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Unveiling the Voices of Second Wave Feminism: Sylvia Plath's Iconic Bell Jar


Belonging to the Second Wave of Feminism movement, The Bell Jar, written by Sylvia Plath under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, is a semi-autobiographical novel. The struggles of agency and autonomy that are depicted in The Bell Jar are a reflection of the broader societal issues surrounding men's predominance and suppression of women's voices both in social life and in literature. Although the novel was published in 1963, it offers insights relevant to both the first and second wave of feminism.


Examining the Historical Significance of First and Second Wave of Feminism


1. First Wave Feminism

The first wave of feminism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe and in the United States, and it was concerned with achieving the ability to vote, equality in opportunity, and other legal rights for women. In other words, "it is categorized as focusing on the fight for women's political power" (Lear, 1968). It was a significant historical period that brings about major changes in society and established a broader framework for equality for women in every aspect of life, including having the right to citizenship and to vote, the right to education and to inherit their father's properties.


Figure 1: Women's suffrage protest in New York City (circa 1900).

2. Second-Wave Feminism

Second-wave feminism began in the decade of the 1960s and ended three decades later, in the 1990s. Sexuality and rights to reproduction are major themes in this movement. While defining the first wave of feminism, the author Martha Lear coined the phrase "second wave feminism" in 1968 (Lear, 1968). The movement began in the aftermath of World War II, when a great number of women entered the workforce and challenged conventional views of women's roles in the family, work environment, and society.


The second wave of feminism expanded the sphere of feminine politics against men's sexist approaches to women's individual lives. Besides, "the first wave of feminism is led by only white middle-class women of the West, but the second wave is propelled by both white and non-white women of West as well as in developing countries" (Alhumaid, 2019). The movement advocated reproductive rights of women and sexual autonomy. It also covered a wide range of other issues, including "the right to an adequate standard of living for children, the establishment of adequate childcare facilities, the establishment of birth control and abortion rights, the right to equal access to political and economic positions, and the safety of women and children" (Haradhan, 2022). Within feminist politics, disagreements over sexuality and pornography brought this movement to an end.


Figure 2: Machinists working for Ford Motors attending a women's conference on equal rights on June 28, 1968.

The Bell Jar: A Reflection of Second Wave Feminism's Impact

Second-wave feminism emerged as a powerful and transformative movement in the 1960s, reshaping the landscape of gender politics and women's rights. Massive social upheaval took place at that time, with the anti-war and civil rights movements encouraging activists and inspiring an increasing call for equal treatment and justice. The seminal novel The Bell Jar, written by Sylvia Plath, was published in 1963 and gave readers an empathetic and insightful view of a young woman's struggle with her identity, targets, and social norms. Plath's work became a cultural touchstone, embracing the struggles of numerous women dealing with the problems of the time, and this work is still regarded as an influential work of literature that embodies the values and concerns of second-wave feminism since The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath explores several themes that are central to second-wave feminism.


In terms of the narrative, it analyzes the constrictive gender norms and conventions that were imposed on women in the 1950s and early 1960s. Regarding women's situation, Esther Greenwood, the main character, struggles with the expectation to conform to the stereotypical roles of wife, mother, and housewife. Plath underlines this situation as if Esther was stuck under the bell jar.

Figure 3: First edition of the "The Bell Jar", published under Sylvia Plath's pseudonym "Victoria Lucas".

On the other hand, Betty Friedan, one of the prominent figures in Second Wave just like Plath, wrote her groundbreaking work, The Feminist Mystique, in order to exemplify the cultural obligations put on women during the period of feminism's Second Wave. In terms of cultural norms that restricted women from pursuing their goals in Second Wave Feminism, Betty Friedan wrote that "many girls drop out of college to get married and start a family" (1974, p. 12). In addition to this, most of the women Friedan interviewed acknowledged that they were being conditioned in certain manners; for example, they were supposed to go to college, maybe have a career in their chosen field, find a prince charming, and then marry soon enough "and that's as far as a girl has to think. After that, your husband determines and fills your life" (Friedan, 1974, p. 64).


Similarly, in The Bell Jar, the notion that women's value was based on their domestic responsibilities and traditional gender roles rather than on their unique abilities and ambitions is reinforced by the number of alternatives given. For instance, when Esther thinks about marriage, she says that: "it would mean getting up at seven and cooking [my husband] eggs and bacon and toast and coffee..., and then when he came home after a lively, fascinating day he'd expect a big dinner, and I'd spend the evening washing up even more dirty plates till I fell into bed, utterly exhausted" (Plath, 2005, p. 68).

Figure 4: Sylvia Plath while she was writing. (n.d.)

During the 1950s, Americans were convinced that childbirth was a unique phenomenon since according to the '50s society, women's worth and identity were solely defined by their ability to bear children. They did not have the right to make choices about their own bodies and reproductive health without interference from the state or society. According to Friedan, the inconsistency of this prevalent concept is "feminine fulfillment" by pointing out that "in a New York hospital, a woman had a nervous breakdown when she found she could not breastfeed her baby" (1974, p. 12). In The Bell Jar, Buddy Willard, Esther's boyfriend, claims that having a baby makes a woman put all her future plans on hold so she can spend more time with her baby.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister knowing way, that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn't want to write poems anymore (Plath, 2005, p. 54).

What Friedan and Plath's narrator aim to say is that being pregnant and giving birth, despite their lovely nature, have evolved into a process of oppressing and suppressing the female rather than encouraging her. Although Esther wonders if there's another way to give birth that isn't painful, she doesn't address the question with Buddy. She doesn't dispute society's norms. She even visualizes herself undergoing the same torturous process on the delivery table in order to witness the baby fully alive coming from her body (Plath, 2005, p. 54). This is what Friedan refers to as "true feminine fulfillment" (1974, p. 14). According to this viewpoint, motherhood and marriage are every woman's dream, as it "fulfills" their every need.


Esther's irony is that she rejects the traditional image of a woman while thinking about being a wife and mother. According to Friedan, the reason why females are so hesitant is due to the fact they don't have enough inspirational figures when they need to encourage themselves. When faced with the challenge of making her own decisions, Esther wishes someone would make the final choice for her because she is overwhelmed by the idea of having such limited options. For instance, Esther's comparison of her life to a fig tree demonstrates this feeling of indecisiveness and inadequacy. The metaphor beautifully captures the essence of her fears, highlighting the dilemma she faces in choosing the most suitable course of action.

I saw my life branching out before me like [a] green fig tree [...]. From the tip of every branch [...] a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor [...]. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose (Plath, 2005, pp. 62-63).
Figure 5: Illustration of Sylvia Plath and the Fig Tree (n.d)

Esther's illustration of her struggle using the fig tree metaphor highlights the pressure she feels to conform to societal norms and expectations while also wanting to pursue her own aspirations and desires. In this way, this metaphor captures the conflict many women faced during the 1950s when they were expected to fit into prescribed roles while also yearning for personal fulfillment and individuality. On the other hand, Linda Wagner-Martin in The Bell Jar: A Novel of the Fifties locates her criticism historically noting that "Esther believed firmly that there was no way in the American society of the 1950s, that a talented woman could successfully combine a career with homemaking" (1992, p. 38). By using the fig tree metaphor, Plath illustrates the difficulties and internal conflicts experienced by women of that era who were grappling with societal expectations and their own desires. The metaphor underscores the limitations and constraints imposed on women and the sense of entrapment or suffocation that can arise from these expectations.


Inspirational Figures and their Influence on Esther in "The Bell Jar"

Throughout the novel, Esther looks up to and is influenced by several role models who shape her perception of womanhood and her own aspirations. Initially, Esther's mother represents the traditional role of a housewife and mother. Her mother's character represents the societal expectations placed on women during that era. Along with her mother, Mrs. Willard embodies the idealized image of a perfect wife and mother as well, adhering strictly to traditional gender roles and societal norms as the ideal 1950s housewife. Esther sees that "cook and clean and wash was just what Buddy Willard's mother did from morning till night, and she was the wife of a university professor and had been a private school teacher herself" (Plath, 2005, pp. 68-69).


In 1953, when Sylvia Plath won a competition in order to become a guest editor in Mademoiselle, which was a prominent American women's magazine targeting young women in their late teens and twenties, the magazines supported the idea that women's primary roles as homemakers and caregivers limited their opportunities for both personal and professional development, as well as perpetuated inequality. For instance, "The Feeding of Young Men," published in September 1953 in Mademoiselle, offered cooking tips for women. Despite the fact that the article begins with, "Whatever your mother may have told you, the way to a man's heart is devious and complicated and not usually through his stomach," it proceeds in the following paragraph to say, "Still, it is almost impossible to go around with anyone for any length of time without once giving him something to eat" (Aikman, 1953, p. 58). Since these articles were published when Plath was a guest editor in the magazine, the kitchen, as a symbol of women's domestic responsibilities, became a pivotal role in The Bell Jar.


Figure 6: Cover photograph of "Mademoiselle" (Landshoff, August 1953).

On the other hand, apart from role models related to the representation of the traditional role of a housewife and mother, she had role models who had an influential impact on her as well. Jay Cee represents a strong and independent woman who challenges traditional gender roles. She embodied the ideals of the second-wave feminist movement, advocating for women's empowerment and gender equality. Jay Cee serves as an inspiration to Esther, encouraging her to pursue her intellectual and professional aspirations and challenge societal expectations. For this reason, she felt that "I wished I had a mother like Jay Cee. Then I'd know what to do. My own mother wasn't much help" (Plath, 2005, p. 32).

Esther likes Jay Cee because she does not completely fit the standard image of the woman in the fifties. This partly explains her critique of conventional images: Jay Cee is unlike other fashion magazine bosses “with fake eyelashes and giddy jewelry”; her “brains”, knowledge of “languages” and “quality writers” are more important than her “plug-ugly looks” (Ghandeharion & Bozorgian, 2015).

Gender Dichotomy in "The Bell Jar": Society's Double Standards on Display

As a result of the restrictive nature of the perceptions in the Fifties, women had fewer choices, whereas men had more options. According to Ghandeharion, in her article "Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: a Mirror of American Fifties", exemplifies this situation as "Esther's mother gives her an article called "In Defense of Chastity", written by a "woman lawyer" who strongly advises other women to keep their virginity until they get married because purity is only a woman's issue. The "woman lawyer", who represents social norms, claims that a man's world and emotions are different from a woman's and so men "wanted to be the ones to teach their wives about sex" (Ghandeharion, Bozorgian & Sabbagh, 2015).


Esther is reluctant to take these words to heart. She feels it is both unjust and illogical to give permission for a guy to live a double life whereas advising women to remain pure, innocent, and unsophisticated. This double standard reflects cultural expectations that women should be pure and obedient while men are sexually active.

Figure 7: Photograph of Sylvia Plath (Vantine, 1954).

In addition to this, as the narrative progresses, it becomes evident that the expectations imposed by this patriarchal society act as oppressive constraints on Esther's freedom. From this perspective, Mrs. Willard's arrow allegory perfectly depicts this 1950s common notion. Buddy, whose generosity makes it possible to tell Esther about his mother's advice, claims that "what a man is an arrow into the future and what a woman is the place the arrow shoots off from" (Plath, 2005, p. 58) The allegory intends to convey to Esther that her rightful position lies on the ground, unlike the sky where men soar freely like arrows. Moreover, this notion can be clarified by Friedan, when she said "men must thrust into the future" (1974, p. 71), which underlines the idea that the woman is relegated to a supporting role as someone whose primary goal is to support the guy in "shooting off." However, Esther rejects this male-dominated notion by remarking that:

I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket (Plath, 2005, p. 68).

The act of "excluding," which is also a means of promoting the mystique of femininity, is started by metaphorical comparisons to women. For this reason, the arrow metaphor plays a pivotal role in The Bell Jar because it symbolizes all the restrictions and boundaries towards women which were enforced by both women and men. Plath uses the arrow as a powerful symbol of the freedom all women desire. It represents their longing for various choices that may seem unachievable at first. They yearn for the freedom to make decisions that may seem contradictory but are crucial for their personal growth. These encompass the freedom to explore her sexuality without the fear of an unintended pregnancy. Ultimately, the arrow also signifies their yearning to break free from the constraints imposed by their societal and cultural background.

Figure 8: Illustration for Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar" (Levasseur, 2022).

Conclusion

In conclusion, Sylvia Plath's novel The Bell Jar serves as a poignant exploration of the challenges faced by women in the 1950s and resonates with the ideals and concerns of the second-wave feminist movement. Through the experiences of the protagonist Esther Greenwood, the novel examines the oppressive societal expectations, limited opportunities, and the stifling of individuality that women encountered during that era. The Bell Jar not only captures the struggles specific to its time but also remains relevant today, reminding us of the ongoing fight for women's empowerment, agency, and the pursuit of fulfilling lives free from the constraints of double standards.



Bibliographical References

Aikman, A. (1953a, March). The Coming of Age of a Chicken. Mademoiselle. March: 26. (1953b). The Eternal Appetite. Mademoiselle. February: 28. (1953c). The Feeding of Young Men. Mademoiselle. September: 58.


Alhumaid, K. (2019). Feminist Perspectives on Education and Pedagogy: A Meta-Synthetic Insight into the Thought of Four American Philosophers. Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 8 (3), 31-44.


Auerbach, N. (1983). Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge, Mass.


Budick, E. M. (1987). The Feminist Discourse of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. College English, 49 (8), pp. 872–885.


Bhatt, P. (2013). The Feminist Perspective in the novel "The Bell Jar". Diss. Department of English.


Carrillo-Rush, V. (2012). Suffocating Under a Sealed Bell Jar: The Angel/Monster Dichotomy in the Literary Tradition. Humanities Capstone Projects.


Coyle, S. (1984). Images of Madness and Retrieval: An Exploration of Metaphor in The Bell Jar. Studies in American Fiction, 12: pp. 161-74.


De Beauvoir, S. (2014). The Second Sex. Classic and Contemporary Readings in Sociology, Routledge.

De Villiers, S. (2019). Metaphors of madness: Sylvia Plath’s rejection of patriarchal language in "The Bell Jar". English Studies in Africa, 62.2, pp. 1-11.


Dicker, R. C. (2008). A History of U.S. Feminisms. Seal Press, Berkeley.

Đurđević, M. (2017). Which of the Figs to Choose: Sylvia Plath's «The Bell Jar» in the Context of Second-Wave Feminism. Kontexti, 4, pp. 113-123.


Friedan, B. (1974). The feminine mystique. New York: Dell Publishing Co., INC.


Howlett, J. (1999). Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar as Counter-Narrative. Journal of American Studies of Turkey, 10, pp. 39-48.


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Mackay, F. (2015). Radical feminism: Feminist activism in movement. Springer.


Ghandeharion, A., Bozorgian, F., & Sabbagh, M. R. G. (2015). Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar: a Mirror of American Fifties. kata, 17 (2), 64-70.

Lear, M. W. (1968). The Second Feminist Wave: What Do These Women Want? The New York Times.


Malinowska, A. (2020). Waves of Feminism. The International Encyclopedia of Gender, Media, and Communication. JohnWiley & Sons, Inc.


Mohajan, H. K. (2022): Four Waves of Feminism: A Blessing for Global Humanity. Published in: Studies in Social Science & Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 2: pp. 1-8.

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Snyder, R. C. (2008). What Is Third‐Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 34(1), 175-196.


Tsank, S. (2010). The Bell Jar: A psychological case study. Plath Profiles: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Sylvia Plath Studies 3: 166-177.


Valenti, J. (2009). The purity myth: How America's obsession with virginity is hurting young women. Berkeley: Seal Press.


Wagner-Martin, L. (1992). The Bell Jar: A novel of the fifties. (No Title).

Visual Sources

Figure 1: Woman’s suffrage march in New York City. (circa 1900). Retrieved from https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/nCwrd3zECuIWjzYYdIQ61nZQ5Sg=/0x0:4170x2780/1720x0/filters:focal(0x0:4170x2780):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/10449045/GettyImages_514900826.jpg


Figure: 2: Machinists working for Ford Motors attending a women's conference on equal rights on June 28, 1968. Retrieved from https://cdn.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/r5MV_HoPhgFCgi95oxSjykN4UJA=/0x0:5256x3504/1720x0/filters:focal(0x0:5256x3504):no_upscale()/cdn.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/10434793/GettyImages_86088464.jpg


Figure 3: First edition of The Bell Jar, published under Sylvia Plath's pseudonym "Victoria Lucas".

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/8/80/Belljarfirstedition.jpg


Figure 4: Sylvia Plath while was writing. (n.d.). Photography by Everett https://media.newyorker.com/photos/5a29a6914ec5bd4678e6415e/master/w_2240,c_limit/Crawford-Letters-of-Sylvia-Plath.jpg


Figure 5 & Cover Image: Illustration of Sylvia Plath and the Fig Tree (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.redbubble.com/fr/i/carnet/La-citation-de-Bell-Jar-Fig-Tree-par-indiebookster/76810352.WX3NH.


Figure 6: Landshoff H. (1953). [Cover photograph]. Hermann Landshoff estate, Münchner Stadtmuseum/Photography Collection, published under Creative Commons Non-commercial License.

https://www.bl.uk/britishlibrary/~/media/bl/global/dl%2020th%20century/20th%20century%20collection%20items/sylvia-plaths-mad-girls-p_p_6330_ba_1953_front_cover.jpg


Figure 7: Vantine, W. K. (1954). Photograph of Sylvia Plath. College Archives at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

https://www.hubcityspokes.com/sites/default/files/styles/large/public/field/image/03-sylvia-plath%252520exhibition.jpg.webp?itok=wvAMuS8T


Figure 8: Levasseur, A. (2022). From The Folio Society edition of The Bell Jar. Retrieved from https://www.anothermag.com/design-living/14007/the-bell-jar-sylvia-plath-illustrations-alexandra-levasseur.





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