Human society, by and large, was historically organized on patriarchal lines till the feminist movement picked up real momentum in the twentieth century. In America, for instance, women were given the right to vote only in the 1920s, post the suffrage movement (Johnston, p. 142). Further, it was not until the post World War II period that women really began to expand on their traditional roles as daughter, wife, mother, and homemaker (Johnston, p. 244). Interestingly, it was the Great Depression that played a key role in the latter day transformation of the American woman from homemaker to an individual who asserted the right to make her own choices and play a larger role in the affairs of society (Johnston, p. 145). In fact, the catalyst role played by the Great Depression in the transformation of the American woman is clearly evident in the manner in which Steinbeck develops the character of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath from a woman who is content to play a supportive role to one who increasingly adopts a role of authority. It would be a mistake, however, to characterize Steinbeck's Ma Joad as a radical feminist. Instead, as this paper will demonstrate, Steinbeck uses Ma Joad as a vehicle to expose the pitfalls of a patriarchal society and expound on the desirability of a society that practices the feminine principle of caring for others.
Prior to the Great Depression, three-fourths of American women did not work outside the home since the majority of women still perceived marriage as their vocation in life. However, this settling for domesticity did not mean that they remained content to play a submissive role within the house: "If most American women were not feminists or flappers, an explosion of freedoms caused many stirrings.... She was still domestic and supposed to be chaste and pious, but the flappers were no angels and certainly were not submissive.... Just round the corner, however, was the Great Depression. Many dreams would be deferred, and hard times would demand the fortitude and courage of the pioneer women...." (Johnston, p. 142-3)
The perception that marriage and family were, indeed, the right vocation for women is reflected in Steinbeck's principal female characters as well. For instance, Ma Joad's eldest daughter, Rose of Sharon, is depicted as a woman who seems to have no interests apart from her family, as evidenced by her expending all her energies on protecting her unborn child. Similarly, Ma Joad clearly believes that her life's purpose is to keep her family together: "...that's all I can do. I can't do no more. And the rest'd get upset if I done any more'n that. They all depen' on me jus' thinkin' about that." (Steinbeck, p. 159)
Indeed, Steinbeck makes the patriarchal nature of the Joad family apparent in the very first chapter of his book:
Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn.... The men were silent and did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men -- to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied their men's faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained...Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole." (Steinbeck, p. 3-4)
Steinbeck's introduction may establish the patriarchal nature of the Joad family and American society of that era, but on closer examination, his choice of words reveals that he is all too aware of the power of the feminine principle, which he expresses repeatedly, throughout the novel, as the need for a society where the dominant values should reflect the caring of others. Steinbeck chooses to embed these values in the character of Ma Joad, who demonstrates an altruistic nature right through the novel, beginning with the role she plays in including Jim Casy as part of the family circle traveling to California.
In fact, Jim Casy being allowed to travel with the Joads is very telling especially since an already overloaded family truck causes Pa Joad to ask whether they could really afford to take him. The question is settled when Ma Joad simply points out, "It ain't kin we? It's will we?" (Steinbeck, p. 132) Thus, while the travails of the Great Depression may have been the cause of Ma Joad transforming herself into a figure of authority in the family, usurping Pa Joad's role and position, it is clear that she always represented, and practiced the feminine principle of caring for others.
Perhaps the narrator's observation that the "women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole," (Steinbeck, p. 4) was Steinbeck's way of setting the note for the message to follow that every human being is only a piece of one big soul (Steinbeck, p. 572). Indeed, Ma Joad expresses Steinbeck's principle message eloquently when she tells Pa Joad, "man, he lives in jerks -- baby born an' a man dies, an' that's a jerk -- gets a farm an' loses his farm, an' that's a jerk. Woman, it's all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that." (Steinbeck, p. 577)
Ma Joad's feminine philosophy explains her stoic acceptance of Jim Casy's presence and need to travel along with the Joad family to California. More important, her philosophy leads her to the realization that the need of the hour is to keep the family together. In fact, it is this realization that leads Ma Joad into repeatedly defying Pa Joad and asserting herself, with the first such incident taking place when Pa Joad takes a decision to move on leaving Tom behind with Al to repair the Wilson car: "On'y way you gonna get me to go is whup me.... An' you ain't so sure you can whup me anyways." (Steinbeck, p. 230)
Although Ma Joad's fierce drive to keep her family together may, prima face, seem contradictory to her philosophy of life going on, the contradiction gets explained away when she expounds her vision of the primacy of the family. She tells Tom, "You done this 'thout thinkin' much.... What we got lef' in the worl? Nothin' but us. Nothin' but the folks." (Steinbeck, p. 230) In Ma Joad's eyes, therefore, the need of the hour is to keep her family whole and intact so that no misfortune is too great to bear, and so that like the river of life, they can go on: "We're the people. We go on." (Steinbeck, p. 383)
For Ma Joad, however, family soon becomes a larger vision of all of humanity as she experiences the suffering of her own kin and other migrant families: "Use'ta be the fambly was fust. It ain't so now. It's anybody. Worse off we get, the more we got to do." (Steinbeck, p. 470) And Ma Joad does more in spades.
In fact, it can be said that Ma Joad was a practitioner of the feminine principle even before she was able to clearly articulate it. For, throughout the novel, Ma reaches out to others in generosity: first to Casy, then the Wilsons, then the Hooverville children, the Weedpatch camp residents, and finally to the Wainwrights:
She stands in sharp contrast to American images of macho strength and also to Lao Tze's view of the feminine qualities embodied in yin as being weaker than the masculine yang. Yet Lao Tze urges; 'Know masculinity, / Maintain femininity.' [Tao Teh Ching, 72 (28)]. Although maintaining such a balance between polar opposites is difficult, believers must strive mightily to attain the brotherhood and unity such a balance will foster. In Ma, then, is the paradigm of Lao Tze's balanced man -- the one who sees and copes with the paradoxical nature of yin and yang, of strength residing in apparent weakness." (Meyer, p. 338)
Ma Joad certainly knows, understands and manipulates the masculine nature of her men folk. She decrees that the family must move on from the Weedpatch camp in spite of its comforts: "I feel like people again." (Steinbeck, p. 420) Ma Joad takes this decision because she recognizes that a man's dignity lies in his being able to provide for his family: "Take a man, he can get worried an' worried, an' it eats out his liver, an' purty soon he'll jus' lay down and die with his heart et out. But if you can take an' make 'im mad, why, he'll be awright." (Steinbeck, p. 481)
Although Ma Joad does succeed in making Pa good and mad at times, he gradually allows her to take over the reins of the family and even stops resenting it: "Funny! Woman taking over the fambly. Woman sayin' we'll do this here, an' we'll go there. An' I don' even care." (Steinbeck, p. 577) It is of interest to note…