Blurred Boundaries in Susan Glaspell's Trifles

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Blurred Boundaries in Trifles  


    In her landmark feminist play, "Trifles," Susan Glaspell offers a peek at the complicated political and social systems that both silenced and divided women during their struggle for equality with men. In this simple but highly symbolic tale, a farmer's wife, Minnie Wright, is accused of strangling her husband to death. The county attorney, the sheriff, a local farmer, the sheriff's wife and the farmer's wife visit Minnie's farm house. As the men "look for clues," the women survey Minnie's domestic environment. While the men scoff at the women's interest in what they call "trifles," the women discover Minnie's strangled bird to realize that Minnie's husband had killed the bird and Minnie had, in turn, killed him. They bond in acknowledgment that women "all go through the same things--it's all just different kind of the same thing" (1076). As their horror builds and the women unravel the murder, they agree to cooperate with one another, conspiring to protect Minnie against the men by hiding the incriminating "evidence."

Women's slow reluctance to cooperate across class even in the face of male oppression, as depicted in Glaspell's play, symbolizes the difficulty women had in creating a united "cross class sisterhood" when struggling for suffrage during the Gilded Age. This class conflict was exacerbated by the socio-economic dynamics of the day. Middle class women often employed working class women in their homes as servants. Employing women with hypothetically oppressive wages in their "private lives," while at the same time fighting for the economic freedom of all women in their "public lives" placed middle class women in a hypocritical bind. As historian Lois Banner reports, "In the 1900s and 1910s there was an outpouring of writings on the so-called servant problem--the shortage of women willing to work as cooks and maids. . . .It was not simply that they [servants] were expected to be paid long hours and were not well paid; they were subject to the whims and status anxieties of their mistresses" (52). The control that middle class women reportedly bestowed upon their domestic laborers extended into the larger picture; much of middle class club work focused on the "reform" of working class women. The imposition of middle class values onto working class and black women's lives alienated these women--making the feelings of sisterhood necessary for solidarity, nearly impossible. As historian Nancy Hewitt explains, "When 'true women' [i.

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e. middle class reformers] attempted to extend these 'benefits' and beliefs to all women, they failed to recognize the value that white and black working-class women placed on their own carefully constructed communities and therefore created antipathy in their search for unity" (312).

Gere's study of women's writing groups certainly does not deny the issue of class and how it affected relationships between club women, but she does not fully problematize the hierarchy imposed upon working class women by middle class or fully examine how this construct affected working class women socioeconomically and psychologically.
 


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