Teaching and Research

“Trifles” and the Gender Divide

An interesting thing happened this week when I taught Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles,” resulting in an not-so-unexpected gender divide.

“Trifles” is an early 20th century play set in the cold Midwest. In it, five characters are at the home of recently-murdered John Wright to look for evidence and to gather some things for recently-arrested-for-murder Minnie Wright.

Mr. Peters, the Sheriff.

The county attorney

Mr. Hale, found the body

Mrs. Peters, married to the law

Mrs. Hale, friend of Minnie’s, come to see what she can take her for comfort.

Original performance of Trifles, with Marjorie Vonnegut, Elinor M. Cox, John King, Arthur E. Hohl, and T.W. Gibson, from The Theatre, Jan. 1917. (From the Billy Rose Theatre Collection, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center)

As the women listen in, the men discuss the case in the kitchen, commenting on Mrs. Wright’s poor housekeeping skills and noting that Mr. Wright was a hard man. The men are dismissive of Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale, and they soon leave to look at the murder scene while the women gather some things after being warned not to disturb evidence. The sheriff and attorney are confident that they have a good case against Minnie Wright, but are worried about her motive, which they don’t know.

Alone in the kitchen, the women look around and discuss several things that give us insight into Mrs. Wright’s character. First, Mrs. Hale comments that she wishes she had come around more after Minnie had married John Wright, because she knew it was a lonely, hard life since Minnie hadn’t been able to have kids and her husband was so distant and difficult. She notes how Minnie had been a good singer in the church choir before she’d gotten married.

Illustration from the Glaspell Project. Source

The two women also notice the quilt that Minnie had been sewing, noting the straight sewing that had gone askew, hinting at Minnie’s agitated state of mind as she’d sewn that part. They lament the burst jars of preserves that represented Minnie’s hard work gone to waste. Finally, they find an empty bird cage with a busted door and a box with a dead bird inside.

The bird’s neck is broken; it had been wrung.

Mrs. Peters clearly wants to give what they’ve found to her husband the sheriff, yet through conversation with Mrs. Hale slowly comes to identify with Minnie. First, Mrs. Peters recalls the lonely, loud silence surrounding her when her baby had been stillborn; in this, she identifies with how Minnie would have missed the cheerful song of the bird. Next, Mrs. Peters remembers how she wanted to go after the little boy who, in her childhood, had taken a hatchet to a kitten, identifying with how Minnie felt toward her husband, who had killed the bird. This identification prompts her and Mrs. Hale to keep the “evidence” from the men’s attention at the end of the play.

So after we discussed these elements of the play as well as its heavily-gendered power structures, I asked my students, “Are the women justified in keeping the evidence from the men?”

Most answered yes. Those who didn’t? They were men.

We discussed each perspective. Those who argued the women were justified referenced the marginalization women experienced at the time: they had few job opportunities, could not vote, could not even serve on a jury. Minnie, they argued, had essentially no recourse but to stay married to John Wright, even if he was abusive. Her inability to have children would have further marginalized her, keeping her isolated in a lonely farmhouse away from other women who were raising large families themselves. Plus, as the kitchen conversation revealed, the sheriff, Hale, and attorney’s attitudes toward Minnie were already clearly dismissive; they would have understood enough about the bird’s death to see it correctly as Mrs. Wright’s motive for murder without understanding her state of mind, her distress, her victimhood. Thus, in order to permit Mrs. Wright a chance at justice, the women are justified to withhold their knowledge.

The men disagreed though several suggested they sided with Mrs. Wright in her choice to kill John. The law is the law, one insisted. It isn’t justice to hide evidence or let a murderer go free, said another. The implication was clear– we have to have faith in the system. If Mrs. Wright goes to jail, that’s how things work. She shouldn’t have murdered her husband to begin with.

This insistence that Mrs. Hale and Peters are wrong to hide evidence seems unyielding. By suggesting that justice can only be achieved if the men have all the facts, they ignore the way women in the play are denied access to the conversation itself, much less the legal system. They empathize with Mrs. Wright’s suffering while refusing to let that empathy factor into the legal outcome. Yes, she’s justified in killing her husband, and no, she won’t get a fair trial, but still….the women shouldn’t have hidden the evidence. This banding together as women makes them just as bad as men, one said.

My students, I think, are wrestling with something they’ve encountered over and over again. This is the insistence that women (and people of color, etc) should fight institutional inequality within the institutions themselves. Never mind that the institutions are established by and for white men. That shouldn’t matter. What matters is that this is the way things work and to change how things work, one must work within the ways that things work.

That’s an easy position to take if the systems have always worked in your favor, but it becomes much more complicated when they don’t, which Mrs. Peters, though married to the law, is eventually enabled to see. And despite the gendered divide in my classes this week, I think we had enough Mrs. Hales in the class to bring some of the others around. And after all, #notallmen in my class sided against the women. Several thought Hale and Peters were justified in their decision.

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