What is the role of women in All My Sons?

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Arthur Miller’s All My Sons debuted on 1947 and examines the role of morality and mortality among business partners. The use of a gendered term in the title highlights a heightened sense around the gender roles the characters in the play.

For the most part, the separation of male...

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Arthur Miller’s All My Sons debuted on 1947 and examines the role of morality and mortality among business partners. The use of a gendered term in the title highlights a heightened sense around the gender roles the characters in the play.

For the most part, the separation of male and female roles is very apparent and very indicative of American life in the mid-1900’s. The women of the play are viewed within the context of their relationship to the men.

Kate is the matriarch of the Keller family, and she does not allow herself to accept Ann and Chris’s relationship. To accept the relationship would mean acceptance of Larry’s death. This frames Kate as a weak character, unable to face the truth and emotion that come with reality. She prefers to live in a fantasy where her son is still alive, just missing, instead of moving on.

On the other hand, the younger Ann is able to accept reality and move on with her life. She knows Larry has died and wants to pursue a life with Chris. When her father is arrested and imprisoned, she effectively ends her relationship with him, which is a break from the passive female gender role. In many ways, Ann represents the new generation of women who are not content with living as housewives.

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Ann, Kate, and Sue, the main women in the novel All My Sons, are less prominent characters than the men and serve mainly to drive the plot forward. They do have some level of responsibility and independence, but for the most part, their roles in the book reflect their roles in society.

Kate and Sue are defined almost exclusively by their relationship to their husbands, which makes them prototypical mid-century women—who didn't have any solidarity or much input in decision making. Even though the two have very different personalities, their roles are pretty much only relegated to being wives.

Ann has a bit more impact on the plot of the story overall but only so much as it relates to the men. Her role is used as an opportunity to compare her two suitors and drive the plot forward when she finally chooses a mate. The women's roles in the novel are limited to the domestic sphere.

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The female characters play important roles in All My Sons. While Kate, Sue, and Ann all function independently to some extent, Arthur Miller largely portrays their significance through their relationships to the male characters. None of them is shown to feel or demonstrate female solidarity. The women’s relative ages create many of the differences among them, especially between the youngest woman, Ann, and those senior to her.

Although Kate and Sue in some respects are foils, their similarities as wives who do not work outside the home connect them to typical early–mid-twentieth-century female roles. Kate, however, identifies primarily as a mother. Miller makes her into a Madonna figure, but one who is paralyzed by grief for her missing son. Deeply immersed in her grief, however, she cannot see how she is failing her husband and other son. Sue, in contrast, strongly identifies with her role in supporting her husband’s career; she criticizes Ann’s matrimonial plans and is contemptuous of Kate.

Ann has a key role in the plot, as her decision to marry Chris and abandon any pretense of waiting for Larry spurs most of the action. She has the opportunity to join her family, which Joe had destroyed, with the Kellers, but must overcome Kate’s opposition. Implying that the burden of healing in the postwar era falls heavily on the women, Miller makes Ann a strong character who is clearly capable of carrying the weight.

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This question can be answered in several ways. The two most compelling ways to approach this question will look at 1) how women are characterized and 2) the roles women play functionally. 

Ann and Kate are the two prominent female characters in the play, in addition to neighborhood women who have small parts in the play. Both Ann and Kate are depicted as women with moral strength. Yet they both also need help. Kate is seen at times as almost an invalid and Ann is damaged, to some degree, by the dissolution of her family after her father goes to prison. 

To generalize from these two characters, we can say that women are depicted as playing into the "cultural moment" of the 1940s/1950s culture of America. They do not challenge the prevailing image of women and instead perpetuate a view that marriage is a necessary protection and fulfillment for women. 

Functionally, Ann and Kate both bear secrets. Ann holds Larry's suicide letter and Kate keeps the secret of Joe's complicity and responsibility in the sale of the faulty airplane parts. 

When pressed, Kate and Ann each reveal the secret they have been holding and, in doing so, prove that they have reserves of moral strength that the men may not have. 

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