Chapter 5
Walking New Orleans, Swimming at Grand Isle

"BECOMING A WOMAN" is sometimes described -- by men -- as some kind of vast, mystical change that happens along with the loss of virginity, or the changes of puberty, or both. But women know that "becoming a woman" is not the most radical or difficult transformation in a female lifetime. Especially during the childbearing years, being a woman often means giving up one's self: a good woman is supposed to efface herself while caring for others. Often she has to conceal or defer her own desires. She has to stifle her most assertive inner voices until, after the years of motherhood are over, she comes into her own.

What is far more challenging is to become a "person": an individual who makes her own choices and becomes the center of her own story. After years of self-sacrifice, many a woman discovers, with surprise and delight, that she has the talent to be the chief actor, and the director, in her own play.

But even at twenty, Kate Chopin intended to be an individual. She had never masked her intelligence, nor hidden her courage. With Oscar, she was learning about the men's world that had been mostly invisible while she was growing up, and that knowledge helped her to develop a certain empathy with men, and especially with boys. She was developing what Virginia Woolf calls "the androgynous mind." Still, her greatest loyalties and her deepest knowledge came through her connections with women. As Woolf also says: a woman thinks back through her mothers.

When Kate and Oscar Chopin arrived in New Orleans to set up housekeeping in the fall of 1870, there was an ogre waiting: Oscar's father.

-62-

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