Gender Roles in The Color Purple Essay Sample
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Alice Walker in her novel The Color Purple illustrates a parallel between the gender roles of women in the early 20th century and Black slavery through the life of Celie and her interactions with Albert, as well as with Nettie’s experiences in Africa with the Olinka tribe. Similarities reign with this book and slavery in two instances: one, Celie and some of the other women’s slave-like labor that Albert and other men force them to do and two, the treatment of the women in the Olinka tribe. Celie constantly has to obey Albert, who she refers to as Mr. ______ for most of the novel, performing many of the jobs assigned to women during the time period as well as labor in the field. Her role in society directly correlates with the gender roles of the women of America and the Olinka tribe causing a conclusion to be made that many women were most always subordinate to men until the Women’s Rights Movement.
In the early 20th century, female subordination and gender roles existed all across America. These ideals presented themselves both in the South and the North although they slightly differed between the two. Women in the South served as companions and hostesses for their husbands and mothers for their children. Their lives were generally centered around the home. Southern women on wealthy plantations became ornaments for their husbands often called “plantation mistresses” (Brinkley 379). George Fitzhugh, a Southern social theorist, says about Southern women, “Women, like children, have but one right, and that is the right to protection. The right to protection involves the obligation to obey.” (Brinkley 379). Fitzhugh states that because women are entitled to protection and all the benefits of the women’s “sphere,” they therefore, are not entitled to govern themselves and are required to obey the husband’s commands. The husband’s protection authorizes him to control the actions and the entire life of his wife.
Nearly a quarter of all white Southern women over 20 years old were illiterate and had little if any experience with schooling. If a Southern woman attended the little schooling that was available to her, she was generally limited to training designed to make her a more suitable wife (Brinkley 379-380). Many Southern women were left with virtually no chance of succeeding outside of their designated role as the husband’s maid. In addition, women who lived on the farm normally had little contact with people outside their families; and therefore, were limited to jobs centered on the farm such as spinning, weaving, agricultural tasks, and in the time of slavery, supervising slaves (Brinkley 379). Southern women were confined to their set gender roles in a society that was dominated by males.
Many of the Northern women lived by the same ideals as Southern women; however, their circumstances were often different than those of the South. Women in the North generally did not live on farms and if they did, it was only in a very rare case. This was cause for a difference with the roles that Northern women played in the home. Since they did not perform the same tasks as on the farm, their jobs were more domestic and occurred in a more urban society. Women were defined in their sphere as custodians of morality and benevolence; the home that women were confined to was simply a refuge from the harsh and competitive world (Brinkley 358). Like Southern women, Northern women were also responsible for child rearing.
They were required to provide moral and religious instruction to their children in order to counterbalance the acquisitive, secular impulses of their husbands (Brinkley 358). As a result, this was one cause for jobs outside the home although they were still few. Women began to congregate towards occupations such as teachers and nurses because they coincided with the standards of the female’s “sphere” making use of a women’s virtues (Brinkley 358). Many of the lower-class women also became servants for middle class homes to meet the needs of widowed women’s unemployment (Brinkley 359). However different the North and the South were, they showed striking similarities in the way women were treated. Male dominance resided over both societies as well as the virtues of females and their requirements to work at the home. Virtually everywhere, women were limited to the few opportunities that were available to them.
Many of the characters in The Color Purple act as the stereotype of women during this time period. The most obvious of these characters is Celie mainly with her relationship with Albert. In the novel, Celie says, “Mr. _____ marry me to take care of his children. I marry him cause my daddy made me. I don’t love Mr. _____ and he don’t love me.” (66). Celie plays the role of a child-raising wife for her husband, one of the main female gender roles of the early 20th century. Like many of the women all across the country, her main job is to serve the needs of her husband.
Once more in the book, Celie tells Harpo, Albert’s son, to aid her with yard work. Harpo responds harshly, “Women work. I’m a man.” (22). Walker uses Harpo to tell the reader that the general idea for women is to work. The reader can infer that the majority of the people in this time period think of women as workers in the home. Later, Mr. ______ asks Harpo if he has ever hit his wife, Sofia. Harpo says that he has not and Mr. ______ responds, “Well how you spect to make her mind? Wives is like children. You have to let ’em know who got the upper hand. Nothing can do that better than a good sound beating.” (37). According to Celie’s husband, wives are supposed to serve however they are needed and if they do not, they are due harsh treatment. Acc
ording to Mr. ______ and probably most other men in the early 20th century, men are considered to be
The women of Africa and the Olinka tribe had very similar roles to women of the same time period in America however different or extreme they seemed to be. Miss Beasley, one of Nettie’s teachers, describes Africa as “a place overrun with savages who didn’t wear clothes.” (137). She portrays Africa as a dirty place, foreshadowing a place where subordination would exist. This statement is somewhat true to the clothes that women in the Olinka tribe wear. Nettie, while on her mission trip to Africa and the Olinka tribe, comments on the clothes worn by the Olinka women, “then I took a look at the dresses they were wearing. Most looked like they’d been drug across the yard by pigs.” (157). From this information, it is possible to infer that women in this African tribe were not cared for as well as possibly others relating to the way women were treated in America.
Olinka women also had separate jobs than men. “The men might hunt up to ten miles around the village, but the women stayed close to their huts and fields.” (157). Women in the Olinka tribe, were required to stay close to the standards of women in their society and not venture out in to the open. They were limited to the work defined to women by their customs, much like the women in America also. Many of the young girls in the tribe were required to receive the standard tribal markings, particularly scarring and cutting tribal marks on one’s face. Women also went through a female initiation ceremony to induct them into the women’s separate society (245). The standards for women in the Olinka tribe were rather different than the standards of the men. Nettie also writes in one of her letters later on in the novel:
The Olinka do not believe girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why she thought this she said: “A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.” “What can she become?” I asked. “Why,” she said, “the mother of his children.” (162)
Much like many women in the United States in the early 20th century, women in the Olinka tribe were uneducated. Many were illiterate. These African women, like American women were dominated by the male presence in their tribe. They were limited to the set roles they were required to play, consisting mainly of serving the husband and mothering his children.
Slavery, before it became abolished, had many similarities between itself and women’s oppression, particularly in The Color Purple. In the South during slavery, the law prohibited slaves to hold property, leave their masters’ premises without permission, to be out after dark, to congregate with other slaves except when going to church, to carry firearms, or to strike a white person even in self-defense (Brinkley 382). Many husbands controlled their wives in this way as well. They forced women to serve them and had the ability to harshly punish if they did not obey. These slave codes in the South also forbade whites from teaching slaves to read and write as well as to testify against whites in court (Brinkley 382). Women all throughout the country were not able to read and write, nor were the women in Africa as well. Education was generally reserved for the men, leaving women illiterate just as the slaves were illiterate. Masters who enforced the slave codes could decide whether or not they wanted to rule by them as well.
This created an atmosphere where slave treatment and punishment came in wide varieties (Brinkley 382). This atmosphere left the door open for harsh beatings and sometimes even killings that were not considered illegal. Many times in The Color Purple, Albert beats Celie when she will not do what he wants or even if she does nothing at all. Harpo also tries to beat Sophie as his father, Albert, instilled the practice of violent command in him when he was just boy. On the contrary, masters could also be lenient with the slave code enforcement. Slaves were sometimes able to acquire property, learn to read and write, and assemble with other slaves (Brinkley 382). Although this was the extreme, women were also able to escape the limitations posed by some men. Nettie became a very educated woman and Sophia refused to be beaten or take orders from Harpo, her husband, therefore defying the natural way of life for women at the time.
Slaves also existed in a paternalistic relationship with their masters much like the relationship between women and their husbands. Slaves also lived in nuclear families as well, the type of family with the father as the head or the leader (Brinkley 394). Like slavery, the father was the head of the family in the women’s case as well. House servants were generally closer to the master. This closeness with the family invited more punshments and closer relationships to develop than slaves that labored in the fields. These domestic servants performed jobs such as nursemaids, housemaids, cooks, butlers, and coachmen (Brinkley 386). Slaves that worked in close proximity of the master were more opportune to the master’s keen eye and the mistakes that they made were more easily discovered.
The wives of controlling husbands were much like these slaves that were house servants in the fact that they worked closer to their husband and as a result, their mistakes were more easily spotted. Normally, slaves lived in cramped cabins, called slave quarters, usually clustered together in a complex near the master’s house. Their diets consisted of cornmeal, salt pork, molasses and rarely fresh meat or poultry. Many times, masters gave slaves their own gardens to make their own food (Brinkley 383, 386). However, some slaves did eat well. Lucinda Davis, a slave of a Creek Indian, remembers eating green corn, pork, deer meat, wild turkey, fish, and lots of other green vegetables that she grew on their farm (Rawick 56). Ordinarily, slaves did not eat well and lived in poor conditions most of the time. They were limited by their opportunities much like women.
The times were much tougher for enslaved black women than men. Enslaved women usually labored in the field with the men and also performed the roles designated for women such as cooking, cleaning, and child rearing. Women many times also acted as single parents supporting yet more burdens because of the separation of slave families (Brinkley 386). Celie did almost everyone of these activities in The Color Purple. Although she was not a single mother, she labored in the field while most of the time Albert watched. She also cooked, cleaned, and raised children. Enslaved women also suffered more burdens.
They were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse from their masters and on many different occasions were forced into sexual relationships and even raped (Brinkley 387). These women often had children at very early ages as a result. They could become pregnant at even the ages of fourteen and fifteen and on top of this, premarital pregnancy was not condemned in black society (Brinkley 394). Pa, Celie’s step-father, rapes Celie in the first few pages of the book when she is only fourteen and again about a year later giving her two children at very early ages just as the enslaved women were sexually treated. Her husband, Albert, also rapes Celie because she never wants a sexual relationship with him but is forced into it. Women did not have the power to stop a man from sexual assault physically nor with help from the society.
The gender roles played by Celie, the women in the Olinka tribe, and women all throughout America act as a parallel with Slavery. These roles coincide with the treatment of slaves and even seem to have developed as a result of slavery. In some cases, women’s oppression seems to be a milder view of slavery; in others, it seems just as bad. Many women, such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton supported both the Women’s Rights Movement and the Abolitionists’ Movement because they reasoned that by pointing out the similarities between the two hardships, they could enhance their position by helping the black’s position.
In The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Celie’s dominating husband, compared to the dominating white master in a slave’s case, treats Celie like a slave. Celie does what Albert, her husband, tells her to do, she is often beaten, and is also raped. This treatment very closely resembles that of slaves. Women in Africa perform the same tasks and are set apart as hostesses for their husbands, to work and raise their children. This also resembles slavery. These two great instances of subordination in our world show many similarities within each other; however, it was many more years later that women gained their deserved rights as equals from the time slavery was abolished.
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