The average woman is well aware of the tribulation she will face as a result of her gender and the society she was born in to. Sexism is defined as the prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination based on a person’s sex, although typically against women due to systematic oppression. Harper Lee, a famous female author highlights what life was like for women in the deep south of the United States during the great depression in her coming-of-age/Southern gothic novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’. The story follows a young girl, Scout Finch growing up and learning the prejudice in her hometown. The setting of Maycomb holds many aspects that provide a platform for sexism to be illustrated in this text. The three aspects of setting I will be discussing that reinforce the idea of sexism is the role religion had in oppressing women, the location that the story takes place and what the time period allowed women to do. All these factors contribute to the setting.
Religion is considered a part of a novel’s setting because its principles can directly change the way one acts. For this reason, the major religious influence of the south played a part in the oppression of woman due to widely held Christian values that saw women as lesser than men. The Maycomb population has a singular religion of Christianity with different branches dependent on each character. Atticus Finch and his children are Methodists, which support the idea of women in leadership positions and overall equality for all people. A Baptist community also exists in Maycomb, and their belief system strictly adheres to the Bible. The Bible directly quotes “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.” and “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord”. These quotes, inherently disallow the opportunity for women to strive in any setting and proving that religion plays a substantial role in oppressing women. Additionally, this provides an insight into how sexism was displayed in real-life settings similar to Maycomb. Coupled with the fact that religion was a core foundation to these societies it would be near impossible to dispute these words without being frowned upon by the community. The mention of Baptists in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ occurs when Miss Maudie, the Finch’s neighbour, retails to Scout when a group of Baptists insulted her. She states “Foot-washers believe anything that’s pleasure is a sin.” and “(they) think women are a sin by definition”. Conveniently, the beliefs that the Baptists hold seem to target women. This shows that this particular religious group disapproves of Miss Maudie’s “female tendency” and ultimately prohibits any freedoms that women might want to experience. Harper Lee specifically chose a religiously dense setting for her novel to reinforce the idea of sexism.
Gender roles are often forced onto easily influenced children at a young and nowhere more prevalent than in the south of the United States. The Southern States included Alabama, where ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was set, and are generally far more socially conservative than its Northern states counterpart. The gender roles mentioned follow the stereotypes of boys having to be masculine, aggressive and self-confident. While girls had to like tea parties, the colour pink and wear dresses. These stereotypes follow children into adulthood that create an oppressive, segregated and fundamentally sexist socio-cultural environment where you were expected to act completely like your born gender. “Aunt Alexandra was fanatical on the subject of my attire. I could not possibly hope to be a lady if I wore breeches; when I said I could do nothing in a dress, she said I wasn’t supposed to be doing things that required pants.” Aunt Alexandra’s hope for Scout is to be an idyllic Southern Belle much like how she views herself, fundamentally forcing her into the female gender role that is aforementioned as sexist. Southern Belles are described as upper-class white women in the American South. Women that fell into this category had no choice but to hold a perfect appearance to the community or otherwise bring shame to their families. Without this novel being based in Alabama, this “Southern Belle” expectation of women would not exist and Scout would not make her realisations of the sexism in Maycomb, which helps give the reader perspective of this important theme. “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.” This quote proves the Scout has been influenced to favour men because of the untrustworthy culture that surrounds Southern Belles. Enforcing the idea of sexism into this young girl. Additionally, “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.” This illustrates that no matter what Scout feels inclined to, she is pressurized to join this oppressed group of women that find their only freedom in gossiping about others and hosting tea parties. The locational setting of the story is important to the theme of sexism because the Southern States were far more traditional which paired with Lee’s intention of displaying sexism.
Women have historically been disadvantaged by way of law and societal norms. The time period in which a story is set in is particularly important to the overall plot, this is why if ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was set in 2019 the story would be non-existent because those laws that once prohibited basic freedoms have since been abolished. Therefore, no platform is provided for a story with this kind of prejudice to be realistic. Only thirteen years before the beginning of the story ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, based in 1933, women earned the right to vote. A right that males had instinctively since a democratic system was created. In the novel, during the Tom Robinson trial Atticus states to his curious children “For one thing, Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she is a woman.” It wasn’t until 1968 that all American women could take this vital role in society. Possibly, if women had been able to have this role, jury verdicts in cases of prejudice, such as the Tom Robinson trial, might have transpired differently. “”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.”” here it is displayed that the children have to imagine women on juries, if this was novel was set in more modern times the same sexism shown surrounding the trial would not be known because women serving on a jury is no longer a concept. This time period of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ very clearly demonstrates the law enforced sexism that was put in place to “protect” women from the harshness of the world when in reality it only marginalized women and reinforced an acceptance of sexism in society. Harper Lee was born in 1926, meaning that throughout a large portion of her adult life she was unable to serve on a jury because of her gender, and with her being raised in Alabama where prejudice was rife, she could have possibly felt helpless when trials such as the one in her book occurred. Lee purposefully chose 1933 as the time period for her novel because it creates an ideal setting as the women’s rights movement was gaining momentum, so there was room for discussion. However, there were still many restrictions on women which allowed for sexism to be shown.
All the aspects of setting in Harper Lee’s controversial novel, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ coupled easily with the subject of sexism as they all serve an intended role in reinforcing this theme. These aspects being, religion, location and historical era. Lee’s ultimate intention in writing this novel the way she did was to force the reader to reflect on their own inner prejudices so that one might change the way they think. Also, to display the inner-rooted prejudice in traditional communities like the one she grew up in, so she could bring attention to a topic that was willingly ignored in her time.