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Gender Relations and the Rural Hierarchy with the idea. She knows she cannot persuade Wad to do otherwise but she still asks
in Bobbie Ann Mason's Feather (;rowns James, "Are you going to let him take up a collection?" (162). She knows Wad is in
charge and that she must yield to James's wishes who, in turn, must acquiesce to Wad's
wishes. James responds, "You know I never begged for anything in my life. But I can~t
Melissa Birkhofer
go against Uncle Wad in this" (162). James explains the social hierarchy of the farm.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The Wheeler farm relies on all of its members following these gender roles. The men
of the farm cany out typically 'male' roles: decision-making, field work, and reprimanding
The social hierarchy at the turn of the century in upland Kentucky keeps order on the
the women or children who break ftom their respective roles. The women are to perform
farm in Hopewell, Kentucky. The hierarchy delegates a role to each member on the farm generally 'female' roles, subservient to the men. Christie describes her chores, "feeding
to increase efficiency and maximize profit. Following the rules of the hierarchy ensures her family, sewing pinafores for Nannie, washing James's blue-jeans, building a fire
the success of the farm. The characters in Bobbie Ann Mason's Feather Crowns lead a
under the wash kettle, hoeing the garden, splitting tobacco stalks" (399). The women
very repetitious, regimented life. They must conform to the rules of the social hierarchy of the novel want to go beyond these chores and break out of these roles.
in order to survive on the tobacco farm and have enough money left over at the end of the A closer reading of Feather Crowns, however, provides insight into the women's
harvest to last the rest of the year. The women of the novelleam to live in their respective, work in Hopewell and reveals that they, in fact, are possessed with gender mobility and
albeit oppressed roles. However, it is the rules of the hierarchythat allow them the fteedom the ability to transcend the rules of the hierarchy. For example, when the harvesting is
to subvert authority and break out of their daily routine lives. Feather Crowns, then, is behind, the women are expected to help cut tobacco until the men catch up, "Christie.
not a novel about oppressed women at the turn of the century, it is the story of women hated tobacco cutting. There was an art to it, and she hadn't mastered it" (310). The
who work within the system to fmd transcendence, and therefore, fteedom. women's tasks on the farm are less critical than the men's work, but the women's tasks
At first glance, the women in Feather Crowns lead a stifling life because they must make them more diverse workers.
conform to the social hierarchy of the farm. WadWheeler owns the farm; "Wad ruled the While the women are expected to break from their roles and help in other areas for
roost" (451). The other men on the farm must obey his wishes and the women, in turn, the good of the farm, the men are not as able to reciprocate. Ifa woman falls behind in
must obey the men's wishes. At the bottom of the hierarchy, the women of Feather her housework it is always a woman who helps her catch up. After the birth of the
Crowns lead a life of following orders on the farm. Because of the expectations the men quintuplets, Alma helps Christie with her chores, "keeping up James's work clothes, as
have of them, the women have little fteedom and are constrained in their ability to make well as the children's clothes" (126). The women have more mobility to move in and out
choices by themselves. of roles than the men; the men almost never break out of their roles. The women, then,
Recognizing this situation, the women on the Wheeler farm feel restricted in their possess an unrecognized power by being more versatile. Although none of the men'
power to make decisions or to be able to state their opinions. Fine describes Mason's would agree that women are indispensable when it comes to owning a successful farm,
characters as "people [who] fmd conventional gender roles stultifYing" and it is this they are more resourceful members of the farm's work force.
restricted feeling that propels the women of Feather Crowns to dream of a life beyond The women of the novel also possess a type of mobility within their sex. When
Hopewell and wonder what life outside of the farm would be like (Fine 91). The women Christie gives birth to quintuplets, she soon finds she cannot feed them all because her
feel the only way to assert themselves is to leave Hopewell. Christianna Wheeler, the breast milk does not replenish quickly enough to satisfY five babies. AnAfricanAmerican
protagonist of Feather Crowns thinks, "she badly needed to get away ftom the place that wet nurse, Mittens, is asked to help Christie feed the babies. Mittens and Christie spend
held her prisoner" (319). This common thread between Christie and the other women on days together sharing stories, talking about the babies, and becoming intimate friends.
the Wheeler farm serves to bring them closer together. As they work on household chores, Christie is appreciative of the time and care Mittens gives to the babies. They are both
they create a bond with one another and share their dreams of leaving Hopewell. Their grief-stricken when all of the babies eventually die. The town of Hopewell holds a
situation, then, is relieved in knowing the other women feel the same constraints. By visitation service for the babies and it seems to Christie everyone in the town has come
comparison, the men spend most of their days alone in the field and do not construct to view them. When she hears Mittens is waiting to see the quintuplets, the men tell her
similar relationships with other men. Mittens is not allowed in with white people, "It wouldn't do Mrs. Wheeler, Mr. Mullins
As a result, the interaction between men and women is restricted by the activities of tells her (263 ). Yet, "Christie felt the clarity of anger for the first time since she lost the
their daily lives. One of the few points of interaction comes at meals where the women babies. Mittens was more her friend than any of these strangers, any of the townfolks-
serve the men, "and of course you always had to serve the menfolks fIrSt"(451). Despite even some of her family, she thought, as her eyes lit on Wad and Boone and Joseph. But
Christie's feelings that she has a strong relationship with her husband, James, this she stifled these thoughts and followed Mr. Mullins" (263). On seeing Mittens and
regimented hierarchy produces boundaries in the relationship that she cannot cross. hearing her kind and sincere words of sympathy for the babies she helped feed and
For instance, when Christieexpresses her opinions to James, she knows it is his decision nurture, Christie grabs Mittens' hand and takes her up front to view the babies:
whether or not to act on them. When Wad begins taking up donations ftom the people Carrying a plate of biscuits and cake, she led Mittens through the hall, through
who travel to Hopewell to see the famous quintuplets, Christie immediately disagrees
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a room that opened into the Slumber Room trom the back, and before Mittens
could realize what was happening Christie had taken her right into the Slumber the conversation. While on tour, one of the spectators talks to James when Christie is
Room, which was full of visitors. She led Mittens straight to the glass case.(264) present, "You really put it to her, ain't you my triend? You must have been mighty busy
This type of social mobility at the turn of the century is only available to women. In this one night putting it to her" (199). James reacts quickly, saying, "I could tell you where to
way the women can act outside social conventions with the only punishment being a put it. I won't have you talk dirty in tront of my wife" (199). Though typically when a
reprimand trom the head of their household or being the center of gossip around town, woman is privy to conversation the men do not talk about certain subjects, usually as a
whereas if a man were to do the same as Christie, he could be risking his farm. sign of respect, here the spectators do not have the same respect, perhaps because the
The women.have the power to subvert the typical chain of command in public settings, sexual dynamic has been altered due to the woman's travel away trom the community.
such as the funeral parlor, without having to worry about lasting repercussions. Harriet Christie and the other women on the farm begin to realize when they are able to break
Pollack notes, "[Mason's] women have moved beyond the clear gender conceptions with the gender hierarchy and assert themselves. Price concludes:
which they were raised" (97). The treedom to break out of gender roles, however, comes Christie begins to protest against this silencing, and the masculine regime it
with responsibility. As Pollack further points out, "Mason's characters wander out of supports. When her rather meek brother-in-law, Boone, assures her that she has to
conventional sexual roles, and they face the bewilderment of moving beyond them. They go in McCain's tour "on account of the tobaccer," Christie corrects him: "No, we
find it necessary to redefme what it means to be a woman, a daughter, a mother" (97). don t have to . . . I said I wanted to go. I'm the one that decided," a point she
These Hopewell women,because they are able to take on differentroles, become protective reiterates when Boone fails to hear her assertion of volition. (136)
of their distinctive 'female' traits. Christie is careful in this first attempt to subvert the authority on the farm but makes her
wishes clear.
The women in the novel relish their private moments with other women, especially
during child birth. Christie remembers, "in the past, she had been comfortable with When Christie becomes famous after the births of the quintuplets, she has the power
pregnancy because of the privacy of it. It was her secret even after everyone knew. They to decide to go on tour with the babies. She is able to make the decision because the
didn't really know the feeling-a delicious, private, tingling joy. The changes in her babies are her possessions, and while Wad and James agree with her that the babies
body were hers alone" (11). It is when a man breaks out of his male role to enter into the should tour, she points out that the decision is hers alone. When Wad congratulates her
on her choice, he is plainly put aside:
female world that the women's opinions come to light. Since the pregnancy is abnormal,
"I reckon you'd see it my way," Wad said. . . "But I'm not seeing it your way,"
James calls for a doctor, "to deliver the babies, against the will of the women" although
Christie said with a clatter of plates. . . . "I don't know what she means by that,"
the midwife, Hattie Hurt, is already present (Price 127). Tothe women, childbirth on the
Wad said to James. "Think on it," said Christie, slapping a dishrag angrily at the
Wheeler farm is one of the last private female roles in which they possess some power.
table. (Pollack 110)
When Dr. Foote arrives and takes over for Hattie, the women are thrown into disarray at
This ability to assert oneself in the light of an important matter allows the women on the
seeing a man tell them what to do and how to help. Alma asks, "Ain't this women's
farm to lead meaningful lives because they learn how and when to break out of their
work?" and the midwife, Hattie, replies sarcastically, "I guess women are new at this"
gender roles. Christie realizes this chance to tour with the babies is her way of being able
(27). The women try to give Dr. Foote advice on every aspect of the birthing and are
to see the world and leave Hopewell.
obviously uncomfortable with Dr. Foote doing ''women's work." It is interesting to see James agrees to Christie's wanting to tour with the babies mostly because Wad has
the women taking on a usually "male" suspicion. The women try to assert themselves "strongly urged" him to tour in order to make money to pay offhis debt. Once on the
outside of their gender roles but Dr. Foote dismisses their skepticism in order to help road, James is miserable. He does not know how to act toward people or how to start a
Christie successfully give birth to quintuplets. Hattie tells Dr. Foote that Christie needs conversation with a stranger. The same idea of travel that breathes life into Christie,
to sit up if she is going to have the baby but Dr. Foote replies, ''No, I want her to lay back. "diminishes James, separating him trom his work and sense of purpose" (Pollack 114).
Now, Mrs. Hurt, you're just as well's to go home and let me handle this" (27). The Since James has no experience in interpersonal relationships, he has no idea how to forge
typical roles of male and female are inverted in this scene where the women are skeptical them while touring. As Christie describes, "James's spirit had dulled, and he plodded
of the male who thinks he knows about child birth and the man who must prove himself through the days like a mule at a plow, his blinders preventing surprise. He seemed worn
in his capacity. down" (379). He is lost and depressed on tour and desperately wants to return home to
Before Dr. Foote arrives, Amanda, Alma, and Hattie are busy preparing for the birth. Hopewell where people know him as James Wheeler, tobacco farmer.
All the people present in Christie's tront room are women and there are no roles being Oddly, Christie becomes lonely for her triends on the farm and remarks how
played out at this time. It is not until a man, Dr. Foote, is introduced into the situation disillusioned people look in the cities. She, too, wants to return home: "She had believed
that the women begin to take on their roles and become uncomfortable with the situation. there must be something that was better than putting up with the day-to-day hardship of
When a member of the opposite sex is introduced into a situation the dynamic of that a routine life, and she had been eager to leave home and travel into the unknown. . . But
situation is transformed into male and female roles. It is only when both sexes are present she would remember how listless and broken everyone seemed" (392). While the Wheeler
that role subversion or even the presence of dominant roles can take place. When, for farm is not a perfect place, especially for women, it is better than wandering, lost, around
example, men are conversing with each other they talk about any topic that happens into the world without a friend with whom to share the experience. Christie plans on going


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home and telling Amanda all the things she saw abroad, "The men had straight black hair transcend their gender roles. Men, who are thought to be in charge of the system, cannot
and blue eyes and strong muscles. They were astonishingly handsome .. . (410. Christie subvert the system because of their authority within it. While the hierarchy exists, men
misses Amanda and feels responsible to the women she left in Kentucky in the same way are trapped in their roles. Although Mason's novel cannot be read ~ social history, it is
James misses and feels responsible to the farm. still a window into how people, despite living in a seemingly oppressed situation, are
Christie returns to Hopewell and the other women on the farm hang on her every word able to overcome such oppression.
;about all of the places she visited. It is this bond between Christie, Alma, and Amanda
that makes their lives meaningful. McKee says, "In returning to Hopewell, Christie and
James, changed by their experiences, affIrmthe rural life Mason's characters often chafe
against" (McKee 42). While the men are tied to their solitary work in the fields they do
not create a close bond with other males. The men are tied to their fields and feel a sense
of responsibility to them; women on the farm feel a responsibility toward one another.
These personal relationships the women create bring a fullness to the women's lives that
the men lack. All of the "female" tasks such as feeding the chickens and washing clothes
are social chores. The women sit with each other as they mend clothing or prepare meals
and they are constantly building their relations with one another.
The women ofthe novel, therefore, feel a security in numbers that the men in Feather
Crowns do not. It is easier, then, to subvert the traditional hierarchy and assert oneself in
this type of environmentwhen other womenare present. Brinkmeyersuggeststhat Mason's
women "seem to be moving toward a higher level of awareness of their situation. With
this new understanding, these characters, one gathers, are in much more control of their
lives, even if they are not entirely happy or have few options on which to act" (23). The
women of the novel also possess power on the farm as can be seen in their ability to
break from their roles. Since they are able to tend to traditionally female tasks and are
expected to perform traditionally male tasks as well, the women are privy to all aspects
of the farm. It becomes clear that, although the power the women of Feather Crowns
possess is almost always unrecognized, it is this power that allows them to lead fuller
lives than the men on the Wheeler farm.
As the women begin to assert themselves, tension is created between the men and the
women because the hierarchy is in disarray: "Christie's portrayal of her relationship
with James is attuned to the difficulties created by unequalgender roles and expectations"
(price 142). Christie says in retrospect, "I felt like 1could do anything and that 1never
had to explain myself. It made me plumb sassy. 1reckon that's what got to Wad" (448).
It is with this tension that the women fmd themselves and realize their importance and
contribution to the farm: "I just kept a-cooking and churning and sewing and working in
the fields and the garden, and in the fall 1 cut dark-fire" (448-449). Brinkmeyer says,
"Mason seems to be suggesting, people can find a counterpoint to the status quo that will
challenge them to grope for deeper understanding of self and society" (26). The women
find a new significance in their old chores. They are aware of the powers they enjoy on
the farm and are able to lead meaningful lives on the farm that, at one time, they all
wanted to leave.
The characters inFeather Crowns are the product of a hierarchy created ttom necessity,
which not only functions, but functions on a complex level. It is only this rigid, highly
regimented hierarchy that makes its functioning possible. Feather Crowns, then, is more
than a novel about the oppressed lives women lead on a farm in Kentucky, it is a novel
about how the rural hierarchy, while restrictive, leaves enough room for women to

Works Cited

Brinlaneyer, Robert H. "Finding One's History: Bobbie Ann Mason and Contemporary
Southern Literature." Southern Literary Journal 19.2 (1987): 22~33.
Fine, Laura. "Going Nowhere Slow: The Post-South World of Bobbie Ann Mason."
Southern Literary Journal 32.1 (1999): 87-97.
Flora, Joseph M. "Bobbie Ann Mason." Contemporary Fiction Writersof the South: A
Bio-Bib/iographical Sourcebook. Eds. Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain. Westport,
Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1993.275-285.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. Feather Crowns. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Matuz, Roger, ed. Contemporary Southern Writers.Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.
McKee, Kathryn a. "Doubling Back: Finding Bobbie Ann Mason's Present in her Past."
Southern Literary Journal 31.1 (] 998): 35-48.
Pollack, Harriet. "From Shiloh to In Country to Feather Crowns: Bobbie Ann Mason,
Women's History, and Southern Fiction." Southern Literary Journal 28.2 (1996):
95- 116.
Price, Joanna. Understanding Bobbie Ann Mason. Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 2000.


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