The term ‘feminism’ has many different uses and its meanings are often contested and changed throughout history. In the mid-to-late 1800’s, the time period in which the novel is set, feminism was used to refer to the “qualities of a woman”. Thus, with this definition and the context of the novel in mind, the analysis of Edna’s “qualities of a woman” becomes easier. Conventional women in this time period were expected to present themselves in the most proper manner, especially in the way that they dressed. Their clothing was an indication of modesty, decorum and indicated purity and wholesomeness, as proper women were often “clad always in white with elbow sleeves… with starched skirts.” Mothers in that time period had even greater expectations set by society—to be loving, tender and soft. Many women, “idolized their children, worshiped their husbands and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels.” These were the traditional qualities of female behavior and propriety—of being “feminine”.
Edna Pontellier held many non-traditional attitudes in regard to her own gender, which weren’t always wholly or ideally “feminine”. She is not a “mother-woman” and violently rejects this role because of the displacements and forfeitures that it would impose. Edna claims to sometimes feel as though she is wandering through her life “unguided and unthinking.” Between social bounds and personal desires, feminism contains a respectable and decent purpose, a type of character Edna is unable and unwilling to emulate. For instance, Edna does not have the feelings towards her children that it was assumed she should have—as she obstinately states that she “would never sacrifice herself for her children, or for any one.” Edna begins to exercise choice at a time when 19th century women were seen as weak, illogical, governed by their emotions and easy to please. While this description might seem as demeaning and inequitable to modern rational, Victorians, both men and women of the day, viewed these as duties in which all women should oblige by. Even today, on the most basic and human level, the role of a woman, mother, and wife (feminist or otherwise) is to take care of her children. Even though Edna was meant to personify the ideals of femininity, independence, and freedom during a restrictive time, her lack of responsibility and absence of love contradict the feminine title bestowed upon her by modern critics.
Feminism, as an ideology, encourages women to examine their thoughts, feelings, and lives and to locate their own individual voices in order to become more independent within society and among men. With Edna, it is evident that this mentality pervades and develops through the summer, where she describes herself as being “accustomed to harbor thoughts and emotions