Feminar 103: Notes on Teaching about Women, Gender, and Sexuality

In my Feminar 102 column, I argued that Kate Manne’s Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (2018) deserved our immediate attention. Manne’s latest book—Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women—has just now been released by Crown Publishers, a popular press. It emphasizes to all of us, not just academics, the urgency of investigating the consequences of our complicity in maintaining “misogynistic social structures” (10). Here she interrogates in particular men’s perceived entitlement “to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor” (19). She also details men’s perceived entitlement to knowledge, what countless feminist scholars have defined as the belief in man’s authority as the knower and the positioning of women, at best, as the known or as the mirror to man’s superior nature and privilege. Entitled is, like her first book, a depressing but nevertheless enlightening read, especially coming at this time of rampant dismissal of women’s right to a voice and the loss of one of the great advocates of gender equality and equal rights, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Certain works of literature also address both the costs of misogyny and thus demonstrate the deep value of humanistic inquiry into issues of ethical behavior and moral responsibility. Susan Glaspell’s 1917 short story “A Jury of Her Peers” (or its dramatic version, the 1916 one-act play Trifles) is routinely included in anthologies of American literature, women writers, mystery, drama, and theatre. The story has also been discussed extensively in legal studies; taught in law, religious studies, and theology classes; employed in leadership training sessions; analyzed by sociologists and cultural historians; and cited as an exemplary text with which to teach ethics to nursing, medical, and law students. You can find articles detailing those investigations and usages in the extensive bibliography available on the International Susan Glaspell Society’s blog.

It is a simple story about the murder of a husband by his wife. Its focus is not on who did it but why and who bears responsibility for the chain of events leading to his murder. It takes place in a dingy kitchen. Three men come to investigate in order to nail down a motive to ensure conviction of the murderer. Two of the men bring along their wives to pick up some clothes for the jailed wife. You see gender dynamics come into play from the outset when the men first take possession of the kitchen space, then make caustic remarks about the jailed woman’s poor housekeeping skills, and later make fun of the other women’s concerns, all of which they consider “trifles.” The men—a farmer, the sheriff, and a county attorney—assume that the women will in no way further or hinder the investigation but nevertheless caution the women that, should they find anything that might be construed as evidence, they should immediately turn it over to the men. The county attorney goes so far as to state that, since one of the women is the sheriff’s wife, she is therefore married to the law: thus she is a mirror to man’s adjudication of women’s acts. The title of the story makes clear that Minnie Wright will be judged only according to those terms. The majority of the story then dramatizes what would happen if her case were heard by a jury of her peers.

As the men investigate in every room but the kitchen, the women piece together what they believe occurred. The bleak setting immediately indicates how Mr. Wright has, despite his material wealth, needlessly impoverished, isolated, and silenced his wife. Not only is the kitchen badly furnished, but Minnie’s clothes are shoddy and her access to communication with others nonexistent. The “clues” the women discover are related specifically to the domestic sphere and therefore something only a woman would see and understand. More alarming to the women is their finding disturbing signs of possible violence expressed toward the wife through the killing of her pet. As the women uncover signs of Minnie’s escalating agitation and despair, the sheriff’s wife recalls a similar act of violence she witnessed and another profound loss that scarred her. Martha Hale, the farmer’s wife, in turn admits her shame over letting a situation she knew was bad to become horrific. As Martha says, “We live close together, and we live far apart. We all go through the same things—it’s all just a different kind of the same thing!” They then decide to hide the evidence from the men. The story by no means exonerates the wife/murderer, and we know that hiding the evidence will not make a difference in the ruination of Minnie’s life. It instead asks what could have been done and interrogates what was done. While the story emphasizes the necessity of fostering empathy and a sense of communal obligation, it also questions how effective empathy is if it is not coupled with timely action to prevent both quotidian and monumental wrongdoing and injustice.

I urge you to read the story yourself and then share it and discuss it with your partners, your reading groups, a handful of your friends. Analyzing and appreciating this story with others will, I assure you, lead to a rich and revealing discussion, as it has the many times I have taught the text in a variety of classes. You will see not only the banality of misogyny at work but also the tremendous price both women and men pay for social practices that enable both moral complacency and the disturbing lack of empathy so many today feel toward their neighbors, members of their community, and citizens of their nation state.

By Mary Papke
Professor of English
University of Tennessee Knoxville
Kate Manne. Down Girl:The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press,2018.
Kate Manne. Entitled:How Male Privilege Hurts Women. Oxford University Press,2018.
Susan Glaspell."A Jury of Her Peers." 1917.
Full text widely available under its story title.
For further essays on "A Jury of Her Peers," see the International Susan Glaspell Society's online bibliography here.

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