Study Guide

To Kill a Mockingbird Women and Femininity

By Harper Lee

Women and Femininity

Chapter 4
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

I was not so sure, but Jem told me I was being a girl, that girls always imagined things, that's why other people hated them so, and if I started behaving like one I could just go off and find some to play with. (4.119)

Coming down firmly on the "nurture" side of the gender debate, Scout believes from an early age that girl things are bad (and probably have cooties) and boy things are good, and that she can avoid the badness of girls by not acting one. Being a girl for Scout is less a matter of what she's born with and more a matter of what she does.

Chapter 6
Jeremy Atticus Finch (Jem)

"Scout, I'm tellin' you for the last time, shut your trap or go home—I declare to the Lord you're gettin' more like a girl every day!" With that, I had no option but to join them. (6.24)

Boys rule, girls drool, and Scout will do anything to keep from being called a girl. But what's the problem here? That she's raising some pretty logical objections to Jem's reckless behavior?

Chapter 11
Atticus Finch

"Don't pay any attention to her, just hold your head high and be a gentleman." (11.23)

Being a gentleman seems to signify honor in a way being a lady doesn't, at least for Jem. How do ladies show their honor? Is it something they do—or something they don't do?

Chapter 12
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

[Calpurnia] seemed glad to see me when I appeared in the kitchen, and by watching her I began to think there was some skill involved in being a girl. (12.8)

Until now, being a girl has been what happens when Scout fails to live up to Jem's standards of what a person should be. Watching Calpurnia, Scout realizes that being a girl actually involves having positive traits instead of lacking them.

Chapter 14
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me, and for the second time in my life I thought of running away. Immediately. (14.24)

Those dresses may look pretty, but Scout thinks they'd just hold her in. (Fine—but do you have to wear overalls?)

Chapter 15
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

I walked home with Dill and returned in time to overhear Atticus saying to Aunty, "...in favor of Southern womanhood as much as anybody, but not for preserving polite fiction at the expense of human life," a pronouncement that made me suspect they had been fussing again. (15.39)

By calling Southern womanhood a "polite fiction," Atticus asserts that it's not real—it's just an idea that people at least pretend to believe in to make life run smoother. And what makes for a particularly Southern womanhood? How is being a woman in the south different from being a woman in the north? Are there any "fictions" about being a woman that we still believe?

Chapter 23
Atticus Finch

"For one thing, Miss Maudie can't serve on a jury because she's a woman-"

"You mean women in Alabama can't-?" I was indignant.

"I do. I guess it's to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom's. Besides," Atticus grinned, "I doubt if we'd ever get a complete case tried—the ladies'd be interrupting to ask questions."

Jem and I laughed. Miss Maudie on a jury would be impressive. I thought of old Mrs. Dubose in her wheelchair—"Stop that rapping, John Taylor, I want to ask this man something." Perhaps our forefathers were wise. (23.43-46)

The "polite fiction" of the South is that women are delicate and need to be protected. Maybe the men are really just afraid that women would use power in a way that men wouldn't like.

Chapter 24
Jean Louise Finch (Scout)

Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled. She looked at a tray of cookies on the table and nodded at them. I carefully picked up the tray and watched myself walk to Mrs. Merriweather. With my best company manners, I asked her if she would have some. After all, if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I. (24.93)

Hm, maybe being a lady isn't so bad after all. On the one hand, acting like everything is fine while Tom has just died may seem hypocritical. On the other, mad props to Aunt Alexandra for keeping private family business private.

Ladies in bunches always filled me with vague apprehension and a firm desire to be elsewhere, but this feeling was what Aunt Alexandra called being "spoiled."

The ladies were cool in fragile pastel prints: most of them were heavily powdered but unrouged; the only lipstick in the room was Tangee Natural. Cutex Natural sparkled on their fingernails, but some of the younger ladies wore Rose. They smelled heavenly. I sat quietly, having conquered my hands by tightly gripping the arms of the chair, and waited for someone to speak to me. (24.13-14)

For being so fearful of ladies, Scout sure knows a lot about them, down to the brands of makeup they wear. (Or maybe that's the only kind available in Maycomb? We're guessing there's no nearby Sephora.) The level of detail in her description suggests that maybe Scout's just as fascinated as she is scared.

I was more at home in my father's world. People like Mr. Heck Tate did not trap you with innocent questions to make fun of you; even Jem was not highly critical unless you said something stupid. Ladies seemed to live in faint horror of men, seemed unwilling to approve wholeheartedly of them. But I liked them. There was something about them, no matter how much they cussed and drank and gambled and chewed; no matter how undelectable they were, there was something about them that I instinctively liked... they weren't—

"Hypocrites, Mrs. Perkins, born hypocrites," Mrs. Merriweather was saying. (24.54-55)

Like magic, Mrs. Merriweather finishes Scout's unspoken thought. At this point Scout feels like she understands men and their rules, and that she can trust them to behave in a certain way. The idea of being "at home" in the male world is a little weird, as if womanhood is an undiscovered country that Scout has to discover and map in order to make it her own. (Also, we think Jem is learning the same lesson—men doesn't always operate by the visible rules, either.)