Study Guide

A Northern Light Women and Femininity

By Jennifer Donnelly

Women and Femininity

Okay, let's contextualize A Northern Light: It takes place in 1906, which is the middle of a turbulent time for women's rights and gender roles. (If this isn't ringing any bells for you, click right here—as always, we've got your back.) What this means, is that Mattie is coming of age in a time when there is a whole lot of disagreement about what, exactly, women are supposed to do in society. In general, though, her ambitions run counter to the socially held idea for ladies. This, of course, means plenty of people take it upon themselves to let her know just how absurd her life goals are.

Mattie isn't the only one carrying the female flag in this book, though, and as we see Miss Wilcox, Minnie, Emmie Hubbard, and others of the feminine persuasion go about their lives, the picture of what it means to be a woman in 1906 becomes richer, clearer, and arguably, no less depressing. Yay.

Questions About Women and Femininity

  1. Which character from A Northern Light most adheres to traditional and convention forms of womanhood in the early twentieth century? Which character most departs from this gender role? What makes you say this?
  2. In what ways do Miss Wilcox, Ellen Gokey, Emmie Hubbard, and Weaver's mamma defy gender expectations?
  3. In what ways is it possible for women in the rural community of Eagle Bay to both achieve their desires and conform to the social definition of womanhood and motherhood?
  4. How do the characters in A Northern Light hide the power they have because of their womanhood? Why might they feel the need to do this?

Chew on This

Mattie doesn't believe that she can be a mother and a writer at the same time, but she is limiting herself and buying into society's low expectations for women by thinking this.

Sexism is the single biggest barrier to Mattie's success in this book.

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