Study Guide

In Cold Blood Women and Femininity

By Truman Capote

Women and Femininity

"I just love her to death. Well, everyone does. Do you know what Mrs. Stringer says?" said Jolene, naming her home economics teacher. "One day she told the class, 'Nancy Clutter is always in a hurry, but she always has time. And that's one definition of a lady.'" (1.78)

Is a lady supposed to drop everything to do what people ask of her? Nancy Clutter seems more than that. Interesting how Jolene's mother describes her as ladylike, when Nancy can keep up with anyone.

Yet to this day she regretted not having completed the course and received her diploma—"just to prove"—as she had told a friend, "that I once succeeded at something." Instead, she had met and married Herb […]. (1.87)

This was a pretty common path for women in the 1940s. You have to wonder though, if Bonnie's depression would have been less severe if she had the nursing career she was studying for.

Some years earlier, Mrs. Clutter had traveled to Wichita for two weeks of treatment and stayed two months. On the advice of a doctor, who had thought the experience would aid her to regain "a sense of adequacy and usefulness," she had taken a job as a file clerk at the Y.W.C.A. Her husband, entirely sympathetic, had encouraged the adventure, but she liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment's therapeutic value. (1.92)

Oh wait. We don't have to wonder. There's a lot to unpack in this small episode. Even though Herb was supportive (and we knew he would be, he's that secure), Bonnie had internalized the expectations of her society and her religion and felt that holding a job—and liking a job—was somehow inappropriate.

She lived alone with her mother, who taught music at the Holcomb School. (1.52)

Mrs. Kidwell, as a single parent, had to work to support herself and Sue—her husband had abandoned her when Sue was very young. So she doesn't have any gender-role conflicts to deal with because of the necessity of earning a living.

Nancy's bedroom was […] girlish, and as frothy as a ballerina's tutu. […] the white and pink bed was dominated by a pink-and-white teddy bear—a shooting gallery prize that Bobby had won at a county fair. (1.210)

Nancy Clutter's a girly girl, but she has a feisty streak as well. She's a champion pie-maker and flower-arranger, but she can also run the household and haul a heavy wagon. How do people explain her competence, energy and determination? "She's like her father." Now, we just heard this same behavior described as "being a lady." Isn't there some middle ground here? Or maybe people were just comparing her to her mother.

"I don't remember screaming, but Nancy Ewalt said I did—screamed and screamed. (1.219)

Now, we all might do the same thing on seeing our best friend shot to pieces. But it's also true that most of the emotional displays in the book are reactions by women. Mrs. Dewey has her emotional dream about Bonnie. Mrs. Hickock breaks down and has to be led from the courtroom. Not that the men are any less horrified or frightened, they just deal with it more quietly. The only exception? Perry. He cries in his jail cell. As we know, Perry doesn't feel very masculine.

"Lots of boys would like to be mail messenger, yessir. But I don't know how much they'd like it when the snow's high as old Mr. Primo Carnera, and the wind's blowing blue-hard, and those sacks came sailing—Ugh! Wham!" (1.233)

Sadie Pruitt is one of the few women in the book with a very non-traditional job. At seventy-five, she's tackling mail sacks as they fly off the trains speeding by. She's a widow, so maybe we can give her a break on that basis—she needs to work and took any job she could get.

She is a gaunt, trouser-wearing, woolen-shirted, cowboy-booted ginger-colored, gingerly-tempered woman of unrevealed age ("That's for me to know, and you to guess.") but promptly revealed opinions, most of which are announced in a voice of rooster-crow altitude and penetration. (1.234)

Myrtle's a pretty colorful character, too. She's Sadie Pruitt's daughter, and she's inherited her mother's lack of concern for what people think about her. They've lived in Holcomb since before it was called Holcomb and they'll do what they please. They're not that central to the story, but Capote includes them as a contrast to the more traditional women we've met up until this point.

Perry felt sorry for Inez. She was such a "stupid kid"—she really believed that Dick meant to marry her, and had no idea he was planning to leave Mexico that afternoon. (2.21)

All bets are off when it comes to the lowest rungs of society. Survival trumps anything. The women in Dick and Perry's life do what they have to do to get by—and this often includes sex. It's interesting that the only women who we see having a sex life are lower-class women. Did only Dick and Perry offer this info? Did Capote not think it was OK to ask anyone else? Bonnie and Herb's sexual problems are hinted at but not explored.

Their normal life was like this; both worked, Mrs. Dewey as an office secretary, and they divided between them the household chores, taking turns at the stove and the sink. (2.92)

A modern arrangement—Mrs. Dewey is employed outside the home. Not that the life of a farmer's wife was easy, even if she didn't have a formal job outside the family.