In light of the place of woman in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, how does Barbara rebel against traditional feminine roles?

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Felicita Burton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The very title “Major Barbara” provides clues that Barbara is not a typical young woman. G. B. Shaw identifies her with a highly masculine, military leadership role and then reveals that her office is not actually military but in the realm of social service—an army that saves souls. Elite young women at the turn of the last century were expected to remain in the home, and while charitable works were acceptable, they were expected to be done through appropriate channels.

Barbara’s family has different expectations of her ideal role than the course she is following. Lady Britomart, her mother, travels in elite society, and her father, Mr. Undershaft, is a weapons manufacturer. Although Barbara is attached to a young man, Cusins, she spends her days with other men—and men who are far below her in social class, thus jeopardizing her reputation and future social status. She even rejects women’s proper clothing: when donning a ladylike outfit, “Do you think I can be happy in this vulgar silly dress? I! who have worn the uniform,” she exclaims.

Shaw was hyper-aware of the importance of money in British society, so he presents Barbara as rebelling through her initial determination to reject money itself as well as what she believes it stands for. Undershaft is Shaw’s mouthpiece for hard questions about upper-class reformers’ motivations. To Undershaft, “money is my religion.” Barbara’s devout actions position her as almost nun-like in her rejection of convention: “I escaped from the world into a paradise of enthusiasm and prayer and soul saving.” Ultimately, however noble her ambitions, they are inconsistent with expected social roles for young women of the time.

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Lynnette Wofford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Major Barbara’s rebellion must be seen not only in light of the construction of the “new woman” as a rebellion against gender but also as a class rebellion.

The Salvation Army would have struck audiences of the period as an odd choice for an upper middle class girl, as dissent (in its sense as Protestantism not part of the Church of England) and evangelical religion were more associated with the lower middle classes. On the other hand, the Salvation  Army was among the first organizations in Britain (and first Christian organizations in the world) to have absolute gender equality through all its ranks. Thus in joining it, she enables herself to exist within a society far more equal than the wider one of her period.

Her independence and association with lower class men (unchaperoned) were also radical for her period,.

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