Three Thanksgivings Themes
Mrs. Morrison’s goal in the story is to reach self-sufficiency so that she can keep her beloved house without having to marry Mr. Butts. For a widowed woman with little money in the early twentieth century, this was a difficult task. Men had a better chance for economic survival, even if they started out poor like Mr. Butts. In addition, most men assumed that a woman, especially a fifty-yearold woman like Mrs. Morrison, would have a hard time surviving on her own. Says Mr. Butts, ‘‘But you can’t, I tell you. I’d like to know what a woman of your age can do with a house like this—and no money?’’ Mrs. Morrison’s situation is complicated by the fact that she has to pay off a small mortgage on her house. Although the two thousand dollars that she owes to Mr. Butts is not a large sum for a mortgage, Mr. Butts notes the prevailing attitude at the time, saying that it ‘‘is considerable money for a single woman to raise in two years—and interest.’’ Despite this opposition, which Mrs. Morrison also experiences from other men like her son-in-law, Joe, she is able to make ‘‘all expenses . . . her interest . . . a little extra cash, clearly her own, all over and above’’ the two thousand dollars she owes. By paying off the loan and having money left over, Mrs. Morrison is now debt-free and self-sufficient and so can choose to do whatever she wishes from this point on. However, Mr. Butts still refuses to believe that Mrs. Morrison did it on her own and says, ‘‘I believe some of these great friends of yours have lent it to you.’’
The Expected Roles of Women
During the early twentieth century, most women were expected to get married and raise children, as Mrs. Morrison did. However, if a woman became a widow and did not have enough money to support herself, she was generally expected to depend upon someone else. In the story, Mrs. Morrison’s options for whom to depend upon are representative of the few options most women had. She can marry Mr. Butts or live with one of her children. Above all, Mrs. Morrison does not want to remarry. Mr. Butts, however, does not care about Mrs. Morrison’s feelings and says to her in regard to the desire to marry: ‘‘You’ve made that clear. You don’t, but I do. You’ve had your way and married the minister. He was a good man, but he’s dead. Now you might as well marry me.’’ Men’s needs were often put ahead of women’s needs, and in this case Mr. Butts is saying that he is a man, he wants to marry her, and he intends to keep pushing her to accept his proposal, despite her protests. Mrs. Morrison refuses to marry Mr. Butts, however, because she still loves her husband. As she notes to herself, ‘‘Some day she meant to see him again—God willing—and she did not wish to have to tell him that at fifty she had been driven into marrying Peter Butts.’’
If she does not marry Mr. Butts, her only other option, at first, appears to be living with one of her children. She gives each of her children’s respective homes a one-week trial run, but is not comfortable at either place. With Andrew and his wife, Annie, Mrs. Morrison is treated like a relic. Andrew and Annie cannot see Mrs. Morrison as anything but old, so when she stays with them and is ‘‘set down among the old ladies and gentlemen—she had never realized so keenly that she was no longer young.’’ At Jean’s house, Mrs. Morrison is not coddled; she is put to work. Jean expects that her mother will pitch in and take some of the burden off Jean. As a result, Jean is very dependent upon her mother: ‘‘By the hour she babbled of their cares and hopes, while Mrs. Morrison, tall and elegant, in her well-kept old black silk, sat holding the baby or trying to hold the twins.’’
In addition to the roles women were expected to play—wife, mother, old person, babysitter— there were roles that women were expected not to have. Chief among these was businesswoman. This does not stop Mrs. Morrison from trying, however, and when she realizes that she does not like the idea of marrying Mr. Butts or living with her children, she puts her brain to the task of creating a business. ‘‘Two years were before her in which she must find some way to keep herself and Sally, and to pay two thousand dollars and the interest to Peter Butts.’’ Most people expect that she will fail in her undertakings, but she surprises them all by starting and running a very successful women’s club: ‘‘The financial basis of the undertaking was very simple, but it would never have worked so well under less skilful management.’’ Still, some people, most notably Mr. Butts, are not used to the idea of a woman running her own financial affairs. When Mrs. Morrison hands Mr. Butts the check to pay off her loan, he is shocked: ‘‘‘I didn’t know you had a bank account,’ he protested, somewhat dubiously.’’
Mrs. Morrison is only one of the women in the story who demonstrates to the Haddleton women— and Gilman’s readers—that women can surpass the expectations put upon them. Mrs. Blake is known internationally for ‘‘her splendid work for children. . . . Yet she was known also to have lovingly and wisely reared six children of her own—and made her husband happy in his home.’’ Mrs. Blake is a well-rounded woman, not confined by society’s expectations of her. As a result, she is able to fulfill some of the traditional roles of women—wife and mother—while still making a name for herself through her social activism.
The Power of Organization
One of the key messages that Gilman gets across in the story is that, on their own, women cannot effect a huge change in society, but there is strength in numbers. When Mrs. Blake speaks to the various churches in Haddleton, she talks about ‘‘the women’s club houses, going up in city after city, where many associations meet and help one another.’’ Mrs. Blake fires up the crowds by telling them that they will have control over the club, for a small price: ‘‘All you have to do is organize, pay some small regular due, and provide yourselves with what you want.’’ The women are excited to form their own club, especially since the fee seems so small: ‘‘Five dollars a year these country women could not have faced, but ten cents a week was possible to the poorest.’’ Five dollars a year is roughly ten cents per week, but since the women only have to pay a small portion of it each week, they do not even think about the money.
However, while the fee ‘‘was very little money, taken separately . . . it added up with silent speed.’’ This is the power of organization. One person or one small payment on its own cannot create much change. However, when the women band together, they are able to help Mrs. Morrison pay back her loan and retain her self-sufficiency. In the process, the Haddleton women collectively strike a victory for feminism, since they will get to keep their club and Mrs. Morrison will keep her independence—a good thing for all women. The countess notes the positive power of women’s organization, which was going on in many places at the beginning of the twentieth century. The countess addresses the women of Haddleton, saying that she expects if she returns to the town, ‘‘it would have joined the great sisterhood of women, whose hands were touching around the world for the common good.’’