You play with dolls; you learn manners; you obey your parents; you never talk back. You marry; you give birth; you stay at home. Your husband goes out to work and you take care of the children. You are the submissive one; you are woman. Gender discrimination has been instilled in our minds and crept its way through the centuries. Despite all the changes and reformations that took place in the 20th century, one must admit that gender discrimination still exists in reality. From the very first Bible, to the newest released novel, gender discrimination is somehow illustrated.
Many authors, either consciously or subconsciously, reveal the idea of “gender inequality” and each sex’s designated roles through their works. By reading such literature, people are drawn into the chaos in the ambiance and ultimately reflect upon reality; how closely related they are. Likewise, Charlotte Bronte uses her novel Shirley to illuminate the issue of gender discrimination during the 1800’s, and portray how people at that time reacted to the social conflict. She points out the stereotypes that people have on women and elucidates how such women feel about these conformations.
Gender discrimination during Bronte’s time was undoubtedly more perceptible than in modern days. Nonetheless, the way Bronte so scrupulously depicts the issue reminds us of how the problem is still lingering on in this “ever-so-sophisticated” society. Through the novel Shirley, Charlotte Bronte introduces two contrasting characters – Shirley Keeldar and Caroline Helstone. Shirley is an independent and unconventional woman, determined to live life on her own terms. (Rapunzel). Caroline, on the other hand, is quieter and shyer, constrained by the demanding expectations of society.
The purpose of Bronte’s portrayal of this juxtaposition is to show how society’s prescribed “normality” can dramatically affect a woman’s life, and how, once broken through the constraint, a woman’s opportunities can become much wider. In the novel, Caroline falls in love with her cousin Robert Moore, a mill owner, who also loves her. However, his lust for power and money outweigh he love for Caroline. He proposes to Shirley Keeldar who has everything Robert wants – money, status, and power. Shirley, who is in love with Robert’s brother Louis, of course rejects him.
The four characters wrestle in a game of societal expectations and the only way to survive is to conform, or to rebel and accept contempt. Both women and men are labeled with certain identities based on their sex. Women should be the submissive ones; men should be the aggressive ones. In a relationship, for example, the male is expected to court the lady, while the lady is supposed to wait to be approached. In Bronte’s times, only men proposed to women. It was unthinkable for women to take the initiative. Looking at Caroline, we can see how this social restriction torments her.
She loves her cousin Robert, but because she is a female, she must remain submissive and all she can do is pray for him to return her love. Even in today’s society, there is still the idea that women should be submissive. Ms. Latoga, a middle-aged domestic worker, admits that she views girls who are assertive in relationships as “cheap”. She says, “It’s okay for boys to ask girls out, but not okay for girls to ask boys out. ” Sadly, Ms. Latoga is not one of the few who share this view; the majority of the population sees the male as the dominant sex and hence should take charge over the female, not excluding marriage.
This leads us to the idea of patriarchy. Men are accepted as the “head of the family”. Just the simple custom of passing on the male’s family name to the next generation shows how gender bias is evident in the home. In fact, in many cultures, patriarchy is the proper family structure. If the family hierarchy was organized otherwise, then it would be considered “wrong”. In Shirley, the male characters also view a husband’s position superior to that of a wife’s. Joe Scott, (Robert’s assistant) mentions that “… omen is to take their husbands’ opinion, both in politics and religion: it’s wholesomest for them. ”
A woman, therefore, is always substandard to men. Often gender discrimination is referred to the females being treated unjustly, the females being looked down upon. This is true because the “ideal” woman is inferior to men. In Shirley, there are countless situations where this kind of discrimination can be observed. For example, one of the male characters orders, “Cut it woman,” and the “woman” cut it accordingly.
From this seemingly minor phrase, we can infer how little respect men paid to women particularly in that era. He calls her “woman” as if she did not have a name, or that it did not matter anyway. Not only is there lack of respect, but the man is also ordering the woman to do things like she was his servant. This short episode can be magnified to symbolize the general relationship between the two sexes: the role of women is to serve men. The idea of females being inferior to males becomes more irritating when we notice how the advance in technology has only induced the bias.
Males are viewed as more “valuable” than women, and thus families would always hope for a son. With the invention of sex-selective abortion, many families are able to choose whether they have a son or daughter. It is estimated that 60 million women should be alive today are “missing” because people prefer the male gender over the female. (Bellany). As sons are viewed as more “valuable”, family businesses are usually passed on to the son rather than to the daughter. Shirley in the novel is a character out of the norm; she runs the family business.
However, this is only because the family had no other choice but to pass the business to her. The parents had wished for a son for eight years, but their wish never came true. Since Shirley was their only child, they treated her as a “boy”; they passed everything down to her. Also, there is the myth that a boy’s area equals political and economical, while a girl’s area equals familial and domestic. As a result of this presumption, Shirley becomes a very outstanding character in the novel. She is a girl, yet she is involved in both politics and economics.
She is above many men in position and in some situations, we can sense that the men feel irritated because they are suppressed by the wrong sex. Joe Scott, for example, does not believe women should be working out of the house, and the fact that he is working for a woman (Shirley) makes him aggravated. He thinks that women should not be involved in politics because they lack the intellect (Bronte 321). Furthermore, hard labor and learned professions only make women “masculine, coarse, unwomanly. ” (Bronte 235). Even in today’s politics, how often do we see a female politician making a speech?
The number becomes minimal when compared to the thousands and millions of male politicians fighting for authority. What is this idea of “real men” and women’s place”? Society draws a fine line between the two sexes and expects each sex to mind their own territory. Family, home, and private life is the province of women, everything else – the men’s. To be a “real man” takes on many definitions. It means that he is not the object of action; he strives for his goals. A real man never shows his emotions; he admits little concern for his partner’s wishes.
These are the stereotypes that do not match reality. Oftentimes, people are trapped by these unreasonable societal expectations because they measure their lives against such stereotypes and end up in failure. Those who are blinded by the myth also believe that the “perfect” woman stays at home. A “woman place” in Shirley is “shirt-making, gown-making and pie-crust making. ” Anything more active is considered “unladylike. ” (Bronte 122). Imagine having to live up to these strict restrictions; constantly trying to fit into the mold that society creates: that is what Bronte makes the reader do.
Hortense (Robert’s sister) scolds Caroline for being not “sufficiently girlish and submissive. ” (Bronte 118) What is a girl supposed to be? However, we cannot blame society for having this problem. We are both the creator and sufferer of this issue. Children are brought up to know that there is a distinct difference between a boy and girl, and that a boy should be like this, while a girl should be like that. In children’s fairy tales, is there ever a heroine who saves the vulnerable prince? As Campbell says, “men are socialized to be warriors and are portrayed as valiant while women are portrayed as weak and vulnerable. This idea that ‘men are strong and women are weak hence men are superior to women’ is illogical. Yet, at a very young age, this illogic is programmed into the little minds. Even teenagers as old as Caroline, are encouraged to do what women do, and be the “perfect lady”. (Bronte 122) When youngsters grow up as adults, they recognize this illogic and start to complain about “gender discrimination”. How ironic that we recognize gender discrimination is wrong, and at the same feeding the next generation with the same misperception.
We are the ones who created this social conflict. Undeniably, the issue of gender discrimination has certainly improved throughout the past centuries. With UN’s Declaration on Elimination of Discrimination against Women 1979, the sexes are now considered “equal” under the document. But who are we to kid? In today’s world, in the 21st century, gender discrimination still exists. Despite the tremendous changes in the community- economic growth, political transportation, and new means of communication and transportation – individual attitudes and behaviors have not changed.
Women are still being discriminated against. In some cultures, girls are denied access to education; both girls and women are subjected to abuse and violence; women in the workplace are denied opportunities. Gender discrimination, as we can infer from Bronte’s Shirley, may have changed form, but its essence never went away. The root of the problem, therefore, is unsolved. Unless the traditional roles and views are disposed of, we will never have gender equality. Now go back to your sewing. Don’t forget: you are a woman.