The Missionary Circle tea turns out to be a turning point in the relationship between Scout and her Aunt Alexandra. In the previous chapter, Alexandra angered Scout to the breaking point when she refused to allow Walter Cunningham Jr. to come to the Finch house to play
"Because--he--is--trash, that's why..."
Jem was able to calm his sister down, offering her a chew of Tootsie Roll to stop her crying. Since Jem and Dill were going skinnydipping, and Scout wasn't invited, she was so bored that she decided to join Alexandra and Calpurnia for the tea, in which the
... missionary circle were fighting the good fight all over the house.
But Scout soon witnessed a dark side of the supposedly Christian ladies: Miss Stephanie made several jokes at Scout's expense before the women launched into their commiserations about the "sin and squalor" that surrounded the heathen Mruna tribe in Africa. The ladies seemed sincere enough to Scout until the talk turned to the Negroes living in Maycomb. There was no compassion in their talk about Mrs. Merriweather's "sulky darky" maid, Sophy; nor in Mrs. Farrow's worries about there being no white women "safe in her bed these nights" with black men like Tom running around free.
But when Mrs. Merriweather's insults became directed at Atticus, blaming him for his "misguided" efforts to "stir 'em up," Miss Maudie quickly defended her neighbor, curtly asking the women if the food that Atticus had provided for the party
"... doesn't stick going down, does it?"
Scout wasn't sure what some of the remarks meant, but she noticed that Aunt Alexandra
... gave Miss Maudie a look of pure gratitude, and I wondered at the world of women.
Scout was old enough to see the hypocrisy being spouted by Mrs. Merriweather and Mrs. Farrow, the two "most devout wom(e)n in Maycomb," and how Miss Maudie and Aunt Alexandra seemed to be different from them. When Atticus arrived with the news about Tom's death, Miss Maudie "commanded" Alexandra to "Stop that shaking," and Scout's aunt complied. The two shaken women, with Scout following, composed themselves and returned to the missionary circle, where they served their guests as if nothing had happened. Miss Maudie's actions were probably no surprise to Scout, but Scout was impressed with the way Aunt Alexandra had transformed herself, and when
Aunt Alexandra looked across the room at me and smiled,
Scout realized that her aunt was not like the other women in the room. Alexandra and Miss Maudie were real ladies, Scout decided, and
... if Aunty could be a lady at a time like this, so could I.