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“With reference to at least two texts, discuss the representation of women’s experience within the patriarchal scheme of things.”
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman established her as the founder of modern feminism, highlighting several themes that the later feminist movements pursued in their quest for equality within society. One such theme is the prejudiced system of education pervading the society of her time, with Wollstonecraft passionately declaring that women have been subjected “to a false system of education… by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures, have been more anxious to make them alluring mistresses than affectionate wives and rational mothers”1. With the patriarchal society placing greater emphasis on the beauty of a woman than on the development of her intellect, Wollstonecraft believes that women have been continually disrespected by society:[^]
[…] in the true style of Mahometanism, they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species, when improvable reason is allowed to be the dignified distinction which raises men above the brute creation, and puts a natural sceptre in a feeble hand.2[^]
Wollstonecraft asserts that the empowered men in society dictate that women should strive for “soft phrases, susceptibility of heart, delicacy of sentiment, and refinement of taste”3, attributes that render them weak and dependent upon men.[^]
The writer who best embodies this patriarchal prejudice in Wollstonecraft’s eyes is the Swiss philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Wollstonecraft consistently questions Rousseau’s views throughout her text, dismissing many of his opinions as “nonsense!”4 In response to Rousseau’s view that “a woman should never for a moment feel herself independent, that she should be…made a coquettish slave in order to render her a more alluring object of desire”5, Wollstonecraft argues that the ultimate aim of female conduct should be to improve their own capacities, not to cosmetically enhance their beauty:
Connected with man as daughters, wives, and mothers, their moral character may be estimated by their manner of fulfilling those simple duties; but the end, the grand end, of their exertions should be to unfold their own faculties, and acquire the dignity of conscious virtue.6[^]
Continuing her argument regarding the importance of correct, unbiased education for females, Wollstonecraft argues that “national education is of the utmost consequence”7 if women are to become effective mothers, before lamenting the fact that “men are unwilling to place women in situations proper to enable them to acquire sufficient understanding to know how even to nurse their babes.”8
Wollstonecraft declares that women can only be expected to rationally fulfil nursing duties towards their “infants, parents, and husbands”9 if they are allowed a broader education, one encompassing “the elements of anatomy and medicine”10. She furthers this argument by stating that, in order to “make woman acquainted with the anatomy of the mind”11, the sexes must…
[…] associate together in every pursuit, […] leading them to observe the progress of human understanding in the improvement of the sciences and arts – never forgetting the science of morality, or the study of the political history of mankind.12
To conclude her examination of the necessity of unbiased national education, Wollstonecraft asserts that if women were freed from their sex-determined instructional chains, they would be better able to fulfil their duties as wives and mothers:
The conclusion which I wish to draw is obvious. Make women rational creatures and free citizens, and they will quickly become good wives and mothers – that is, if men do not neglect the duties of husbands and fathers.13[^]
Wollstonecraft pursues a philosophical path in putting forward her belief that the tyranny of man has been excused throughout the ages by the patriarchal arguments of the virtues acceptable to woman. She declares that if one accepts that woman has a soul, there is only one divine path which should lead all of humankind – the path of education:
The irrational behaviour demonstrated by women which irritates men, Wollstonecraft argues, is the consequence of the efforts made by patriarchal society to keep all females in a state of dependence upon men:
Wollstonecraft continues her philosophical examination of human nature by making the optimistic declaration that “every being may become virtuous by the exercise of its own reason”16, suggesting that there is still hope for the modern woman even if, given the present constitution of society, “much cannot be expected from education.”17[^]
An enlightening comparison is drawn by Wollstonecraft between the women of her society and male soldiers. The fact that women and military men are “sent into the world before their minds have been stored with knowledge”18 has similar effects upon both these categories of people: women and soldiers are able to obtain a small degree of knowledge from the society they continually mix with; both “practise the minor virtues with punctilious politeness”19; and both “are also particularly attentive to their persons, fond of dancing, crowded rooms, adventures, and ridicule”20. Wollstonecraft concludes that there is a dearth of sexual difference “when the education has been the same”21, and the fact that soldiers “are still reckoned superior to women”22 is further evidence of the subjugated position of women within the patriarchal scheme of things.[^]
In attempting to tease out the reason why man has exercised tyrannical power over woman throughout the ages, Wollstonecraft suggests that “the prevailing opinion that woman was created for man, may have taken its rise from Moses’ poetical story”23. However, Wollstonecraft gives little credence to the literal interpretation of Eve as having been made from the rib of Adam, and believes that this story merely
proves that man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to show that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke, because the whole creation was only created for his convenience or pleasure.24[^]
As she begins her chapter entitled “The Prevailing Opinion of a Sexual Character Discussed”25, the subtle brilliance of Wollstonecraft’s writing is demonstrated in the sentence, “If then women are not a swarm of ephemeron triflers, why should they be kept in ignorance under the specious name of innocence?”26 In a discussion of sexual character, the word ‘specious’ has phonetic connotations of ‘species’, “a class of plants or animals with the same main characteristics, enabling interbreeding; a distinct kind or sort”27. The opinion of patriarchal society was that women should be kept in a child-like state of ignorance and dependence upon men. Thus, female innocence is ‘specious’ in the literal sense of the word as “apparently true, but in fact false”28, because the term ‘innocence’ is used falsely to cover up the fact that women are kept ignorant, as well as the fact that this specious ‘innocence’ is aimed solely at hindering the female ‘species’ of humankind.[^]
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman concludes that the behavioural errors and mental inadequacies of women have been brought about by their subjugated position within patriarchal society. If women are allowed equality and freedom, they will improve and perfect themselves:
Asserting the rights which women in common with men ought to contend for, I have not attempted to extenuate their faults; but to prove them to be the natural consequence of their education and station in society. If so, it is reasonable to suppose that they will change their character, and correct their vices and follies, when they are allowed to be free in a physical, moral, and civic sense.29
Given the current constitution of society, Wollstonecraft asserts it is unsurprising that “a girl, condemned to sit for hours together listening to the idle chat of weak nurses…will endeavour to join the conversation”30, and she considers it to be “a most natural consequence”31 that a girl will “amuse herself by adorning her lifeless doll, as they do in dressing her”32. The point that Wollstonecraft makes here is that it is an “absurdity”33 to suppose “that a girl is naturally a coquette”34. Wollstonecraft believes that if society were to change the conditions governing what women can and cannot do, women would soon improve and perfect themselves, and future generations of women would have different traditions to follow and options to explore.[^]
Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, first published in 1928, over 130 years after the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, picks up on Wollstonecraft’s idea that, thinking back through their mothers, women have no conception of how to act any differently from the male-pleasing role always assigned to them by a prejudiced, patriarchal society.[^]
In her treatment of the subject, “women and fiction”35, Woolf employs a fictional ‘I’. “Here then was I (call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please – it is not a matter of any importance)”36, in order to consider: the development of women’s writing from its seventeenth-century inception with female authors such as Lady Winchilsea and Margaret of Newcastle, through the early-, mid-, and late-nineteenth century with Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot; the relative freedom enjoyed by her contemporaries (exemplified by the imaginary Mary Carmichael); and, finally, her belief that a female literary genius (represented symbolically in the imaginary form of Shakespeare’s sister) will be produced within the next hundred years, given adequate material conditions and a tradition laid down by Woolf herself and her contemporaries:
For my belief is that if we live another century or so – I am talking of the common life which is the real life and not of the little separate lives which we live as individuals – and have five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own; if we have the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think; […] if we face the fact, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. Drawing her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners, as her brother did before her, she will be born. […] But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.37
The fact that such a female would arrive centuries after Shakespeare wrote his works can be put down to the fact that women have only recently been able to write without meeting stiff opposition from the patriarchal society they have lived in, and – even in Woolf’s lifetime – continue to live in.[^]
The strong patriarchal opposition that women writers have had to overcome has pervaded, and degraded, their work. Woolf’s fictional ‘I’ discovers many things throughout the course of her research into the topic of ‘women and fiction’: Lady Winchilsea’s poetry is “bursting out in indignation against the position of women”38; the Duchess of Newcastle’s poetry contains “the same outburst of rage”39; Jane Austen “hid her manuscripts or covered them with a piece of blotting-paper”40; Charlotte Brontë’s work was marred by “that jerk in them, that indignation”41; and that only in Woolf’s society have the first fledgling steps along the path to equality and freedom in authorship been taken. This is represented by Woolf’s portrayal of the imaginary Mary Carmichael daring to write in Life’s Adventure that “Chloe liked Olivia”42, and the realization of Woolf’s fictional ‘I’ that “Chloe liked Olivia perhaps for the first time in literature.”43[^]
It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man’s figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me.44[^]
The imperious dominance of men in the academic realm is a theme that unites Wollstonecraft and Woolf. Woolf’s fictional ‘I’ continues on her path and attends an Oxbridge luncheon party provided for the male students, and relates the food served on this occasion:
Here, however, I shall take the liberty to defy that convention and to tell you that the lunch on this occasion began with soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After that came the partridges […] with all their retinue of sauces and salads, […] their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And then […] a confection which rose all sugar from the waves.45[^]
Dinner was ready. Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. […] Next came beef with its attendant greens and potatoes – […] sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge, and bargaining and cheapening, and women with string bags on Monday morning. […] Prunes and custard followed. […] Biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed round, […] these were biscuits to the core. That was all. The meal was over.46[^]
Through the continued narration of Woolf’s fictional ‘I’, Woolf elaborates on the reasons for the discrepancy between the standard of food, and, implicitly, the standard of teaching at male and female academic establishments. Woolf’s view that rich, successful men pump money exclusively into male establishments that proceed to flourish, whilst women have to pool their meagre finances in order to be able to fund a poor female equivalent, comes across in her fictional ‘I”s musings on the subject:
At the thought of all those women working year after year and finding it hard to get two thousand pounds together, and as much as they could do to get thirty thousand pounds, we burst out in scorn at the reprehensible poverty of our sex. […] If only Mrs Seton and her mother and her mother before her had learnt the great art of making money and had left their money, like their fathers and their grandfathers before them, to found fellowships and lectureships and prizes and scholarships appropriated to the use of their own sex, we might have dined very tolerably up here alone off a bird and a bottle of wine […]47[^]
Woolf concludes that five hundred pounds a year and a room of one’s own are the necessary material conditions for women to foster creative freedom and an attitude of indifference towards men that is necessary in order to leave their works untouched by hate:
In the final pages of A Room of One’s Own, Woolf makes ironic use of recent law changes to highlight the societal inequality that until recently has rendered women completely dependent upon men, and illuminate the fact that it has been these material conditions – rather than an inherent lack of genius – that have held women back:
But at the same time may I remind you that there have been at least two colleges in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago – she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now?49[^]
Susan Glaspell’s Trifles reflects and expands upon many of the themes introduced by Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Trifles tells the story of an investigation into the death-by-rope-strangulation of John Wright, with all the circumstantial evidence available to the sheriff, Henry Peters, and the county attorney, George Henderson, pointing to the fact that it was John’s wife, Minnie, who committed the murder. With the men looking for clues upstairs, the sheriff’s wife, Mrs. Peters, is involved in a conversation with the wife of a neighbouring farmer, Mrs. Hale. During the course of this conversation, Mrs. Peters declares “Mr. Henderson said coming out that what was needed for the case was a motive; something to show anger, or-sudden feeling.”50 A little later in the conversation, Mrs. Peters realises that Minnie Wright “was piecing a quilt”51, to which Mrs. Hale replies, “It’s log cabin pattern. Pretty, isn’t it? I wonder if she was goin’ to quilt it or just knot it?”52 Overhearing the end of this conversation as they descend the stairs, the sheriff and the county attorney mock the fact that the women are again debating such a trifling detail – similar to their earlier concern with the condition of Minnie’s jars of fruit – while the men are engaged in the important, masculine pursuit of substantial evidence with which to convict Minnie. It is with these very quilt pieces, however, that Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale conceal the piece of evidence that would frame Minnie Wright. They hide the dead canary – which, the audience is left to infer, John Wright killed – and thus hide the motive for Minnie’s killing of John.
Over the course of the play, Mrs. Hale relates the importance that Minnie would have attached to the bird:
“She- come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself- real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid and- fluttery. How-she-did-change.” […] “She liked the bird. She was going to bury it in that pretty box.” […] “No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird – a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that too.” […] “I wish you’d seen Minnie Foster when she wore a white dress with blue ribbons and stood up there in the choir and sang.”53
The audience is left to infer that when John killed the canary, he also killed the last bit of joy left in Minnie’s life, and the last thing that still linked her to her musical youth. As the play ends, the male investigation into the crime has not progressed at all, with Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale joining forces to protect their sex, hiding the truth they have discovered from their husbands.[^]
A theme which is abundantly apparent throughout this play is that of patriarchal power within society. The men in the play are the ones who work, with the women assigned the role of housewife, performing domestic chores around the house for the benefit of the men. As depicted in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, in this play women are supposed to merely be concerned with ‘trifles’. “The domestic trifles of the day have afforded matters for cheerful converse,”54 writes Mary Wollstonecraft, and this can be seen in the attention paid to the matters of fruit-keeping and quilt-making by the women in this play. Men are seen to uphold the law, and even be the law that women must obey, aptly demonstrated when George Henderson says to Mrs. Peters, “For that matter, a sheriff’s wife is married to the law. Ever think of it that way, Mrs. Peters?”55[^]
It can be argued that Susan Glaspell has been afflicted by the same ‘indignation’ that Virginia Woolf’s fictional ‘I’ found in Charlotte Brontë’s work – that both writers possess genius that will “never… get expressed whole and entire.”56 This argument rests upon allowing subtle significance to be attached to Glaspell’s choice of names for her characters. The neighbouring farmer, Lewis Hale, to be successful in his profession, would have to have sufficient strength to enable him to perform heavy lifting work on his farm. The dictionary definitions of ‘lewis’ and ‘hale’ are as follows:
Thus, by putting these two elements of his name together, one gets an idea of somebody who is ‘healthy’, ‘strong’, and able to perform heavy lifting. In a similar vein, Mrs. Hale is consistently portrayed as the stronger of the two women who converse with each other during the play, the one who voices definite opinions, whereas the force with which Mrs. Peters’ sentiments begin often dwindle to comparative nothingness, as demonstrated by the following conversation:
MRS. PETERS. [In a whisper.] When I was a girl–my kitten–there was a boy took a hatchet, and before my eyes–and before I could get there–[Covers her face an instant.] If they hadn’t held me back I would have–[Catches herself, looks upstairs where steps are heard, falters weakly]–hurt him.
MRS. HALE. […] No, Wright wouldn’t like the bird–a thing that sang. She used to sing. He killed that, too.
MRS. PETERS. [Moving uneasily] We don’t know who killed the bird.
MRS. HALE. I knew John Wright.59[^]
Henry Peters, the sheriff in Glaspell’s play, is involved in finding evidence that would provide a motive for Minnie Wright’s killing her husband, John. If it could be proved that Minnie did indeed murder her husband, she could be condemned to capital punishment. One form of capital punishment that would have been available for use by the authorities at the time of Trifle’s publication is the electric chair:[^]
The fact that the sheriff, Henry Peters, is involved in a failed investigation that could have led to Minnie Wright being sentenced to death by the electric chair is significant when the dictionary definitions of his name are considered:
Once again, Henry Peters’ name encapsulates his role in the play. The man with whom Lewis Hale stops off at John Wright’s house is called Harry. Harry is left in a state of disbelief by Minnie’s account of her husband’s death, and proceeds to ask her a series of questions that cannot be expected to improve the mental state of one who has recently lost her husband:
“Who did this, Mrs. Wright?” said Harry. He said it businesslike–and she stopped pleatin’ of her apron. “I don’t know,” she says. “You don’t know?” says Harry. “No,” says she. “Weren’t you sleepin’ in the bed with him?” says Harry. “Yes,” says she, “but I was on the inside.” “Somebody slipped a rope around his neck and strangled him and you didn’t wake up?” says Harry. […] Harry was going to ask her more questions […]64[^]
John Wright, the man who was murdered by his wife Minnie, appears to have made no struggle for life whatsoever. He was killed without even leaving a scratch on her face, or performing any other act that would have served as evidence with which to incriminate Minnie. Again, the dictionary definitions of ‘john’ and ‘wright’ provide further support for the argument that Susan Glaspell took great care in the selection of names for her characters:
As with the other women in the play, Minnie’s assigned role in life is that of a homemaker (or home-wright). Her musical skill ceases to flourish following her entrance into the patriarchal scheme of things – she can no longer ‘foster’ her talent [Minnie Foster, her maiden name], it is rendered insignificant, made small, ‘mini-wright’ [Minnie Wright, her married name]. The county attorney, George Henderson, is part of the patriarchal society that keeps women subjugated, and is therefore not especially in touch with his feminine side. Unlike the women in the play, during the course of his investigation into the death of John Wright, a member of the local rural community, he does not stumble upon the “piece of silk”68 with which Minnie has wrapped up the canary that John killed – his masculine pursuit of evidence leads him to overlook items of the feminine, domestic sphere. The name ‘George’ is phonetically similar to the masculine-sounding “georgic, georgical” and the more feminine-sounding “georgette”, two words which are key elements in his investigation:
Allowing the argument that Susan Glaspell has paid meticulous attention to the naming of her characters, it could be argued that she possessed the sort of literary genius that blessed Charlotte Brontë, but, like Brontë, was never allowed to fully flourish because of her preoccupation with the plight of women within patriarchal society.[^]
The message that the audience takes from Glaspell’s play is one of female solidarity, with Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters joining forces to prevent the empowered men in society (Lewis Hale, Henry Peters, and George Henderson) condemning one of their fellow women (Minnie Wright) to death.[^]
In conclusion, I believe that I have demonstrated that the theme of female subjugation within a male-dominated world is common to all three authors. I have examined the reasons behind – and the implications of – Mary Wollstonecraft’s assertion that “man, from the remotest antiquity, found it convenient to exert his strength to subjugate his companion, and his invention to show that she ought to have her neck bent under the yoke, because the whole creation was only created for his convenience or pleasure.”70 Through an examination of A Room of One’s Own, I have shown how Virginia Woolf pursues several of the themes established in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in order to make several important conclusions: that society has been owned by men; that there has not – until relatively recently – been a tradition of women writing for subsequent women to follow because of the societal barriers erected by men; and that only now are women finally being granted the material conditions necessary to enable creative literary production. Finally, in an analysis of Trifles, I have shown how it is arguable that Susan Glaspell’s genius produces a play that makes a powerful statement about the need for female solidarity in a sex-biased society.[^]
An essay seeking to further extend the arguments proposed in this paper could investigate women’s writing throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to examine to what extent the further emancipation of women writers that Woolf envisaged throughout the next century or so has occurred, and whether or not Shakespeare’s sister is any nearer to putting “on the body which she has so often laid down.”71[^]
1Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin Books, 2004, pp.1-2.
16Ibid, p.12. [my emphasis]
26Ibid [my emphasis].
27English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.401.
29Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin Books, 2004, pp.132-133.
35Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.3.
50Susan Glaspell. Trifles. 2004 [orig. published 1916]. Project Gutenberg e-text. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-8.txt [12 January 2007], unpaged.
54Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.18.
55Susan Glaspell. Trifles. 2004 [orig. published 1916]. Project Gutenberg e-text. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-8.txt [12 January 2007], unpaged.
56Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.81.
57English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.252.
59Susan Glaspell. Trifles. 2004 [orig. published 1916]. Project Gutenberg e-text. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-8.txt [12 January 2007], unpaged. [my emphasis]
60English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.319.
61Electric Chair. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_chair. [12 January 2007]
62English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.206.
64Susan Glaspell. Trifles. 2004 [orig. published 1916]. Project Gutenberg e-text. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-8.txt [12 January 2007], unpaged. [I have emboldened sections of this quote to highlight the relentlessly questioning nature of Harry]
65English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.202.
68Susan Glaspell. Trifles. 2004 [orig. published 1916]. Project Gutenberg e-text. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-8.txt [12 January 2007], unpaged.
69English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005, p.186.
70Mary Wollstonecraft. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.16.
71Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 2004, p.132.
The website links in the bibliography below redirect here, rather than directing to the relevant web pages. Web pages are frequently added to – and removed from – the web, and sharedsapience.info does not want to include links to missing web pages. The web addresses can be copy-and-pasted into a new tab if the reader wishes to check the source material.
Electric Chair. Wikipedia. 2007. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_chair. [12 January 2007]
English Dictionary. Scotland: Geddes & Grosset, 2005
Glaspell, Susan. Trifles. 2004 [orig. published 1916] Project Gutenberg e-text. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/10623/10623-8.txt [12 January 2007]
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. London: Penguin Books, 2004
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin Books, 2004