students when she is in school or with other teachers when she begins teaching. Though she has accomplished everything she set out to, Sara finds that being a new woman can be incredibly lonely.

Though Sara is proud to have accomplished so much, to be a new woman, she finds herself longing for some aspects of the true womanhood idea that she previously rejected. Sara is surprised to find out that her job doesn’t completely fulfill her, and only begins to perk up when Hugo, the principal of the school, comes into the picture. She describes Hugo as having “that living thing, that flame, that I used to worship as a child. And yet he had none of that aloof dignity of a superior. He was just plain human” (Yezierska 270). It’s implied that Sara and Hugo become engaged. Sara’s decision to marry Hugo acts as a bridge between Sara’s new woman qualities and her true woman qualities. A marriage with Hugo will allow Sara to keep her teaching career without sacrificing home and family as she thought she needed to when she left her father’s house. A career without family and community could leave Sara as unhappy as a life of domesticity.

When Sara begins her journey, she wants to embrace the individualism of new womanhood wholeheartedly after a childhood of poverty and subjugation at the hands of her domineering father. Sara does this by working hard to further her education and become a teacher. At this point, Sara would have absolutely agreed with Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s ideas about female selfhood as expressed in “The Solitude of the Self.” Stanton argues that nobody should be totally dependent on another person as women are so often forced to be dependent on men. Sara hated being subjected to the whims of her hypocritical father. However, Sara did not find independence as liberating as she thought it would be and finds herself longing deeply for human connection. Sara would certainly agree with Stanton that women are equal to men in intelligence and potential but would likely find Stanton’s isolated selfhood to be a lonely and unachievable ideal.

At the end of the novel it seems she has come full circle and has embraced true womanhood when she and Hugo decide to take Reb in: “I suddenly realized I had come back to where I had started twenty years ago when I began my fight for freedom” (Yezierska 295). Though Sara worries that living with her father again will mean she is back under his tyranny, she is a changed woman and is unlikely that she will let her father dominate her as he once did. Sara, at the end of the novel, is supporting her father out of love and charity rather than being forced to do so like she was when she is a child. Sara found that living up to the new woman ideal couldn’t fulfill her completely because she couldn’t be happy in isolation. Sara decides to embrace a traditional path by marrying a Jewish immigrant like herself and taking her father in but does not plan on giving up all the aspects of new womanhood that she has strived for. Sara’s coming of age story shows how any proscribed ideal of womanhood set forth by society will be limiting—women must be allowed to live as whole people who can be independent, educated, and career-minded without giving up a fulfilling family life.

Works Cited

  1. Cady Stanton, Elizabeth. “Solitude of Self.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,
  2. Yezierska, Anzia. Breadgivers. Women’s Press, 1984.        


We use cookies to give you the best experience possible. By continuing we’ll assume you board with our cookie policy.