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.
According to Mr. ______ and probably most other men in the early 20th century, men are considered to be better than women and are supposed to have the “upper hand. ” 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).