‘Unsolicited opportunities are the guide-posts of the Lord to the new roads of life.’ -Sarah Penn
The Revolt of Mother Feminism is a cultural, social, and political ideal that has been embedded in many aspects of American society. Some refer to feminism as the political activities by women’s rights groups for things such as suffrage. Others refer to feminism as a fight against the overall sexism against women. In looking for similarities in style and theme in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat “and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Revolt of ‘Mother’,” the most obvious thing is that both stories highlight the disaffection of presumed gender identities, and how both women overcame adversity to rediscover their own identities as well as to change the stereotypes regarding male and female gender roles. I believe that both Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat and Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s ‘The Revolt of Mother’ collectively interpret and highlight the establishment of unethical social norms and rules with respect to gender.
In “The Revolt of ‘Mother,” the opening sentences depict how little power Sarah has in making decisions. “We know only what men-folks think we do, so far as any use of it goes, an’ how we’d ought to reckon men-folks in with Providence an’ not complain of what they do any more than we do of the weather.”-Sarah Penn, “The Revolt of Mother” For instance, when Sarah comes outside to question Adonriam about the barn and his promise for a new house he responds by saying, “I wish you’d go into the house, mother, an’ tend to your own affairs. . But the woman understood; it was her most native tongue” (Freeman).” His disregard for her thoughts and her initial display of servitude shows that he was in fact in charge, which is where the root of the conflict is introduced. The main conflict depicted in both stories is the establishment of “domestic power and vision as a countervailing force to the theme of flight from domesticity that appears in the 19th century” (Cutter).
In Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat,” Delia Jones, a “washwoman” (Hurston) and house owner, is often antagonized by her abusive husband Sykes. Traditionally, women during that time period were expected to do household chores such as laundry within families. In the story not only does Delia have the role of doing laundry within her own household, but she also does it for a job, proving the point further of a woman in a sort of stereotypical social and family situation. As Laurie Champion states “Hurston frequently characterizes women who defy traditional western (white) literature and myths that depict consequences for women who step outside gender-biased social norms.” Delia is also described as having “habitual meekness” (Hurston), a traditional unwritten view on how women should behave with their husbands. Hurston doesn’t stop there. She illustrates the traditional ideal for women through other characters. Several men in the town where Delia lived often commented on her marital status and how they pitied her. “The village men on Joe Clarke’s porch even chewed cane listlessly. . .” Too much knockin’ will ruin any ‘oman. He done beat huh ‘nough tuh kill three women, let ‘lone change they looks,’said Elijah Moseley,” (Hurston), but in the end does nothing but avoid him. This goes to show how the other men in the village recognize the predicament of women such as Delia who “nodded briefly at the men as she drove past,” (Hurston) and won’t do anything to challenge the institution that has been rooted in their favor since times past.
Over time, the role of women in society has drastically changed from women being menial to men to women having equal rights as men. Both “Sweat“ and “The Revolt of Mother” share a similar point at issue the portrayal of women in society. Both stories display this by having both women attenuated by their husbands countlessly, leading to the women’s rebellion to society’s social norms in order for their voices to be heard. Both short stories highlight the inferior status and roles of women in the nineteenth century, making a pivotal point during this male dominating period. In the 19th century, women without a doubt knew their place and had no choice but to be dependent upon their husbands; from catering to them hand and foot, to cooking, cleaning, and caring for their children. For example the hearty meals and tidiness shown by Sarah when Adoniram arrives home from his trip symbolizes the typical role of women in the nineteenth century “Sarah Penn had supper all ready. There were brown-bread and baked beans and a custard pie; it was the supper that Adoniram loved on a Saturday night” (Freeman). In both stories the women follow their husbands demands “However deep a resentment she might be forced to hold against her husband, she would never fail in sedulous attention to his wants” (Freeman), until finally they just can’t take it anymore and do something about it.
In “The Revolt of Mother,” Sarah’s freedom begins when she decides to move her family into the barn “The house wa’n’t for for us to live in any longer, an I made up my mind I wa’n’t goin to stay there” (Freeman) taking a stand against her husband symbolizing her new beginning and new found independence . Martha Cutter states that “In order to escape from the binary system of silent women/ speaking men which entraps her, she must engender a new linguistic frontier which merges the conflicting value systems of Father’s and Mother’s frontiers through a radical restructuring of the process of signification itself.” In the short story “Sweat” Hurston demonstrates Delia’s freedom and independence when the narrator liberates herself to take a stand against her husbands abuse by running out of the house leaving the snake and her dying husband behind, finally freeing herself(Hurston). “Hurston depicts strong women who develop independence in spite of oppressive social conditions, particularly those influenced by a politics of gender-and ethnic-biased economics” (Champion). For example, when Delia responds to Sykes’s verbal abuse with the vindication that “she has been washing clothes and sweating for fifteen years to feed him and to pay for her house.” (Champion) When Sykes refuses to remove the snake from the house, Delia states ‘Ah hates you, Sykes…. Ah hates you tuh de same degree dat Ah useter love yuh. Ah done took an’ took till mah belly is full up tuh mah neck’ (Hurston). And even with all of Sykes’s plots against her, Delia remained strong until the end when Sykes is killed by the same snake he had used to scare her in the first place. Laurie Champion summarizes in her statement “‘Sweat’ exposes gender oppression… by suggesting that ‘what goes around comes around’” (Champion), showing that Sykes’s attempts to kill Delia with hopes in taking ownership of the house ultimately comes full circle and karma strikes him in the end. “Sometime or ruther, Sykes, like everybody else, is gointer reap his sowing” (Hurston) which is cynical because “the man who has loomed above her through the years now crawls toward her, his fallen state emphasized by the frame of the door and Delia’s standing figure; the man who has treated her with continuous contempt and cruelty now hopes for help from her” (Champion). Not only have their positions changed , but “. . .that eye that must, could not, fail to see the tubs” and “. . .that eye which must know by now that she knew.” (Hurston) meaning that Sykes last image before dying was the very thing he despised Delia working on but also to believe that Sykes knew Delia knew that he had tried to kill her and that she left him in her house for dead.
In a nutshell, the notion of gender equality that focuses strictly on women’s rights has come a long way ”by celebrating African American women who defy traditional norms that reinforce stereotypes and by condemning the empowered who support such stereotypes” (Champion), and feminist literature such as Zora Neale Husrton’s “Sweat” and Mary E. Freeman “The Revolt of Mother” has helped to bring about many noticeable changes in the outlook towards women.