Gender Roles in a Raisin in the Sun Character Analysis

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Female Gender in A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry was a forward thinker for her time in the 1950s, which is evident in her writing. According to Wiener (10-11), it is believed that Hansberry’s own personal struggle with gender was hidden behind her work. After many years of marriage and eventually divorce, it was discovered that she was a closet homosexual (Wiener 11). The debate on male and female gender roles has been ongoing for generations.

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Women in the United States are still often expected to take care of and nurture children, as well as assume responsibility for maintaining the home. Despite the fact that most women in America have careers outside of the home, they still tend to shoulder a majority of domestic duties. For years, women have struggled to find a balance between their careers and family obligations.

During World War II, there was a rise in feminism due to the fact that women had to begin working in military factories while men were away at war. This experience made it clear that women were just as effective and hardworking as men.

Gender roles were more pronounced in the play A Raisin in the Sun, particularly concerning its female characters. The story of the Younger family accurately portrays the strength of family, specifically with regards to its three female characters. Mama, or Mrs. Lena Younger, is a resilient woman in her sixties who has overcome many obstacles and still faces many more. Ruth Younger, Lena’s daughter-in-law, is in her early thirties and displays exhaustion from disappointments at the beginning of the play. Beneatha Younger is a smart and liberated woman in her twenties with aspirations of her own.

Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun expresses the dreams and apprehensions of three strong female characters in atypical gender roles across different generations. Lena Mama” Younger serves as the matriarch of the Younger family, a role uncommon for women during the 1950s. Mama assumed this position after her husband passed away due to an accident on his job (Poitier 528). According to historical statistics, “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 she 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 when she remembers being worried about not being lynched, getting to the North if they could, and how to stay alive while still maintaining some dignity (74). Mama has also experienced the loss of a child and now the death of her husband (45). She is motivated by an extreme love for her family and a desire to see something better come out of their lives. Lena Younger clings to the dream of owning a home, which was a dream she shared with her late husband.

During the 1950s, only around fifty-five percent of the population were homeowners, and neighborhoods were segregated for white and black Americans. Mama fondly remembers the day she and Big Walter moved into their home, stating Hadn’t been married but two weeks and wasn’t planning on living here no more than a year” (44). As the new head of the family, Mama decides to use a portion of their life insurance money as a down payment on a house. However, when she shares this news with her son Walter Lee, he responds with hostility and anger.

Walter Lee expresses his frustration by saying, You run our lives like you want to… so you butchered up a dream of mine – you – who always talk about your children’s dreams” (95). Walter is upset with Mama’s decision to prioritize her dream of owning a home over everyone else’s. This creates conflict between Mama and Walter for the rest of the play because he holds her responsible for crushing his own dream. Walter had hoped to invest in a liquor store, which he believed would make him wealthy enough to provide for his family. Eventually, Mama decides to give control of the remaining money to Walter.

She gives specific instructions to set aside a portion of the remaining money for Beneatha’s education, and the rest is for him to decide (107). She does not exert this control over her children to maintain power but rather to continue providing for them. Ruth willingly relinquishes her power as matriarch and tells Walter to be the head of this family from now on like you’re supposed to be” (107). Putting the happiness of her children before her own is what almost any mother would do. Ruth is a strong woman with morals and a belief in God.

Ruth loves her husband and son and always prioritizes their needs over her own. Despite being supportive of Walter, they have been struggling to communicate lately. Ruth pleads with Mama to let Walter invest in the liquor store, 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). Although she rarely talks about her own aspirations, Ruth shares Mama’s dream of owning a home.

She works in the kitchen for a white family and performs various domestic duties for them, including laundry for other families. This was a common job for African-American women during this era. Ruth’s pregnancy is one of the troublesome and marginalized issues she faces. She finds no joy in bringing another child into the grim and potentially explosive world, so she makes plans for an abortion (Wiener 85-86). This decision goes directly against her role as a wife and mother in the play. It is also the only decision she makes without consulting anyone else.

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 they lose the money and their dream of moving is threatened. She clings to the possibility with desperation as evidenced by her saying, “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’ve got to MOVE!” (140). Eventually, Ruth chooses not to have an 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. Currently, she is pursuing her dream of becoming a medical doctor while attending college. According to her, “what one person could do for another… fix up the sick… This was truly being God” (133). During the 1950s, the medical field was male-dominated with very few female doctors, regardless of race. However, due to the beginning of the Civil Rights movement at that time, “the doors of opportunity had been unlocked for black Americans if not wide open.

Hence, Beneatha’s dream of becoming a doctor was a realistic one,” according to Tackach. However, Walter Lee wants his sister to settle for being a nurse or getting married like other women. In 1956, Provident was the only hospital where black doctors could practice (Ehrenhalt 519). Despite societal pressures and objections from her family and suitors, Beneatha refuses to abandon her dream. Her biggest disagreement with Mama occurs when Mama suggests that God will help Beneatha achieve her goal of becoming a doctor.

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 Him and cure people is ironic. Beneatha is not ready to accept the typical role of a wife and mother. She refuses to live the subservient life that George Murchinson, a potential suitor, believes she should lead. 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 unclear. Some critics believe that he intends for Beneatha to return to Nigeria with him to be his wife, while others believe that he wants 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?

The aspiration of women in society to become equal to men is a goal that women are still trying to attain. Lorraine Hansberry was a hardworking 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.

According to Tackach, the play effectively captures the spirit of the budding feminist movement and reflects women’s dissatisfaction with traditional feminine roles in the post-World War II years. The three women in the Younger home represent different attitudes across generations. Mama accepted her role as a servant to her husband and family, while Ruth resisted but lacked Beneatha’s strength to make a change. Beneatha, on the other hand, was unapologetic and refused to let anyone alter her identity or dreams.

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Gender Roles in a Raisin in the Sun Character Analysis. (2016, Sep 03). Retrieved from

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