Intimacy and autonomy: Twentieth century American women and the quest for self-realization

Mary F. V Barford, Purdue University


This dissertation examines the effects of culturally managed gender expectations on intimate spaces. The study of these intimate spaces is rooted in the biographies of four relationships in the post-war period. Through exploration of these individual stories an understanding emerges of how monolithic cultural paradigms work for men and for women in very different ways. For purposes of archival availability and continuity, this dissertation focuses on a very specific group of people, namely women of great talent and ambition who were either married to or in a relationship with a man whose fame eclipsed her own. My question became how have women managed their own fulfillment within the limitations of a culture that so heavily promoted marriage and family as the only avenues for true feminine satisfaction. Furthermore, how did these women compromise or assert themselves in their quest for self-realization. Each relationship examined in this dissertation sheds light on a different aspect of the same cultural dilemma. The first couple examined is Joyce Johnson and Jack Kerouac. Joyce Johnson was a young writer herself when she met Kerouac, and was with him during his leap into fame after the publication of On the Road. This chapter explores the idea of privilege and the female attempt to find identity through connection to a man. The second chapter looks at Hettie and LeRoi Jones. This chapter uncovers the complications of race in the post-war period and the way that cultural antagonisms can seep into otherwise neutral or even loving environments. Hettie and LeRoi Jones also shared two children and that aspect of intimacy is also developed in this chapter. The third chapter studies the relationship between Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Lee Krasner’s work as an artist is often considered superior to her very famous husband, yet she has not garnered near the renown that he has. The way that Lee managed her work as an artist in a sexist art milieu as well as the way that she managed her relationship with her husband demonstrates a tremendous fortitude in the face of great obstacles. The last chapter looks at the relationship between Etta Moten and Claude Barnett. Etta Moten is little known but achieved many important firsts – including the first African-American female to appear in a non-stereotypical role in a movie and the first African-American female to sing at the White House. She was also very active in everything from the Harlem Renaissance to the Civil Rights Movement. Her husband, Claude Barnett founded the Associated Negro Press, and worked actively within the United States government as well. Their story demonstrates the possibilities for a more equitable relationship and also serves as a window through which to view African-Americans who were active in shaping their culture in the 20th century.




Curtis, Purdue University.

Subject Area

American studies|American history|Womens studies

Off-Campus Purdue Users:
To access this dissertation, please log in to our
proxy server