How are gender roles explored and challenged in To Kill a Mockingbird?

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bullgatortail eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Author Harper Lee is not always kind to the women characters portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird. The narrator, Scout, is based on Lee herself: She is a tomboy who loves to wear overalls, has no close girl friends, is quick to fight, and prefers the company of boys and men. Scout hates the idea of being "ladylike," and she questions the ladylike qualities of many of the women she meets (ex: the missionary circle tea). Although Scout has been taught by Atticus to treat women as equals to men, many of the unmarried women are presented as strange or as outsiders. Scout comes to respect Calpurnia, who is a strong-willed and educated Negro woman--a rarity in the 1930s Deep South. Scout also bonds with her neighbor, Miss Maudie, a widow with equally independent thought and a sharp tongue. Women in TKAM, however, be they strong or weak, are not equal legally with their male counterparts. They are not allowed to vote or serve on juries, and few of them work, aside from the school teachers and the telephone operator. Women's roles are strongly defined: The working school teachers (all unmarried women) are among the few employed women mentioned; the rest are housewives; or widowed or single, living (presumably) in their family homes with inherited money. Women are second-class citizens in Maycomb, at least for the time being, until children like Scout grow up to make their presence felt. 

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To Kill a Mockingbird

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