Angela Olsen English 102 ONLN 3 Professor Thea Howey May 3, 2013 Female Gender in A Raisin in the Sun Lorraine Hansberry was a forward thinker for her time in the 1950’s, which was evident in her writing. “It is believed that hidden behind her work was Hansberry’s own personal struggle with gender” (Wiener 10-11). After many years of marriage and eventually divorce, it was discovered that she was a closet homosexual (Wiener 11). Male and female gender roles are heated topics that have been debated for generations.
Women in the United States are still regarded as taking care of and nurturing children as well as the responsibility for taking care of the home. The majority of women in America have a career outside the home, yet still assume the majority of domestic responsibility. Women have struggled to find balance between career and family for years. During World War II there was a rise in feminism because women had to begin working in military factories because the men were at war. It became evident that women were just as effective and hard working as men.
These gender roles were more pronounced in the play A Raisin in the Sun, especially with regard to its female characters. The story of the Younger family accurately portrays the strength of family, specifically relating to the three female characters. Mrs. Lena Younger, Mama, is a strong woman in her sixties who has overcome many obstacles in her life with many yet to come. Ruth Younger, Lena’s daughter-in-law, is in her early thirties, and when the play opens the disappointments in her life are evident by her exhaustion. Beneatha Younger is a smart, liberated woman in her twenties with aspirations of her own.
Lorraine Hannsberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun expresses the dreams and apprehensions of the three strong female characters in atypical gender roles through different generations. Lena “Mama” Younger is the matriarch of the Younger family. In the 1950’s a woman was not the typical head of the household. Mama has become the family leader because “her husband was killed in an accident on the job” (Poitier 528). Historical statistics say, “Black households without male heads increased during this decade: from 17. 6 percent in 1950 to 22. 4 percent by 1960” (Super 30).
Mama was forced into a role that she was not expecting, but handled the change with poise throughout the play. It is evident in the play that the role of women in the home was changing. However, Mama is an old fashioned and conservative woman. She speaks about her deceased husband’s womanizing and chauvinistic behavior in the quote: “God knows there was plenty wrong with Walter Younger-hard-headed, mean, kind of wild with women” (Hansberry 45). Mama’s outlook on life stems from her belief that accepting such behavior was a woman’s place in life. Mama has lived through extremely difficult times.
Mama and Big Walter moved North to Chicago to escape slavery and start a better life for their future children. There were times in her life she remembers being worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and how to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too… (74). She has also lived through the loss of a child and now the death of her husband (45). She is motivated by extreme love for her family and a desire to see something better come of their lives. Lena Younger clings to the dream of owning a home, a dream she shared with her late husband.
Only around fifty-five percent of the population in the 1950’s were home owners, with separate neighborhoods for white and black Americans. Mama reminisces, “I remember just as well the day me and Big Walter moved in here. Hadn’t been married but two weeks and wasn’t planning on living here no more than a year” (44). As the new leader of the family, she decides to take a portion of the money from the life insurance and use it for a down payment on a house. When she shares what she has done for her family she is met with hostility and anger from her son, Walter Lee.
Walter Lee says, “You run our lives like you want to… so you butchered up a dream of mine–you–who always talking ‘bout your children’s dreams” (95). Walter is upset about what Mama has done. She chose to fulfill her dream of a owning a home over anyone else’s dream. There is conflict through the remainder of the play between Mama and Walter because he blames her for the loss of his dream. Walter had a dream of investing in a liquor store. He thought it would make him millions of dollars, and allow him to provide for his family. Eventually, she decides to allow Walter to have control of the remainder of the money.
She gives specific instructions to set-aside a portion of the remaining money for Beneatha’s education and the rest was for him to decide (107). She does not exert this control over her children for the sake of maintaining power, rather to continue to provide for them. She willingly relinquishes her power as matriarch and tells Walter “to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be” (107). Putting the happiness of her children before her own is what almost any mother would do. Ruth is a very strong woman with morals and a belief in God.
Ruth loves her husband and her son and does her very best to take care of them. She is always putting the needs and desires of her family above her own. Ruth has always been supportive of Walter, but recently they have not been communicating well. Ruth tries to convince Mama to allow Walter the chance to invest in the liquor store by saying, “something is happening between Walter and me. I don’t know what it is-but he needs something -something I can’t give him anymore. He needs this chance, Lena” (42). Ruth rarely speaks of her own dreams and desires, but she also shares the dream of owning a home with Mama.
She works in the kitchen for a white family, in addition to various domestic duties from their home, which mainly includes other families’ laundry. This was a common job for African-American women in this era. “Among the troublesome, marginalized issues, is the pregnancy of Ruth. She finds no joy in the prospect of bringing another child into the grim and potentially explosive world, [and] makes plans for an abortion (Wiener 85-86). This decision goes directly against her role as wife and mother in the play. This is also the only decision she makes for herself without consulting anymore.
After Mama tries to inform Walter of Ruth’s plans for an abortion and he is in disbelief, she knowingly says, “When the world gets ugly enough-a woman will do anything for her family. The part that’s already living” (75). Ruth is devastated when the money is lost, and the dream of moving is threatened. She clings to the possibility with desperation as evidenced when she says, “I’ll strap my baby on my back if I have to and scrub all the floors in America and wash all the sheets in America if I have to-but we got to MOVE! ” (140). Ruth eventually chooses not to have the abortion and her dreams triumph over her fears.
Beneatha is Walter’s younger sister, and is every bit as intense in personality. She represents an entirely new, liberated generation of women. She is in college pursuing her dream to become a medical doctor. She says she never got over “what one person could do for another… fix up the sick… This was truly being God” (133). The medical field in the 1950’s was a male dominated profession with very few female doctors, regardless of race. Because the Civil Rights movement was just beginning, “the doors of opportunity, if not wide open, had at least been unlocked for black Americans.
Hence Beneatha’s dream of becoming a doctor [was] a realistic one” (Tackach). Walter Lee wants his sister to just be a nurse or to be happy with getting married like a normal woman would. In 1956, Provident was the only hospital “where a black doctor could aspire to practice” (Ehrenhalt 519). However, Beneatha refuses to concede to the societal pressures and those of her family and two potential suitors in her life to abandon her dream even-though it is difficult. Her main source of contention with Mama takes place when Mama says that Beneatha will accomplish her dream of being a doctor with God’s help.
Beneatha says, “I’m just tired of hearing about God all the time. What has He got to do with anything? ” (50) The progression of her character from seeing God as one point of view to wanting to be like God and cure people is ironic. Beneatha is not ready to accept the typical role of wife and mother. She refuses to live the subservient life that George Murchinson, a potential suitor, believes she should. She is most attracted to Asagai, another potential suitor, because of his racial authenticity. However, she was “not interested in being someone’s little episode” (64).
She appreciates that Asagai does not change who he is because of circumstances or surroundings. However, his real intentions with Beneatha are obscure. Some critics believe that he intends for Beneatha to return to Nigeria with him to be his wife, while others believe that he wanted her to return as a doctor to help his village. In a conversation between Asagai and Beneatha when she is ready to give up on her dream after all of the money is lost he says, “[t]here is something wrong in a house-in a world-where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man?
” (135) The aspirations of women in society to become equal to men is a goal that women are still trying to attain. Lorraine Hansberry was a hard working activist for social justice, including gender equality, as evidenced by the three solid female characters in her play. “In many ways, A Raisin in the Sun seems to forecast events that would transpire during the decade following its initial production and beyond. The play raises issues of racial interaction and justice, as well as gender roles” (Domina). Major strides have been made in women’s rights and feminism in the last sixty years.
“The play also captures the spirit of the budding feminist movement… and the playwright reflects [women’s] dissatisfaction with traditional feminine roles in the post-World War II years” (Tackach). The three women in the Younger home are indicative of the differences in attitudes of different generations. Mama understood her lot in life was to serve her husband and family. Ruth did not want to accept this as her fate but was not as strong as Beneatha to make a change. Beneatha was unapologetic and unwilling to allow anyone to change who she was, and the dreams she had.
A lesson in gender roles throughout history can be taken away from this play. Works Cited Domina, L. M. “An overview of A Raisin in the Sun. ” Drama for Students. Detroit: Gale. Literature Resource Center. Web. 17 April 2013. Ehrenhalt, Alan. “From the Lost City: Discovering the Forgotten Virtues of Community in the Chicago of the 1950’s. ” Schilb and Clifford 517-526. Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Vintage Books, 1958. Print. Hylton, Raymond Pierre. “African Americans. ” The Fifties in America. Ed. John C. Super.
3 vols. Salem Press, 2005. Salem History Web. 21 Apr. 2013. Poitier, Sidney. “From the Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. ” Schilb and Clifford 526-531. Schilb, John, and John Clifford, eds. Making Literature Matter: An Anthology of Readers and Writers. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 512-531. Print. Tackach, James. “A Raisin In The Sun. ” Masterplots, Fourth Edition (2010): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. Web. 17 April 2013. Wiener, Gary, ed. Gender in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Detroit: Greenhaven, 2011. Print.