The nineteenth century is a time of male-domination and "gender inequality." Women, generally, had no rights whatsoever:
At the beginning of the century, women enjoyed few of the legal, social, or political rights...they could not vote, could not sue or be sued, could not testify in court, had extremely limited control over personal property after marriage.
The dominance of males within society in Europe and America can be seen in the matter of divorce: generally custody of children was not given to the mother, but to the father. Women were not permitted to go to college. A woman was seen as a possession, belonging first to her father and later to her husband. If not married, it was difficult for a woman to support herself or her family. Few jobs beyond that of mill or factory worker, or domestic help were available to a woman.
This common theme can be seen in numerous pieces of literature including Ibsen's A Doll's House, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," and in many of Kate Chopin's literary pieces, including "The Story of an Hour."
In Gilman's story, the unnamed narrator infers that her husband (a doctor) controls her; he tells her there is nothing wrong with her, when she knows something is wrong with her. She is, however, resigned to the fact that she is powerless:
John is a physician, and perhaps...perhaps that is one reason I do not get well faster.
You see he does not believe I am sick!
And what can one do?
In Chopin's "The Story of an Hour," Louise Mallard's realization of her husband's oppression is stated quite clearly as she comes to grips with news of her husband's death in a train wreck:
There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature. A kind intention or a cruel intention made the act seem no less a crime...
In "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator ultimately goes insane because she is forced into isolation as she suffers from postpartum depression. In "The Story of an Hour," Mrs. Mallard's sudden awareness of personal freedom she had not been previously aware was possible for a woman is also what causes her death. The doctors (men) say that her heart could not sustain the joyous shock of finding her husband alive. The inference is that she dies of a heart attack when she realizes she will never know the freedom she had briefly experienced in a short hour.
The theme of male domination over women within society is long-standing. Predominately in Europe (and then America), women were seen as second-class citizens. Women were not even granted the right to vote in the U.S. until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in August of 1920.
The characters in these two stories are women who are repressed by a male-dominated society, and representative of women in the late 1800s.