Study Guide

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Gender

By Betty Smith

Gender

Carney liked girls better than boys. He would give a girl an extra penny if she did not shrink when he pinched her cheek. (1.15)

Would a person who honestly liked you give you money in exchange for pinching you? Seems a strange kind of like, right?

Neeley was ten, a year younger than Francie. But he was the boy; he handled the money. (1.20)

This quote is a reflection of the rigid gender roles of the early 1900s. Can you think of any gender roles that still exist?

The bride’s voice would be soft and pleading, his, rough and demanding. Then there would be a short silence. Then he would start snoring and the wife would cry piteously until nearly morning. (6.61)

Due to the way the airshaft is constructed, sound from all the apartments travels. Unfortunately, this exposes Francie to the horrifying sounds of a husband raping his wife on a regular basis. Francie tries to avoid hearing her cries by sleeping in the front room whenever possible.

She wept when they gave birth to daughters, knowing that to be born a woman meant a life of humble hardship. (7.46)

Grandma knows that life is harder on women.

They went to City Hall, where Sissy swore that she was eighteen, and were married by one of the clerks. The neighbors were shocked but Mary knew that marriage was the best thing that could happen to her highly sexed daughter. (7.50)

Why does Mary think this is the next best thing for her daughter? What was she afraid would happen if she didn’t get married?

That was Joanna’s crime, decided Francie—not that she had been bad, but that she had not been smart enough to get the boy to the church. (30.46)

Francie speculates that the women don’t hate Joanna because she has sex before marriage, but that instead it might be because Joanna didn't “pay the price” for it by getting married when she’s caught. If they had to get married, why doesn’t she have to get married, too?

Carney did not pinch my cheek today. He pinched something else. I guess I’m getting too big to sell junk. (32.16)

“Oh well, I guess I can’t sell junk anymore without getting my booty pinched.” That’s how deeply ingrained sexism was in the early 1900s. What do you think Francie's reaction would be if she lived in modern times? How much progress do you think we've made?

“Well, tell us why girls are different from boys.”

Mama thought a while. “The main difference is that a little girl sits down when she goes to the bathroom and a little boys stands up.”

“But Mama,” said Francie. “I stand up when I’m afraid in that dark toilet.

“And I,” confessed Neeley, “sit down when…”

Mama interrupted. “Well, there’s a little bit of man in every woman and a little bit of woman in every man.”

That ended the discussion because it was so puzzling to the children that they decided to go no further with it (33.12-17)

Mama’s puzzling response to the kids is an interesting thought. Is gender really more of a spectrum? Are we just blends of gender expectations for both men and women? Mama’s thought seems very ahead of its time, in a way.

“But I can still feel where it touched.” She moaned and cried out insanely, “I want my leg cut off.” (33.74)

When Francie is attacked she feels completely violated and disgusted. She can still feel where the man’s penis touched her leg, and she wants it gone, even if that means injuring herself further.

“So a man pinched you on the El,” she said. “I wouldn’t let that bother me. It means you’re getting a good shape and there are some men who can’t resist a woman’s shape. Say! I must be getting old! It’s been years since anybody pinched me on the El. There was a time when I couldn’t ride in a crowd without coming home black and blue,” she said proudly.” (44.51)

Sissy sees it as an honor that a man would think she was good looking enough to pinch, and buys in whole heartedly to the belief that some men just can't help themselves around women. It’s a twisted way of blaming the victim, in addition to not thinking very highly of men (puppies can't help themselves, not grown men).