While we are more familiar with women’s suffrage, the writings of women like Virginia Woolf, and the continual progression of feminism in the mid to late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, feminism’s prominence has historical beginnings in the late eighteenth century. Women, such as Mary Wollstonecraft writing A Vindication for the Rights of Woman, found issue with the way society viewed and treated women. It wouldn’t take much effort to find comments made by men from Aristotle to Darwin that make women out to be lesser beings, and even women internalized these views and expectations to the extent that they prescribed them to themselves and others of their sex. If a woman showed a lack of defiance of the “natural and inherent” femininity of unintelligent, obedient wives, and devoted, non-working mothers, they were criticized and degraded by both men and women.
It is the propagated notion that women are inferior creatures with inferior minds that I believe leads Scarlett O’Hara, the heroine of Gone with the Wind, to defy the social prescriptions of femininity and attempt to assume a role equal to men using the only tools that women had, e.g., marriage and manipulation.
Scarlett O’Hara, a Feminist?
Manipulation is used by persons who hold a role that has little to no power. In a historically patriarchal society, women occupy this role. In the beginning of the novel, Scarlett adheres very closely to the expectations of her society. She is taught by her mother, who was taught by her mother, how to manipulate and hook a man for marriage, as well as how to fit into society’s prescribed role for women. After the Civil War, when Scarlet is forced into the role of provider for her family, she begins to see more clearly the inanity of women having to pretend that they are ignorant, foolish creatures without a thought in their heads. This expectation of women, held by men, works in her favor, however, as she uses the only tool at her disposal to get anywhere in society, and that is by marriage. She uses manipulation and coquetry to convince men that she is the picture of femininity in order to get herself, and later her family, into some level of social standing. After marriage, she denies her prescribed role and becomes a business woman even though society castigates her for it. Although not a feminist in the sense that she openly states that women should have rights and an equal standing with men, her defiance of society’s prescriptions of femininity make her a feminist in my mind.
If you haven’t read Gone with the Wind, it is a classic novel that can be read at many different levels, from a romance to one of social commentary. With that kind of possibility, it is a chimera of interpretations that makes you want to turn each page to see how the story, and your interpretation, will turn out.