In late 19th century America, gender roles were strictly defined. Men were meant to act as providers, and women were meant to marry and care for the family. During his childhood, Jim believes strongly in these roles and looks up to working men like Otto and his grandfather, Jake. He tries desperately to earn Ántonia's respect by following their examples. Ántonia, however, does not want to conform to the typical female role. On the prairie, after her father dies, she insists on working in the fields with the men. After Ántonia moves to town, Jim is surprised when she forms female friendships and discovers dancing, fancy clothing, and etiquette. He is even more surprised when she laughs off his romantic advances.
Only when Jim moves to Lincoln for college does he really begin to question traditional gender roles. He dates independent women like Lena and comes to respect Lena for her ambition. He begins to look back on Ántonia's love for the fields and flirtatious behavior in town not as conflicting, but as different aspects of her personality. Eventually, Ántonia finds a compromise of gender roles when she becomes a mother but continues working in the fields alongside her husband. Jim, who grows into a liberal-minded New Yorker, sees this lifestyle as perfectly suited to Ántonia.