Age: 13, Grade: 8
Home School, New York, NY
Educator: Ashley Amend-Thomas
Category: Critical Essay
Who Are Women: An Analysis of Feminism in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
Throughout the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee utilizes the female characters of Maycomb to acknowledge the gender inequalities of the era. When the book was first published in 1960, public opinion of women was still relatively hostile, and Lee hoped to engage readers by trying to point out the inequalities of the time period. The diversity seen in the twenty-first century, however, allows for a new perspective as readers are able to acknowledge the relevance of these women to the modern day. Each woman, or man in Atticus’ case, teaches Scout important lessons about gender stereotypes of the South, and efficiently describe how during the thirties, and to some point the sixties, women were being ‘groomed’ from a young age to adhere to the strict social structure of life in the South. This structure is seen by the majority of the novel’s characters to be a key aspect of life in Maycomb, yet the opinion on this social construct differs between characters.
The constant pressure put upon young girls of the era to conform to the standards passed down to them becomes particularly visible within Lee’s portrayal of the women from Maycomb’s Methodist Church. Their pettiness, shown excessively at the tea party in chapter 24, lead them to comment rudely on Scout’s clothing and her lack of social, specifically feminine, grace. Instead of discussing matters of church, the women gossip of the various going-ons in Maycomb, mostly focusing on the trial of Tom Robinison. Miss Stephanie, however, does slip in a comment about Scout’s apparent boyishness on page 308, stating, “Well you won’t get very far until you start wearing dresses more often.” The unbecoming nature of these women would be abhorred by others in the common era, yet at the time it was the almost inherent nature of elitist Southern society to act as such. Women were expected to behave and dress based upon how either men or higher society expected them to, and Lee uses the women from the church to acknowledge the now unacceptable precedents their society held. Scout’s anxiety about the ordeal also conveys the fact that such precedents were emotionally taxing to maintain, and Harper Lee conveys the unfair nature of these beliefs at the time through the intensely gendered standards Scout felt herself unable to uphold.
Although taught these standards early on, throughout the novel Scout herself redefines what standards are and in turn create a character that held much relevance to the 1960’s. She often defies the standards she is given. She is remarkably insightful, boyish, and adventurous: all qualities that, in the 1930’s were seen as the exact opposite of what the proper girl should be. Not all characters throughout the book, however, force her to act this way. Atticus, for example, seems to show no care of whether she wears a dress or pants, and is supportive of Scout’s thirst for knowledge, believing that it will eventually serve her well in life. Harper Lee draws parallels from the 1930’s, when the book is placed, and the 1960’s when it was published. In the 60’s, the view of women in the workforce was only just shifting, and much of America still believed that women belonged at home and caring for their family. Aunt Alexandra, a person who eventually becomes somewhat close to Scout, treats her in almost the exact opposite ways Atticus does. She takes her on excursions that are meant to force her into the more feminine ways of life in Maycomb. She repeatedly dictates to Scout the conventions of the Southern female hierarchy, putting an intense amount of pressure upon the child. Although this pressure is intense, Scout remains, for the most part, immune to the jabs at her character. By building her as such a resilient youth, Lee creates a symbol women and girls in the 1960’s could relate to and use as inspiration for their fight against white male power.
Although many figures in the novel shape Scout overall to be a stronger and more independent young woman, Mayella Ewell’s testimony is not something that she, at her age, can entirely comprehend. The circumstances under which Mayella had to testify remain incredibly poignant and bitter issues in the modern age, and still resonate with millions of abused women around the world. Mayella’s character, written as timid, weak, and abused, confused Scout during the trial to the point at which she is almost looked down upon by the young narrator. Lee seems to use Scout’s confusion as a way to draw parallels to the way abused women were viewed when she herself was writing a novel, and in a sense almost looks ahead at what the future could look like for them. Mayella, as a character, is almost entirely closed off and, in a saddening way, hopeless. Her blatant lies are continuously ignored by the court, pointing to how the abuse of women is something that, according to the beliefs at the time, had to be hidden away and ignored in an ‘out of sight out of mind’ way. Although in modern day victims of such heinous acts are increasingly speaking out against their abusers, Mayella’s lies, shown particularly in chapter 13 when she states, “No, I don’t recollect if he hit me. I mean yes I do, he hit me.” point to the psychological damages that result from coming forward.
Even today, women who feel such abuse are rarely believed as men are able to use their underlying power to silence them. Many women who come forward are often shunned publicly, and Scout’s disapproval of Mayella’s demeanor demonstrate how women ‘like her’ are viewed as inherently bad or dirty. The repercussions of doing this now are considerably less than they were in the 1930’s or when Lee was writing the novel, yet there are undeniable parallels that can be drawn from this era to the time of the novel’s publication. Scout’s inability to understand the issues faced by Mayella demonstrate the sheer lack of understanding and, as a result, compassion, shown by the public to the victims of violence. Lee uses this to shed light on the hidden voices of abused people, but still notes at the end of the trial the horrible reputation put upon Mayella as a result of the trial. Even today as acts such as the #MeToo movement are continuously growing, Lee’s portrayal of Mayella remain important representations how America as a whole can and should better its behaviour towards women who have experienced trauma.
Throughout Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, readers are exposed to the underlying sexism commonly experienced by women during this time period. She uses a variety of characters throughout the novel to convey the different expectations placed upon women of the 1930’s, and ties them to the struggles faced when she was writing. Although even in the 1960’s the behavior of the women of the Methodist Church was looked down upon, women were still finding their footing in an industrial world previously ruled almost entirely by men. Over time, Lee’s work has retained its importance and continues to emphasize the lasting and painful effects of a society founded upon gendered standards. While written for a 1960’s era audience, Lee’s portrayal of feminism and the power America’s society once had over women still remains relevant to gender today, conveying her view of how gender roles will evolve in the future.