Feminist theory is the study of women and their place within society. Here we look at it with regard to literature. Feminist theory looks at the way women have historically been treated by a male-dominated society, and their attempts to conquer such oppression.
In the 1970s, preconceived interpretations were questioned, as well as the world view of women, in literature:
Images of male-wrought representations of women (stereotypes and exclusions) came under fire, as was the 'division, oppression, inequality, [and] interiorized inferiority for women.'
Joyce Carol Oates was a leading figure in this movement, determining that a woman's place in literature "was culturally determined." Culture plays an important part in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use." Feminist theory, according to social and cultural paradigms, is more central to the plot.
Dee and Maggie are sisters. Dee has left her poor home—built by the labor and resolve of many generations of women who have earned their freedom from slavery—to find her own kind of equality, both social and cultural. Dee ignores the sacrifices made for her—she has taken an African name (Wangero), and is with a man who sees the world as she does. She wishes only to celebrate her heritage before her ancestors arrived on American shores. Dee wants nothing to do with the connections and "shame" of the past, but she does want some pieces of her mother's that will "look good" in Dee's home.
First Dee wants the "dasher," used for butter-making. The history of the piece is meaningless to her; she doesn't think about the women whose hands have left their mark. Her mother remembers:
You didn't even have to look close to see where hands pushing the dasher up and down to make butter had left a kind of sink in the wood...there were a lot of small sinks; you could see where thumbs and fingers had sunk into the wood.
Next, Dee wants the quilts that their mother and grandmother have made.
Out came Wangero with two quilts. They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt ftames on the front porch and quilted them.
Maggie, who has not lost sight of the strength of the line of women from whom she has descended, is incensed by her sister's demands. The quilts are truly Maggie's heritage, preserving ties to her grandmother, now dead.
Dee's assumes immediate "ownership" as her mother describes:
'Some of the pieces...come from old clothes her mother handed down to her,' I said, moving up to touch the quilts. Dee...moved back just enough so that I couldn't reach the quilts. They already belonged to her.
In studying Dee's behavior, we see that she looks for strength in the cultural past she chooses to acknowledge, not from the women who have forged a way for her. Maggie, who is still very much connected to the strong women of her line, shows feminine strength that is gleaned of a love and pride in the women she has come from. Her connection to the past is strong and honest, whereas Dee is still searching for a true sense of who she is.
Her mother says the quilts are for Maggie when she marries; Dee is sure she will ruin them them with everyday use, but it is Dee who misunderstands their value—while Maggie wants them to remain connected to her "line."
The quilts go to Maggie who will truly value the quilts for their history. Ironically, Dee tells her mother that she doesn't understand their heritage, when the opposite is true. Dee is the one who has set herself adrift.