Mattie is trying to decide whether to break out of traditional gender roles, Royal exploits them, and Pa never thinks to question them.
Throughout the book, Mattie tries to decide if she wants to fall in line with tradition female roles, or if she wants to break free of them. Should she keep her promise to her dying mother and stay home to take care of her father, or should she follow her dream and go off to college to be independent? She also has to decide if a woman can be a writer, or should be a writer, and what a woman writer looks like. Can a woman have a family and a writing career?
“And I knew in my bones that Emily Dickinson wouldn't have written even one poem if she'd had two howling babies, a husband bent on jamming another one into her, a house to run… I knew then why they didn't marry. (p. 274)
Mattie wonders if Emily Dickinson gave up without trying, but she knows the answer. Motherhood and writing do not mix. At the same time, she wonders if Royal loves her, or just wants something else from her. While she often thinks she wants to marry him, she feels like she is giving up her future to do it.
Royal, on the other hand, is not giving anything up. He takes advantage of Mattie’s weakness to try to get her to give in to her before they get married. To Royal, marrying whatever girl he wants and getting whatever he wants is all that matters. Even his proposal is not romantic.
"I seen a ring in Tuttles. .... If I was to buy it, would you want it?" (p. 225)
It hardly seems genuine. He does not question her desire to marry. He is sure he can rope her in.
It never occurs to him that she might want anything different. It never occurs to him that she might want to marry for love, or that she might want a career. Women’s rights are the last thing on his mind. He takes what he wants, such as informing on Emmie for not paying taxes in order to take her land.
Pa is just trying to survive. As far as he is concerned, Mattie’s role is to serve him as the oldest daughter. She is supposed to be loyal and responsible. This is why he is so upset when she wastes her money on the composition book. He does care about his daughter, but he is just trying to get by. To him, women take care of the house, and the men. That is their role.