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Women's Issues—Past

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Throughout the nineteenth century, women were still very much viewed as chattels of their husbands—with the unmarried woman hardly registering at all on the social register—and we see such couples represented in many earlier dramatic works. But, by the turn of the twentieth century, early feminists were beginning to question the limitations imposed on women as passive mothers and homemakers, and the toll such narrow lives took on those women, and modern dramatists, both male and female, have been keen to explore these changing perceptions. Although playwrights like Henrik Ibsen and Susan Glaspell depict marriages within a contemporary society that expects wives to be submissive, they show how damaging such relationships can be. Rachel Crothers’s depiction of women as independent, capable of holding down jobs outside the home, and running their own lives without the constant guidance of men in A Man’s World , was considered shocking when it debuted—as espousing views liable to topple the very fabric of society. But Crothers, and other feminists, persisted in advancing such views, until women were given opportunities to live freer and more fulfilling lives. Although the prevailing cultural myth had been that men were “trapped by marriage,” the feminist viewpoint brought to public attention that it is really the women who were thus trapped.

A Doll’s House , by Ibsen, is an early depiction of a woman trying to break free of the restrictive, paternalistic relationship she comes to recognize she has with her husband. By today’s standards Nora’s rebellion may not seem so earthshaking, but in 1879 it was considered downright immoral to suggest that a woman might abandon both her husband and her children. By showing Torvald’s romanticized marriage to be an empty dream, Ibsen was exploding the conventional, sentimentalized Victorian ideals of the “little woman” and the “angel in the house.” Nora’s leaving to pursue self-fulfillment challenged so-   ciety’s whole concept of the sanctity of marriage, and marks an early call for female emancipation. The fact that the law actually prohibited a woman from borrowing money without a male relative’s consent is important to recognize. Nora lives in a patriarchal society that will not be easy to combat alone. It is an incredibly brave action she takes in leaving at the close.

Glaspell’s Trifles depicts a poorer class of woman, who would be utterly trapped by her marriage, with no way out. An educated woman like Nora, coming from a moneyed background, would have found it slightly easier to remain economically viable in the outside world. Women like Minnie Wright were often forced to remain with either father or husband just to have a roof over their heads. The life of a solitary woman without male protection was not an attractive option.

A Man’s World by Crothers is one of the earliest American attempts at what George Bernard Shaw had labeled a “Discussion Play,” in that the argument within it is what keeps the play progressing, and the action becomes almost peripheral. The play’s argument concerns the double standards by which men and women of the day were treated, by which men were allowed to be sexually irresponsible while insisting that their women maintain the highest standards of morality. Within the play Crothers depicts the “New Woman” of the period, who was attempting to live independently of men, and shows the sacrifices such women were often forced to make. Crothers herself was one of the most successful female playwrights of the early twentieth century, a period when a career in the theater was not seen as particularly respectable for a woman. Though often dismissed by critics as too conventional, Crothers consistently focused on such women’s issues as the conflict between career and marriage or motherhood, the hollowness of many marriages, and the opposition faced by strong and successful women. A Man’s World is one of her earlier and more daring dramas, and, for that reason, less popular at the time of its production.

A Doll’s House depicts the marriage of Nora and Torvald Helmer. Torvald treats his wife as a plaything rather than a person, and when she acts independently, raising the money for him to recuperate from a bad illness, it changes their whole relationship. Nora had to forge her husband’s name to get the money, and the man with whom she made the deal, Krogstad, discovers this and tries to blackmail Torvald. After meeting the widowed Mrs. Linde, an early love, Krogstad destroys his evidence and frees the Helmers to show himself worthy of his new wife. However, Torvald’s reaction to events makes Nora rethink their relationship and decide to leave her husband to reclaim her humanity.

Initially, Nora deserves the incessant diminutives Torvald heaps on her. Nora’s desire for macaroons ensures that we understand that she is still a child who needs to grow up; she is, after all, a willing “doll.” She virtually twitters as she throws things around, leaving them for servants to pick up, coyly flirts with her husband, and childishly plays with her children: she is a “little lark,”   “a little squirrel,” “a little featherbrain” (3-4). Her frivolous world is in stark contrast to Torvald’s cautious, ordered world of business. He naturally prefers the sanctuary of his study or of work, merely using his wife as an occasional diversion or entertainment. The fact that he will not even allow Nora to read the mail, locking it in a box to which only he holds a key, shows how far he has kept her apart from the outside world so she will remain under his total control.

But Torvald’s world is shown to be as remote and cold as Norway itself, a strict world of men and law in which women are allowed no footage. By contrast, as Nora develops, we see her being related to the warmer, more passionate climes of Italy. It is to Italy that she takes Torvald after showing some spirit in defying the male world and procuring the necessary funds. It is an Italian dance, the tarantella, that Ibsen uses to indicate her feminine growth and development into a woman. When Nora threatens to burst out as a woman while dancing the tarantella Torvald feels compelled to control her, though, to his consternation, his attempts are less than effective. It is a growth he will not be able to comprehend or prevent.

Nora wins our sympathy through her generous spirit and because of her domineering husband. Her generous nature is indicated from the start, as she overtips the porter and earnestly tries to assist her old friend, Mrs. Linde. Her spending is noticeably on others and not on herself. Even the crime she has committed was done to restore her husband’s health. He had thoughtlessly refused to raise the money they needed for the trip the doctors recommended, preferring instead to risk leaving his wife and newborn child without a husband and father.

Nora’s marriage has no pretense of equality; Torvald simply cannot envisage such a relationship. He selfishly runs their lives according to his own whims and does not feel it necessary to consider his wife’s feelings. Nora is aware that their marriage is based on appearances and realizes that she may need something to keep Torvald’s interest once her looks have faded. What Ibsen is telling us is that a true marriage needs a deeper bond than Torvald and Nora have managed to create. Nora has invested a great deal in her marriage, far more than Torvald realizes, but she has invested unwisely and will be forced to recognize this sad fact.

Mrs. Linde can be seen as a foil to Nora. While Nora married into an idealized dream of love, Mrs. Linde first married because she felt responsible for her family. She gave up her true love, Krogstad, for the financial security of a richer man who subsequently lost his money and died, leaving her to go out into the world and work to support her mother and younger brothers. Though harsh, this has perhaps been the making of Mrs. Linde; she has gained self-respect from her achievements. She is now a woman who can bind herself to a man she respects without losing that independence. Her misfortune has allowed her to tap her own hidden resources and she may be the lead Nora must learn to follow. In an interesting gender reversal, Mrs. Linde proposes to Krogstad, as she persuades him that they need each other equally—and we cannot fault the honesty of this assertion. Indeed, they exhibit the qualities on which a true marriage should be based: mutual honesty and respect rather than concealment and falsehood.

Torvald’s image of Nora is romantic fantasy: no human being could really be like that. Nora finally learns to reject Torvald’s “doll-like” image of her, as she comes to realize that this is the only way she can reclaim her humanity. Torvald helps her reach this decision by his reaction to her dealings with Krogstad: he completely condemns her, does not take into account her altruistic motives, and only considers how he will be affected. Nora realizes that she, too, has been the victim of a romantic dream—having expected her husband to stand by her and even nobly take the blame. She now realizes that such “a wonderful thing” is only fantasy (66). She needs to enter the real world so she can discover how it operates and forge an identity for herself. She admits her own fault in having allowed first her father and then Torvald to use her as a plaything, but feels theirs is the greater fault for expecting her to fulfill such a role and for not allowing her to be any more than that. Torvald does offer to change, but she rightly believes that that can only happen if she leaves.

In Trifles , we learn about the troubled marriage of the Wrights, which has culminated in Minnie Wright strangling her husband, John. Her neighbors, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, have come to the house to fetch Mrs. Wright clean clothes as she waits in jail to be charged, and they discuss her case. The men vainly look for signs of violent rage, but the women, with growing empathy, are able to recognize the signs of quiet desperation under which many women of their time were forced to live.

Although the occasion of the play is a murder, it is really a play about the condition of marriage in the nineteenth century and an exploration of the differing male and female reactions as they search for a motive. There is never any doubt that Mrs. Wright killed her husband, but the question is: why? Glaspell contrasts male and female perspectives throughout the play, and engages our sympathy firmly on the side of the women.

We are asked to witness Mrs. Wright’s life rather than Mr. Wright’s death, and we are shown that the true “crime” has been the way she was being subjugated and “destroyed” by her marriage. We never see Minnie Wright; we learn about her only through others’ comments. This dramatic method serves the dual function of allowing her to avoid particularity and so serve as a symbol of all women trapped in loveless marriages, as well as ensuring that our attention is focused on the reactions of those others.

The play’s opening firmly sets the scene. The gloomy kitchen is where Minnie Wright struggled to stay sane, and the domineering men immediately take charge while the women remain on the periphery. We learn that John Wright said little and demanded the same from his wife. We can also recognize that he is not so different from these other men, who clearly see women as a sub-   servient group whose concerns hold little importance. Thus, in their search for hard evidence to convict Mrs. Wright, they repeatedly overlook the existing evidence that the women uncover, dismissing such evidence as mere “trifles” (9). Mrs. Hale’s early defense of Mrs. Wright against the belittling comments of Mr. Henderson foreshadows her growing sympathy and complicity with the “murderess.”

Once a woman marries, she loses her former identity, along with her maiden name, and she becomes subsumed by her husband; note how even the sheriff impersonally calls his wife “Mrs. Peters.” The lives of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale may not be as dreary as the life Mrs. Wright evidently led, but, as women, they are aware of the limitations that a patriarchal society has placed on their gender. Their husbands are a little more communicative, and both women have children to distract them, but their days are no less yoked to the home and the demands of those husbands.

Standing in the kitchen, the center of every farm wife’s existence, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters soon piece together the clues to events that continue to elude the men. Before marriage, Minnie Foster had been singing and full of life; placed within the confines of marriage, however—symbolized by the house she lives in “down in a hollow” where you “don’t see the road” (21) and the concentric bars of the log cabin pattern of her quilt and the canary cage—she has had all the life strangled out of her. Her husband destroyed Minnie Foster, just as he destroyed her canary. Her revenge, knotting a rope around his neck while he slept, eventually appears just. Mrs. Hale leads Mrs. Peters to a full understanding of the situation as she removes the clues they discover, unpicking the erratic stitching in the quilt and putting the dead bird in her pocket.

Having known Minnie from the past, and being a neighbor who had neglected to visit for over a year, Mrs. Hale accepts her own guilt in not having helped Minnie. Both women now pay penance for this by removing evidence and lying to Mr. Henderson, the county attorney, about how the canary died. Mrs. Hale’s final retort, “We call it—knot it, Mr. Henderson” (30), becomes layered with significance. The words themselves sound defiant against Mr. Henderson’s facetious tone, and she mocks him with the evidence that she and Mrs. Peters have found, and that even now he continues to miss—the knot around Mr. Wright’s neck being clearly related to such a quilting knot. The emphatic " We call it," further suggests the “knot,” or bond, that has been tied between these women and Minnie against the men. Glaspell wishes us to recognize the potential strength bestowed on the women who forge such bonds—a strength that comes with unity. It is a strength that will allow them not only to withstand male subjugation but also, we hope, to begin to forge an independent female identity.

Despite its sympathy for the female characters, Trifles is not an antimale play as much as an attempt to awaken audiences to the dilemmas of womanhood at a time when women were still considered second-class citizens. Feminism was in its infancy, and even its supporters were at times ambivalent about where   it might lead. The rebellion of Glaspell’s women is consequently minimal; Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters protect Minnie, but they never speak openly to the men in her defense. Minnie ends up still locked in prison, even though there is a slim chance that she may escape punishment.

In A Man’s World , the female protagonist, Frank Ware, is a promising writer, whose success her supposed friends insist she must owe to a man’s influence. She has adopted the son of a ruined woman whom she befriended shortly before her death, and everyone assumes the boy must be her own child. Having fallen in love with Malcolm Gaskell, she is prepared to give up her independence in marriage to him, until she learns that he is the father of that child. Refusing to accept the double standard by which Gaskell would have refused to marry her had it been her child, yet he expects her to overlook his indiscretion, she finally rejects him for ruining this other woman’s life.

The women characters offer different outlooks on the possibilities for women of the day. Frank, whose masculine first name also indicates her frank nature, desires the independence men are afforded, but is not sure she is willing to sacrifice love to maintain this. By the close she discovers the strength to reject Gaskell, to uphold her principle in refusing to accept the double standard he insists on. She repudiates Gaskell’s claim that “nature made men different” (68), and condemns him for refusing to admit that both sexes should share equal responsibility for sexual activity. She is a talented writer, a loving adoptive mother to Kiddie, and a generous friend, as her support of Clara particularly shows. Though she loses her man, her life still holds the potential to be fulfilling in her professional work, her daring insistence on motherhood, and her volunteer work with the poorer women of East Side, by which she helps troubled girls better their lives.

Lione Brune, displaying the cattiness her feline name implies, is jealous of Frank’s success at managing to blend aspects of both work and home into her life, and expresses her jealousy through malicious gossip. A committed careerist, Lione feels isolated, accepted neither in the male career world nor in the feminine world of married homemakers. She is no villain, though, and apologizes for her hurtful gossip when she recognizes the honesty of Frank’s character. Her initial jealousy had been sparked by the thought that Frank was duplicitously attempting to hide a sexual relationship with Gaskell. However, unlike Frank, she accepts the double standard that operates as an inescapable way of life, and would not challenge it as Frank does: “What’s the use of knocking your head against things you can’t change?” (57).

Clara Oakes, in contrast to Frank and Lione, is an utterly dependent type, and since she is untalented and unattractive seems doomed to a life of unfulfilled spinsterhood, unable to have a career to support herself, as Lione does, or land herself a husband. She admits, “I’d marry any man that asked me” (52), as she is tired of trying to survive alone, but also acknowledges the unfair   likelihood of that: “If I were a man—the most insignificant little runt of a man—I could persuade some woman to marry me—and could have a home and children” (53), but as a woman she will be allowed no such choice. Frank offers her accommodation and a job working at her women’s club, by which she allows her some refuge and conveys the need for solidarity among women to ensure that those like Clara survive.

The sexism of the day is evident from the newspaper review of Frank’s latest book: “Her first work attracted wide attention when we thought Frank Ware was a man, but now that we know she is a woman we are more than ever impressed by the strength and scope of her work … and the marvel is that any woman can see and know so much and depict crime and degradation so boldly” (7). Gaskell’s praise is even more grudging, pompously insisting that a man would have written a better book, and that Frank’s efforts to address female social issues is doomed to failure: “It’s too big for you … this is a man’s world. Women’ll never change anything…. Man sets the standard for woman” (23). Secure in his superiority, and certain that Frank will fall into line as soon as she commits to a man, he refers, of course, to that double standard to which Frank so strongly objects.

All the men in the play staunchly believe in the rightness of the double standard, and are easily convinced that Frank’s literary success must be based on male input. The one exception is Fritz Bahn, whose motherly attitude toward Kiddie and staunch support of Frank (whatever her past), show that it is possible for men to behave without sexism, although Fritz must turn down career opportunities, just as Frank turns down marriage, to maintain his principles. Fritz sympathizes with Frank’s plight as a woman of intellect in a patriarchal society, but is powerless to do anything more than offer the support of his friendship.

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Women's Issues—Past

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What is this ? are you mad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!