Research Paper: Role of Woman in Society

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¶ … Role of Women in Society

The role women should hold in society is a topic that is debated with increasing vigor as time progresses. There was a time when women did not question their roles. Women occupied their place in daily activities without question. Women were the keepers of the home, the wives of their husbands, and the mothers of their children. While women still hold those roles, the patriarchal paradigm has undergone some change. Now, women do not always limit themselves exclusively to household duties. Now, women are an active force in business and the government, as well as in the home. However, despite the fact that women have demonstrated their great value in all levels of society, there are those who continue to believe that women are most useful when they are directly beneficial to the men who are near them.

The gradual but drastic change in the perceived role of women in society is largely due to the ways in which women have been historically mistreated. Women have been abused, neglected, and generally marginalized in society. One way in which this is clear is in literature, particularly in the English Romantic period. There are many texts that, until recently, have not even been considered part of the Romantic canon on the basis of their having been written by women. Dorothy Wordsworth is a prime example of a woman upon whom this injustice has been exacted. Erinc Ozdemir claims that the traditional attitude toward Dorothy Wordsworth's work treats it "merely as a textual-biographical source illuminating William Wordsworth's life and work." Upon considering the merits of Dorothy Wordsworth's life and work as they relate to the values espoused during the Romantic era, one must recognize her value as a poet. "According to the Romantic idea, what defines the poet are mental powers, psychic endowments. Literary production is secondary… by this way of thinking, Dorothy Wordsworth was one of the great poets of the age" (Perkins 479).

It is somewhat ironic that the poetry of William Wordsworth helped to institute what Julie Shaffer terms "the focus on the self as the seat of creative powers" given that he relied heavily on his sister for both inspiration and material for poems. By her own admission, Dorothy Wordsworth kept journals "in order to provide William with material for poetry" (Perkins 479). Yet it is William's work that not only supposedly relies on the self as creative genius, but also categorizes women as being unfit for intellectual pursuits. In fact, William Wordsworth wrote in such a way that he eliminated females from his poetic equation. The chasm between the subject (the poet) and the object (nature) could not be resolved as long as the object was gendered as a female, as it typically was. So, in addition to the cultural restriction typically placed on women in pursuing intellectual endeavors, poets like William Wordsworth further marginalized them by not even allowing them to be part of the primary subjects of poems. As Anne Mellor states, "the female figures in [William] Wordsworth's early poems exist only as embodiments of an undifferentiated life cycle that moves inexorably from birth to death. They do not exist as independent, self-conscious human beings with minds as capable as the poet's."

This marginalization has helped give rise to the concept of "Gendered Romanticism," which is the concept that males sought different goals in their writing than women did. This is evident in the terms typically used to describe what each gender holds, or should hold, dear. Masculine empowerment is described with the term "the sublime," while feminine nurture, love, and sensuous relaxation is described with the term "the beautiful." Some women writers of the Romantic period turned the concept of the sublime on its head in Gothic literature in which men were in physical control, as the concept of the sublime suggests, but they used their physical control for works of evil, such as sadistic torture or even incest. Other women used the term "sublime" to describe natural scenes near their homes, areas containing blissful childhood memories. To these women, "nature is a female friend, a sister, with whom they share the most intimate experiences and with whom they cooperate in the daily business of life, to the mutual advantage of each" (Mellor).

Recently, however, women have been attributed their own sublime, a "feminine" or "domestic sublime," as Pipkin puts it, "to celebrate their unbroken, archetypal bond with the natural world, a bond that their male contemporaries have lost." In essence, women could not be a part of the "masculine" sublime because it represents the male desire and attempt to control everything around it, including the natural world. The male feels threatened by the natural world because he in fact cannot control it. The "feminine" sublime represents the woman's attempt and ability to co-exist with the natural world in what Carol Gilligan and Nancy Chodorow call an "unbroken continuum that connects them" (Pipkin).

The concept of the feminine sublime lives on in John Steinbeck's novel, the Grapes of Wrath. In this novel, Steinbeck depicts women in a supporting role, a role that seeks to maintain the previously described unbroken continuum. He introduces this concept very early in the novel: "The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first" (Steinbeck, 10). By describing housework as "their" work, Steinbeck reinforces the idea that women hold a supportive role in this society. The role that women play in the novel begins at the top of the Joad family with the family's matriarch, Granma Joad. Granma's interaction with her husband is marked by nearly constant bickering and fighting, yet it is clear in their conversations that Granma is dependent on Grampa. Granma is a pious Christian woman who enjoys hurling damning epithets in her husband's direction. Yet after Grampa dies, Granma's health fails her very quickly. She dies shortly after her family reaches California. Granma's dedication to her familial duties is perhaps best demonstrated in the actions of her daughter-in-law, Ma Joad (Steinbeck).

Ma Joad is a woman who operates as the emotional strength of her family, a character trait that was likely passed down to her from her husband's mother. One can imagine Ma watching Granma when both women were younger. Ma can be seen internalizing the way in which Granma took care of her family and deciding to be the same kind of mother that Granma was. Ma is especially effective in stepping up to take on the role of her husband when he is unable to do his duty. Ma's strength develops as Pa's effectiveness as the leader and provider of his family deteriorates over the course of the novel. In chapter 13, Steinbeck says that Ma Joad, "walked for the family and held her head straight for the family" (169).

One of the best examples of Ma's strength in this regard is demonstrated when the family is crossing the California desert after Granma has passed. In this instance, she again does what is necessary for the good of her family. Ma sits next to Granma's corpse in silence, which enables the family to focus on successfully completing the treacherous journey (Steinbeck).

Ma does for her daughter what Granma did for Ma by wordlessly demonstrating the way in which a wife and mother should prioritize her family. Ma's philosophy of selfless sacrifice has never more clearly penetrated her daughter Rose of Sharon than when the latter gives that which was intended for her own seed to sustain the life of a stranger. In Chapter 30 of the novel, the Joad family comes across a man who is starving to death because he has given all of the food he has encountered to his son. The man has essentially decided… [END OF PREVIEW]

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