How is the theme of respect for women shown in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Scout, the narrator of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, is a woman-in-training, and each of the women in this novel helps her along that journey. Some of them demonstrate the traits she should not develop, and others demonstrate the characteristics of a fine, upstanding woman. 

Whichever kind of woman Scout encounters, Atticus expects his daughter to behave respectfully toward her, and he demonstrates that by his own actions. Consider the following women and how Atticus treats them throughout the story.

Calpurnia is a kind of substitute mother for Scout and Jem. Atticus clearly trusts her implicitly, as we never hear or see him countermand anything she does. In fact, he backs her up and treats her respectfully in all things. When Cal scolds Scout for her rude comments to Walter Cunningham (the syrup incident), Atticus does not intervene; when he is gone, he trusts Cal to take care of them and allows her to take them to her church. Atticus gives her the ultimate respect by entrusting his most precious treasures (his children) to her. He respects her and it shows.

Miss Maudie is another significant woman in Scout's life, and she proves herself worthy of both Atticus' and the children's respect. She does not put up with any nonsense, she is a spiritual woman in her own way, and she is unafraid to speak truth to Jem and Scout. We know that Atticus respects her for many reasons and in many ways, but again the primary one is his trusting her with his children.

Mrs. Henry Lafayette Dubose is not a woman who seems to deserve much respect, as she has a foul mouth and is not afraid to use it. Despite that, Atticus always treats her with the greatest respect. He knows what his children only learn later, that she is a woman who has flaws but courageously battles an addiction simply because she wants to regain control of her life. That, according to Atticus and Harper Lee, is worthy of respect.

On the surface, Mayella Ewell does not seem to be the kind of girl who deserves much respect--especially from Atticus who is fully aware that she is lying under oath, an act which puts an innocent man in prison. Despite that, Atticus treats her respectfully on the stand, something Mayella is too naive to understand. In court,

...Mayella became articulate. "I got somethin' to say," she said.

Atticus raised his head. "Do you want to tell us what happened?" But she did not hear the compassion in his invitation. 

He understands why Mayella is who she is and does what she does, and he is even glad to be abused (spit upon) by her father because he does not want Bob Ewell taking out his anger on Mayella or the other children.

Aunt Alexandra is Atticus' sister, and the two of them certainly do not see racial matters in the same way; despite that, Atticus is respectful to her even in their disagreements. When she wants him to talk to the children about their family heritage, he tries. He really does. In the end, he just does not care about the same things she does; however, he does not belittle her in front of his children.

The way women are treated in this novel is centered primarily around how Atticus treats them and his expectations that his children will show these women the same respect. Given Atticus' character, we should not be surprised that he treats all women respectfully, and by making Atticus an admirable character, the author suggests that we should do the same. We should take Atticus' advice "to climb into someone's skin and walk around in it" before we judge.

Read the study guide:
To Kill a Mockingbird

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