The simplest definition of a feminist is “a person who supports the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities as men.” In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Nanny is acutely aware that in the Jim Crow–era South, women—especially black women—do not have equal rights or opportunities:
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out ... So de white man throw down de load and tell de man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fun it tuh be different wid you.
Nanny is a feminist because she believes that black women, like her granddaughter, should not be the mules of a world ruled by men. She wants the world to be different for Janie but is limited by what she herself can do to impact change.
Nanny was born into slavery. She tells Janie,
Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do ... Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.
Nanny dreamed of doing more with her life and being a voice for all women, but as a slave, she could not control her own destiny. She was raped by a white man, her daughter was also raped by a white man, and she is willing to do anything to prevent her granddaughter from falling victim to the whims of men. She “can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa [Janie],” and so she does the only thing that she is able to do: that is, to force Janie to marry the wealthiest possible man, the farmer Logan Killicks.
She forces Janie to marry because she knows that true equality for black women is not possible in the Jim Crow South, but having “prop tuh lean on all yo’ lawn days, and big protection, and everybody got tuh tip day hat tuh you” would give her granddaughter a higher status in the black community, guaranteeing her greater privileges and some protection against being “used for a work-ox and a brood-sow.”
Nanny knows that Janie’s marriage to Logan is not an ideal solution. She knows that Logan does not treat Janie like an equal. She warns Janie that Logan’s gestures of affection will not last long:
He ain’t kissin’ yo moof when he carry on over yuh lak dat. He’s kissin’ yo’ foot and ’tain’t in uh man tuh kiss foot long. Mouf kissin’ is on uh equal and dat’s natural but when dey got to bow down tuh love, dey soon straightens up.
Gender equality, as Nanny sees it, involves men and women meeting at an equal level. Nanny wants to make sure that Janie understands that allowing men to dote on her will not bring equality into a relationship. Sure enough, several months into their marriage, Logan grows tired of doting on Janie and commands her to work on the farm. Janie, however, is not quite ready to “grab dat ax and sling chips like uh man” and plow the fields alongside her husband. In Logan’s mind, women should be able to do the same things that men do.
This sort of life, and type of marriage, is the limit of Nanny’s vision of equal rights and opportunities for black women in the South. Janie, however, is not ready to accept Nanny’s version of feminism and seizes the first available opportunity to pursue another life for herself.