For centuries, women have struggled with oppression and evident discrimination based on gender in terms of the rights allotted to them. Even as the world became more ‘equal’ after the industrial revolution, many remnants of the previous era remain to this day. Society has always placed artificial barriers for women while confining them to specific roles and rules which did not apply to males, who were most often given the utmost freedom and preference in virtually every aspect or context. In the narratives of “Everyday Use,” “Boys and Girls,” and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, women are held to a gender double standard that society perpetuates, but each one deals with the situation drastically different while attempting to rebel against these invisible boundaries, taking on a feminism perspective with their actions to destabilize the status quo.
The short story “Everyday Use” is the most distant from this topic, but there are still relevant elements. Telling the story of a black mother and her two daughters, one older and a college student, while the other a young, disabled, shy child. As a black woman coming from a heritage of working people, the mother only finished 2nd grade, but the older daughter could make it and try to receive an education. Her mother dreams that Dee will repay her for raising such an intelligent child one day. She expects Dee to marry a good man, preserve their African American heritage, and be a family woman. However, Dee has other ideas; she is dating a ‘strange’ Muslim while diving into native African culture, dresses lavishly, and engages in a discourse on some intellectual topics way out of reach for her family. In every way, she is looking down on and trying to escape her origins and background, which causes strong tension and potential conflict between Dee and her mother (Walker).
Boys and Girls
The short story “Boys and Girls” takes the setting to a rural farm family. The protagonist and narrator are an adolescent girl who lives with her parents, a younger brother, and the family’s farmhand. As a female, the protagonist is limited and pressured to adhere to social norms in many ways. Meanwhile, her young brother Laird is viewed as superior, highly protected, and cared for. As often happened in rural households, men and women were not equal, with women adhering to traditional domestic roles, while men were the dominant figures with their roles outside. The girl is constantly reminded that she is female, and her contributions are undervalued despite working hard for her family, “wait till Laird gets a little bigger, then you have a real help” (Munro 4).
Her behavior is limited, as she recalls her grandmother staying with the family and telling her the numerous things that girls ‘must’ do. Even as her brother does something foolish and dangerous, she faces the blame fully while Laird receives full attention. When the protagonist finally snaps and acts out as a case of rebellion, an act that could be severely punished as she disobeyed a man and her father, it is dismissed in her tears as she is “just a girl” (Munro 10). This emphasizes her absolute lack of true free will and rights as a human being in such a societal order.
Maggie, A Girl on the Streets
The novella Maggie, A girl on the Streets, takes place in the urban burrows of New York City, with one of the central characters Maggie. Coming from an abusive and impoverished family, she grows up to be beautiful but highly naive. Later, a local boy, Pete, encounters and attempts to seduce her. His charisma attracts her, and she sees him as the only way out of her impoverished life. However, her family begins to view this act as a betrayal, and once it is revealed that Maggie and Pete are having a sexual affair, she is seen as promiscuous and kicked out of her family home.
However, soon after, Pete leaves her, and Maggie is rejected by her family and community. Towards the end of the novella, it is demonstrated that she has become a prostitute on the streets and is found dead. Meanwhile, the other characters are shown to be hypocrites for doing many things that Maggie was accused of and ostracized for. In the end, the mother demonstratively grieves for her daughter, saying that she has forgiven her. At the same time, it is the mother and rest of the family that ultimately created the living hell for Maggie, from which she never recovered, all to adhere to a social reputation and standards that everyone seemingly violates as well (Crane).
Gender Double Standard
In all these narratives, there is a common theme seen of what is termed the “gender double standard.” A double standard is when different standards are used to measure two similar subjects. When applying it to gender, this essentially indicates that the behavior of men and women is evaluated and viewed differently (Axinn et al. 420). This emerged due to gender differences in social behaviors until the latter half of the 20th century, when attitudes began to shift slowly. Ideational factors may be a key reason for gender differences in family behaviors, with research indicating that parents’ attitudes are a powerful force in shaping children’s behaviors regarding gender roles, but also sex, cohabitation, marriage, and childbirth (Axinn et al. 422). Throughout all the stories, the impacted characters are influenced heavily by their parents, and the attitudes reflect the daughters’ acceptance of the gender double standard.
The gender double standard is applied in many aspects of society, with one prominent theme being sexuality. The sexual double standard generally leads to a negative assessment of women than men when exhibiting the same sexual behavior. Social perspectives for centuries have been that men are free and dominant in sexual encounters, while women must be ‘gate keepers’ of their sexuality and protect it through modesty (Gómez Berrocal et al.). This can be seen in all three of the stories, the mother misjudges Dee’s provocative dress, the grandmother tells the girl to keep her legs closed, and finally, Maggie is judged harshly for having a sexual relationship with her lover Pete. However, as later revealed, Maggie’s brother has done the same with girls, and while it is not discussed, likely as an adolescent boy Laird in “Boys and Girls” would be encouraged by his father to actively pursue girls as a future man.
The gender double standard is inherently discriminatory and highly dangerous from a societal perspective. This is what essentially forms the system of oppression that is known as sexism; the foundation of societal rules and expectations also becomes the root of multiple problems. As seen in these stories, the women are drastically impacted, each being broken in one way or another and consistently pressured by society to remain within its set boundaries.
Feminism and Character Actions
Feminism is a social and ideological movement concerned with promoting women’s rights. While the concept is broad, actions, either at the individual or societal level, contribute to establishing that equality is feminist in nature, even if they are self-centered. Feminism stands as a direct counter to gender double standards and differences described above. One of the slogans for the feminist movement in the 1960s stated, “the personal is political” (Rogan and Budgeon 132). Each of the characters examined in this paper likely had little to no knowledge or relation to feminism. Yet, each felt the oppression of the gender double standard and was exhausted, overwhelmed, and frustrated by it. Their personal actions unknowingly exhibited the strong force of feminism as they sought to shake up the status quo within their lives or communities.
In “Everyday Use,” Dee sought to actively shake her mother’s and likely community’s expectations. She was not going to marry a rich man; she was not going to dress modestly. She craved independence, her own identity, which is why she distanced herself far from her family’s working class but rather pursued the anthropological intellectuality of her African heritage. She was not going to abide by societal expectations, and that had caused tension with her family. Ironically, out of all the characters examined in this paper, she is the most successful in pursuing her desires and feminist identity.
Meanwhile, in “Boys and Girls,” the narrator lives in an even more closed-off world. As an adolescent, she seemingly has nowhere to go or any means to express herself. So, she does what any child of that age would do; she rebels, feeling overwhelmed by the constant pressure of gender disbalance. She attempts to get her brother in trouble and then disobeys an order from her father, resulting in the family horse running away. Such small actions to her seem like the world has turned upside down. She is then seemingly ashamed of it, demonstrating how inherently ‘brainwashed’ she is into the mentality of this gender double-standard society, which likely places the same fate for her as for her mother and grandmother.
Finally, Maggie, who is the victim of the system described. She has no intention to necessarily rebel but simply to pursue her feelings, which should be natural, as it was for men at the time. However, in the eyes of the family, she is “ruined” – ironically described as an object rather than a person. By the end, her family still sees her as the one that faulted them rather than the other way around. The pursuit of her feelings, combined with the desire to escape familial abuse and poverty for a superficial promise of some level of wealth and culture, led to her demise. Maggie did nothing wrong, but what was in her own self-interest as feminism would encourage women to do. However, because society has such double standards and labels her an outcast for her sexual choices, she has nowhere to go but toward the bottom.
In the narratives of “Everyday Use,” “Boys and Girls,” and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets, women are held to a gender double standard that society supports and pressures them to adhere to. This paper analyzed each story, highlighting the details of how this dangerous and profoundly rooted gender difference is leading to the female characters being broken, especially if they attempt to go against the status quo. They are dismissed as lesser, rejected by or in conflict with family, and driven to the brink in effort to escape the predetermined identity. Each of the female characters reacts differently to their struggles, attempting to assert their will with varying outcomes, but the overarching and constant theme is that oppression towards women is present regardless.
Axinn, William G., et al. “Gender Double Standards in Parenting Attitudes.” Social Science Research, vol. 40, no. 2, 2011, pp. 417–32.
Crane, Stephen. Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. 1893. American Literature, Web.
Gómez Berrocal, María del Carmen, et al. “Sexual Double Standard: A Psychometric Study from a Macropsychological Perspective among the Spanish Heterosexual Population.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 10, 2019.
Munro, Alice. “Boys and Girls.” Rahway Public Schools, Web.
Rogan, Frances, and Shelley Budgeon. “The Personal Is Political: Assessing Feminist Fundamentals in the Digital Age.” Social Sciences, vol. 7, no. 8, 2018, p. 132.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” Harper’s Magazine, Web.