Girls and Women
WHEN KATE O'FLAHERTY was five years and seven months old, her parents packed her off to boarding school.
In 1855 the Sacred Heart nuns did admit tots as young as five to their academy on Fifth Street, a clean, bright building tucked behind brick walls, with its own garden and quiet ways, in the heart of St. Louis. Sacred Heart nuns were famous for their brisk efficiency and keen intellect, and theirs was by far the best education available for girls. But girls who were comfortably supported, and whose parents were alive, were not normally sent away when they were barely beyond the toddler stage. Loneliness is a positive thing in Kate Chopin The Awakening -- but little children rarely enjoy it.
There are no obvious explanations. Kate O'Flaherty was born, according to her baptismal certificate, on February 8, 1850, and her first portrait shows a round little girl clutching a bouquet of posies and smiling vaguely. Her gauzy, off-the-shoulder evening gown seems incongruous and coy for a three-year-old, but the picture was made by a traveling artist who carted around prepainted bodies as a sales gimmick. Customers got to choose the body they most preferred for their child.
Already, young Katie was being pushed into a preconceived female role.
Her other surviving childhood picture tells us more about Kate O'Flaherty as an individual -- a dark-eyed young rebel sporting disheveled ringlets and glowering at the camera. Fidgety youngsters were often put into neck clamps for photographs, and Miss Katie O'Flaherty looks like one very put-upon little girl.