Armstrong 1 Christy Armstrong English 110 Ms.

Heather Cline October 17, 2007

“A Jury Of Her Peers”: The Changing Roles Of Women
Accusations of murder, an unkempt house—these are preludes to a mystery about why Mr. Wright is dead. The better question: why is his wife, Minnie, being held for questioning? One frigid morning, a material witness, an attorney, the sheriff, and two of their wives go to the scene of the crime to investigate. With found pieces of evidence and motive and a serious moral dilemma, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters have a decision to make. In this short story, author Susan Glaspell raises some thought-provoking questions of right and wrong. “A Jury of Her Peers” also raises discussion of the rights and roles of women during the early 1900‟s. Society has changed vastly since then. Today, women have more freedom than ever to speak their minds and to make an impact on the world around them. The author, Susan Glaspell, was involved in the women‟s rights movement when she wrote “A Jury of Her Peers.” When writing this story, she drew inspiration from the women‟s rights movement and from a legal case quite similar to the one she would write about. She did not live the typical life of a woman in that time. Unlike many women during the turn of the century, she was very ambitious in her endeavors outside the home. She went to college. With her husband, she started a theater group called the Provincetown Players. Later, she pursued journalism and became successful in both journalistic writing and in her own novels and short stories (Ben-Zvi). Glaspell‟s main theme is a reflection of what she was passionate about.

Armstrong 2 Looking back from the twenty-first century, this story addresses just how different the lives of women were during that time. Women in the very early 1900‟s did not enjoy the same privileges as they do today. A woman‟s role during that time was mainly to stay at home. They were only expected to cultivate families and to keep up with the housework. For many women, it was very unusual to have a career and to be in the public eye. Their priorities were at home, and that is where society expected them to be. Over the next two decades, however, that would all start to change. Women went from homebound producers to wage-earning consumers to political and social reformers in the short course of these twenty years. Though these women were not always seen as politically productive by men of their time, many women became active and independent and productive in their new found roles by changing what was an acceptable role for a woman to excel in (Beck). This short story was written during those changing times. The title, “A Jury of Her Peers”, is very ironic. At the turn of the twentieth century, women were not allowed to serve on a jury. Women could not fulfill that civic duty until the year 1920. They never held any public offices; they never had any say in how the government was run. In the eyes of most people, those kinds of responsibilities were “too much” for a woman to handle (Ritter). Yet, in this short story it is implied that there was “a jury of her peers.” This was not your typical jury. It was the women of the group, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, who would make the decision to judge whether or not to convict Mrs. Wright. Men and women have always had different ways of thinking. This point is made very obvious throughout the story. The men were only concerned with the technical details of solving a case. They laughed at the women‟s genuine concern over the everyday aspects of Mrs. Wright‟s life. “„Oh, well,‟ said Mrs. Hale's husband, with good-natured superiority, „women are

Armstrong 3 used to worrying over trifles‟” (Glaspell 248). It was all just women‟s work; it was insignificant. However, the women were able to see what was wrong in the home. From the dirty kitchen to the crooked stitches on a quilt square, the women were actually able to see what Minnie‟s day-to-day life was like. The answers to the mystery lay in these “trifles”. What was Susan Glaspell insinuating when she wrote this piece? Was she implying that a man‟s intuition is inferior to a woman‟s? On the contrary. She was pointing out the inherent differences between the sexes. The reason Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters became a jury of Mrs. Wright‟s peers is that they found something in her life that they could relate to. There was a sort of sisterhood between them. Because they saw Minnie‟s life through the eyes of a peer, they were better able to grasp what her motive might have been. Mrs. Wright‟s home situation provided a major clue as to why she might have murdered her husband. Glaspell starts the story off by establishing a very gloomy setting. It is during a very cold winter, and the Wright‟s house is described as being very isolated. While the men are investigating, the women speculate about how lonely Mrs. Wright must have been. Mrs. Hale muses that “It never seemed a very cheerful place” (Glaspell 249). Mrs. Peters drives that point further, saying, “It would be lonesome for me—sitting here alone” (Glaspell 256). They also speculate about how the Wright‟s marriage was strained. This, in their minds, seems to justify Mrs. Wright‟s motives. The women of the group were also at first hesitant to snoop around Mrs. Wright‟s home. This feeling is described through Mrs. Hale. “„You know‟,—She paused, and feeling gathered,— „It seems kind of sneaking: locking her up in town and coming out here to get her house to turn against her‟” (Glaspell 253). However, the women later discover the real consequence of their searching. Before they had even really begun to look for clues, the men were convinced that Mrs. Wright was guilty, stating, “I guess before we're through with her she may have something more

Armstrong 4 serious than preserves to worry about” (Glaspell 248). The women, however, needed to see more evidence before they would decide. As the women stumble upon clue after clue, they are able to piece together what must have happened during the night. They first become suspicious that something might be wrong when they find the kitchen in an unusually messy state. Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale also become concerned about the ragged sewing on a quilt square they find, thinking that it further represents Minnie‟s erratic behavior. The biggest discovery, however, is when they discover her canary dead, with a wrung neck, and wrapped in silk. The women muse that “She—come to think of it, she was kind of like a bird herself” (Glaspell 257). The strangled canary was symbolic; when her canary was killed, her joy was killed too. The women really do seem to come to an understanding of why Mr. Wright ended up with a rope around his neck. So, what are they to do? They decide to conceal all of the evidence that they found. Strangely enough, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale also come to the conclusion that their opinions are irrelevant. If for no other reason but to save Mrs. Wright from the punishment of a murderer, they keep silent. When asked about what they found, they play off the men‟s perception of them, talking about things of the home instead of the more important issue at hand. One of the reasons that they feel the need to hold their tongues is because of a woman‟s place in society during that time. Growing up, girls were taught that a woman‟s place was at home, going about life concerned only by the things that personally concerned her and never making waves. A woman‟s place was not to be in the public eye. If one considers the roles of women during that time, it is not much of a stretch to think that a woman would be hesitant to share her thoughts on something as important as a legal case. Women could not serve on a jury during the first couple decades of the twentieth century. How could their little jury of peers

Armstrong 5 possibly make a difference? They were bound to Mrs. Wright by what they had in common—a lack of voice. The men in the group, including the sheriff, could not see the evidence that was right in front of them. It is not that it was hidden from their eyes, but that they simply did not care to see it. The keys to this mystery lay in the everyday life of a woman and the “trifles” of her life. The insignificant quickly became significant. Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters were able to pick up on the real joys, pains, and emotions of Minnie‟s life—the things that cannot be held as physical evidence. They purposely kept what they found to themselves to protect Mrs. Wright and also because they did not feel that their opinions would matter. They would rather commit the crime of withholding evidence than to betray a friend and fellow woman. “Finally, it [this story] points up the fragility of the human mind. What may be a trifle to one person is sufficient to drive another to the ultimate crime—murder” (Westlake). The story of this case would likely be told differently if it were to have happened today. Even though the murderer was a friend, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters could have been more quick to speak against her as a murderer today. They might have better realized their responsibility to live for justice. However, perhaps they may have taken a different route to defend Mrs. Wright with claims of her husband‟s implied abuse. The ability to speak their minds on such a matter would have been a welcomed liberty during the turn of the twentieth century. The women of today possess much more freedom to be involved with the law and to testify and give their opinions in court. It is important to remember that the establishment of these freedoms came with great responsibility. Women can serve on juries to help decide a person‟s fate and have the ability to provide input on the laws and government in this country. Women have more freedoms and guarantees of equal rights than they ever have before in the history of the United States. Consequently, women now hold more influence—and choices to make—than ever. They can

Armstrong 6 change the world for the worse or for the better. Susan Glaspell‟s “A Jury of Her Peers” brings us to a critically relevant question for this day and age: what are women going to do with all of the influence that they now have?

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