Gender is defined as “a subclass within a grammatical class (such as noun, pronoun, adjective, or verb) of a language, that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (such as shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex), and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms” (Merriam- Webster Inc., 2018). The etymology of the word “gender” begins in the 1300s. From Douglas Harpers Online Etymology Dictionary, we found that the word started being used as a way to sort different kinds of things with similar and different traits. The word came from the French root “gendre”, and from the Latin stem “genus” meaning rank, order, or species. There are also origins in the root “gene” meaning to generate or to birth. There are many derivatives of the word that pertains to procreation and familial roots. The word started to be used in a way that is more similar to its current use, in the 15th century. It was used to primarily describe male and female types, ideas, and objects. It wasn’t until the 20th century that the word gender was finally used as a way to refer to the male or female sex of a person or object (Etymonline.com). The year 2003 is considered to be the highest known use of the word, and the prevalence has slowly decreased to being at its lowest state of use today (Google Ngram).
There are many instances in the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, where we see the use of either the word or the subject of gender at work. Hansberry wrote this play with her experience of being a young black woman in America. The play is set in Chicago in the 1950s, a time when sexism was rampant. During this time, gender roles consisted of women being housewives and were expected to stay at home or have a minor secretarial job; Men were the breadwinners of the household. In one section of the play, Hansberry sets a scene with dialogue that expresses the frustration resulted from the expected standards for specific gender roles in the Younger family. In this quote, Walter is showing his contempt for the fact that the women in his life, Beneatha, and Ruth, do not treat him like he is the respectable man of the house that he sees himself being. Hansberry writes, as Walter speaking to his wife Ruth, “That is just what is wrong with the colored woman in this world… Don’t understand about building their men up and making ‘em feel like they somebody”(34). Walter aspires to take on the role of his father but he has not been able to establish himself as the man of the house yet, which is a result of his lack of ability to find a good job. During this time in Chicago there was a serious lack of employment opportunities for African American men. Walter feels that he should be treated with respect from his wife and sister, due to being a man. He also feels that his wife Ruth, especially, should strive to build him up and make him feel better about himself. What Walter doesn’t realize is that Ruth has enough to worry about, like her newly discovered accidental pregnancy, her son, and not having enough room for everyone in the house. Walter expects his family to play into the gender roles of that time, but it just doesn’t match up with the situation that their family is currently in.
In another section of this play, Hansberry sets a scene where we see some insight into Walter and Ruth’s marriage. Walter says, “Just for a second- stirring them eggs. Just for a second it was-you looked really young again. (He reaches for her; she crosses away. Then, drily) It’s gone now- you look like yourself again!”(26). In this quote, we see how broken their marriage has become. We see how much Walter wants things in real life to match up with his dreams.This is having his beautiful wife take pleasure in caring for herself, cooking, and cleaning for him. Most of all he wants her respect, along with their son’s. However, over the years Ruth has been so disenchanted with Walter because of his problems, she has a hard time fitting into that role that he expects of her. She cannot pretend to be something she isn’t, in order to please her husband with unrealistic expectations.
Another situation in Hansberry’s play where we see the idea of gender in the dialogue is when Walter says, “Somebody tell me- tell me, who decides which women is supposed to wear pearls in this world. I tell you I am a man- and I think my wife should wear pearls in this world”(43). Walter has the idea that all proper women should wear a string of pearls around their neck. To illustrate the resistance against this idea, Hansberry created a strong feminist-like character, Beneatha, in order to demonstrate how and why women should fight against the idea of assimilation into society’s gender expectations for women. Hansberry also shows the idea of gender through Walter when he states, “Who the hell told you you had to be a doctor? If you so crazy ‘bout messing ‘round with sick people- then go be a nurse like other women- or just get married and be quiet…” (38). Walter thinks that being a woman and becoming a doctor is something that is so unheard of. Back then women DID NOT become doctors. It was more usual for a woman to become a nurse because men were the ones who were at the top with power. On top of the nurse comment Walter made, he went onto continuing that she should just go and get married. Meaning that women should just stay at home (cook and clean) and depend on the man of the house. Beneatha aspired to change that stereotype and become a doctor anyway.
Beneatha is a woman who goes against every woman stereotype presented in the book. When other characters express their opinion about what Beneatha should be doing with her life, she immediately rejects their ideas. In regards to her love life many characters including her sister-in-law Ruth, and her two love interests, George and Asagai, do not agree with Beneatha’s opinions or life choices.
Asagai expresses to Beneatha his feelings for her and tells her that those feelings should be enough to make her happy in her relationship with him. Beneatha’s response to this is “I know- because that’s what it says in all the novels that men write. But it isn’t (enough). Go ahead and laugh- but I’m not interested in being someone’s little episode in America or – (With feminine vengeance)- one of them” (64)! Beneatha is resistant against doing what a man expects of her. Regardless of the situation, she refuses to be a quick relationship or one of the many females in Asagai’s life. Hansberry’s addition of “with feminine vengeance” was an important side note in the text. According to dictionary.com, vengeance is termed as a desire for revenge, and the phrase with vengeance means “with force”. Here Hansberry exhibits the power behind the female force. The power behind women standing their ground against men and the expected roles society places on them.
Beneatha aspires to be a doctor. In this 1950s society, most people don’t support a woman holding a powerful job. Gender plays a role in which jobs are seen as fit for different people. Beneatha experiences backlash from George and Ruth. Beneatha responds “… First I’m going to be a doctor, and George, for one, still thinks that’s pretty funny… I am going to be a doctor and everybody around here better understand that” (50)! The male role in this text shows their support of the idea of male supremacy in the context of a woman getting a good job. Beneatha is fed up with others not supporting her. The differing opinions of the expectations of a woman cause the reader to identify the source of the interpersonal conflict between characters.
The play A Raisin in the Sun written by Hansberry has many examples of how much of a gender-based society we had in the past and what is still going on in our present-day lives. This play was based on the time after World War II when societies were broken down and many racial and gender issues went on. Hansberry showed the theme of gender bias through the characters George and Asagai. She then went onto show the theme of gender through the character Walter, a plethora of times as well. After this it was shown and explained through the character Beneatha that women do not need to abide by the “social norms” for women. Through all the stereotypical scenarios of a woman in the play, Beneatha did not stop explaining to others that her dream was to be a doctor and that nothing was going to get in the way of that. Many people tend to think that this type of social act did not really happen or is not happening. Hansberry showcased in many ways the idea of gender in her play to prove that it did happen and the effect it had on the people living during it.
Hansbery, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage, 1958
Online Etymology Dictionary: “Gender” 2001-2018 Douglas Harper. Accessed November 29, 2018. https://www.etymonline.com/word/gender