Study Guide

Daughter of Earth

by Agnes Smedley

Daughter of Earth Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Daughter of Earth is a chronicle of the life of Marie Rogers, a woman who, like the people for whom she worked and sacrificed her life, was “of the earth” and whose “struggle is the struggle of the earth.” Spanning the first thirty or so years of her life, the account is an attempt to resolve personal and political issues. Searching her earliest childhood memories, Marie traces the development of a political awareness which grew as a reaction to the tragic consequences of poverty and discrimination.

Marie’s story begins with her family’s journey as they leave the meager but stable sustenance of a farming life to look for success by engaging in what they find to be the wearisome and unending toil of a disenfranchised proletariat. Their situation illustrates on an individual level the circumstances of all workers who fruitlessly struggle for financial success. In the same way, the situation of Marie’s mother is emblematic of the lives of women who have no choices once they are committed to a marriage in poverty. The real and threatened violence which Marie’s father inflicts on his wife and children expresses his frustration in never getting ahead.

As Marie’s family drifts from one company mining town to the next, and as their economic status and family cohesiveness deteriorate, an awareness of the all-pervasive systems of class and gender oppression dawns in her mind. She commits herself to the goal of becoming educated, hoping to extricate herself from the inevitabilities of poverty—and of marriage. When young Marie glimpses the relationships between husbands and wives, she sees the threat of ultimate demoralization for herself. Sex becomes for her a cruel exchange in which women trade their bodies for the doubtful economic security of marriage. The legitimacy of married women is, for Marie, less honorable than...

(The entire section is 762 words.)

Daughter of Earth Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Kissen, Rita M. “Teaching Agnes Smedley’s Daughter of Earth.” NWSA Journal: A Publication of the National Women’s Studies Association 2 (Summer, 1990): 525-434. A discussion of pedagogical approaches to Smedley’s novel.

MacKinnon, Janice R., and Stephen R. MacKinnon. Agnes Smedley: The Life and Times of an American Radical. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. A thoroughly researched and detailed account of Smedley’s life and career. The MacKinnons trace the development of Smedley’s political views and her career as a writer from her childhood in a mining family in the west to Berlin, the Soviet Union and China.

Milton, Joyce. A Friend of China. New York: Hastings House, 1980. A young-adult biography of Agnes Smedley. Focuses on her travels in China as a foreign correspondent, where she became one of the first outsiders to interview Mao Tse-Tung.

Nichols, Kathleen L. “The Western Roots of Feminism in Agne’s Smedley’s Daughter of Earth.” In Women and Western American Literature, edited by Helen W. Stauffer and Susan J. Rosowski. Troy, N.Y.: Whitson, 1982. An analysis of feminist themes and their sources in Smedley’s novel.

Rabinowitz, Paula. “Ending Difference/Different Endings: Class, Closure, and Collectivity in Women’s Proletarian Fiction.” Genders 8 (July 8, 1990): 62-77. A feminist reading of Daughter of Earth and a comparison of the book with Clara Strang’s Marching! Marching! Both are working-class novels by women that deal with social class and collectivism.