Gender Roles in Margaret Atwood's Short Fiction "Stone Mattress"

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

31 Pages, Grade: 1,7












The Canadian author Margaret Atwood is “one of the most important literary chroniclers of our time.” (Nischik, 2000: 1) Her works cover a great number of literary genres and have earned her a spot in the Canadian canon. Her novels, children’s books and short stories as well as her poetry merely portray the tip of the iceberg that is Margaret Atwood’s oeuvre. (4) Literary critic, lecturer, teacher, active member in various literary organization and editor slowly begin to complete the long list of Atwood’s fields of expertise. Her works appeal both to literary scholars and the average reader and are praised for their level of eloquence and wit. (Stein, 1999: 1) Not surprisingly, the list of Atwood’s achievements and awards is equally as long as the list of her competences. Among aforesaid achievements are for example the Man Booker Prize and the renowned Governor General’s Literary Award, which she received twice. (Nischik, 2009: 2) In addition she was ranked 5th on Rawlinon’s and Granatstein’s The Canadian 100: The 100 Most Influential Canadians of the Twentieth Century. (Nischik, 2000: 1) Even excluding the awards Atwood actually received, one cannot forget the many times she was shortlisted, including her nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Although most of Atwood’s work is in fact fiction, her writing often tackles cultural, social or political issues. One of the more prevalent themes is gender related problems, such as gender inequalities and discrimination. Through her fiction, Atwood questions traditional gender roles and criticizes our patriarchal society. (Nischik, 2009: x)

Atwood herself rejects the title ‘feminist’, as she states during an online Q&A:

I never say I'm an "ist" of any kind unless I know how the other person is defining it (Am I against lipstick, etc.) but in general: I believe women are full human beings (radical, I realize). And that laws should reflect this. However, men and women are not "equal" if "equal" means "exactly the same. (

However, the theme of feminism pervades many of her works. More often than not, Atwood is referred to as a feminist author (Wisker, 2012: 2) and entire works on her dealing with questions of gender related issues have been published. (Nischik, 2009 or Tolan, 2007)

Those feminist readings of her works are not surprising when taking a closer look at her fiction. Her female characters often question the gender roles imposed by society and refuse to conform to patriarchal expectations. In doing so, Atwood points out the imbalances between the sexes through the characters she creates. (Thomas, 2007: 7)

Reading Atwood in the context of gender studies becomes especially interesting when studying the connection between fiction and feminism for two reasons: Firstly, her career as a writer encompasses the second and the third wave of feminism which makes her body of work a witness of those eras. Secondly, Atwood has gathered a reputation for being a “culturally and theoretically-aware writer who both uses and challenges the ideas which permeate her culture”. (Tolan, 2007: 1)

One of the most fundamental ideas in literary studies is the function of literature as a mirror of the society and culture in which it emerged, and that fiction often reflects problems of the period during which it was written. Atwood herself states that literature “can also be a mirror […], a reflection of the world […].” (Atwood, 1972: 8-9)

Naturally, our society has changed since the 60s. The women’s movement has developed and new feminist goals have been set. This in turn suggests that those aspects related to gender within Atwood’s fiction have changed as well. The aim of this thesis will be to analyze whether the development of gender roles can in fact be found in Atwood’s newest short story collection Stone Mattress, and if so, how that development unfolds in the writing.

This paper will start with a definition of terms such as sex, gender and gender roles, which will aid in clarifying the meaning of those concepts and therefore simplify the following analysis. Furthermore, a historical overview over the women’s movement in Canada shall distinguish the three waves of feminism and highlight the different aims of each wave as well as the evolution of women’s roles in their respective society.

With the theoretical knowledge gained in mind, we will look at Atwood’s earlier short fiction and briefly analyze a few of her earlier works with special attention to the way in which she portrays her characters regarding gender roles. This first analysis will lead to the main portion of this paper which will then deal with her short story collection Stone Mattress. An in-depth analysis will take a look at both, her female and male characters and answer the question of whether or not they adhere to traditional gender roles. Additionally, I will establish if a change in the way Atwood portrays her characters can be detected. Finally, this thesis will be concluded by summarizing the findings and explicitly answering the question: Has Atwood’s writing changed parallel to the development of the women’s movement?


Only a few decades ago the terms sex and gender were “obscure sociological concepts, confusing not only to the general public, but to academicians as well.” (Lipman-Blumen, 1984: 1) However, in order to fully understand the analysis following in later sections of this thesis it is important to define those exact concepts as well as the terminology associated with the term gender role.

It is part of human nature to group members of society into different categories, which define how its members are perceived and treated. (Lindsey, 1990: 1) Two categories every society recognizes are the binary opposites of female versus male, which are used to describe the sex of a person. The term sex is not to be confused with the term gender; however they are often mistakenly used interchangeably. Sex refers to an “anatomical-biological category” (Nischik, 2009: 5) that describes “chromosomal, anatomical, reproductive, hormonal, and other physiological characteristics” (Lindsey, 1990: 2). This suggests a binary structure among human beings: XX-chromosomes versus XY-chromosomes; vagina versus penis; female versus male. Nevertheless, from a pure “chromosomal, hormonal and anatomical perspective” (Lipman-Blumen, 1984: 2) individuals that fall into neither of those categories do exist. With the term sex comes the closely linked term sex role, which describes certain behaviors that are “determined by an individual’s biological sex, such as menstruation, pregnancy […] and seminal ejaculation.” (2)

In contrast to this, the term gender “involves social, cultural and psychological aspects” (Lindsey, 1990: 2) and describes the dichotomy between the characteristics a society considers feminine or masculine. We perform our gender by choosing to behave in a certain manner or dress a certain way. According to this distinction, sex is ascribed at birth, while gender is achieved through an individual’s actions. (2)

In every culture, a wide range of norms are associated with each gender. Since gender is a social construct, these norms and expectations logically depend on the society at question. (2) In Western societies for example, long hair is considered feminine, while short hair is commonly associated with masculinity. As societal norms changed and developed with time, they brought about different gender roles for different periods of history. For instance in ancient Greece a woman’s sole purpose was to bear children for the patriarch of the family and be responsible for household chores. Beyond that, her life was limited to maintaining and managing the household. Her life outside the domestic sphere was usually fairly limited.

With the flowering of the Roman Empire, gender roles changed. Although women’s societal roles were still clearly limited to the ideas of being a mother and wife, they were now allowed to participate in the families’ economic life, especially when the husband was on military duty.

During the middle ages, Christianity altered the course of this progress. According to Lindsey, misogyny peeked when society relied on those biblical writings, created by men who believed that the fall of humanity was solely to blame on Eve. (55-61) These gender roles can be found in colonial America as well, which was also highly influenced by religion, namely Puritanism. (63-64)

With the frontier expanding, women eventually broke out of their domestic role. These “pioneer women achieved a degree of freedom and respect” (66) that previous generations of women never knew. Women now took responsibility in former male dominated areas such as farming – a development that continued all throughout industrialization. Although women received significantly lower salaries than their male counterparts, these developments challenged the traditional gender roles and gradually allowed women to become more financially independent than before. (66-70)

The evolution of women’s roles throughout time unquestionably proves that the expectations associated with gender strongly depend on the society surrounding it. With different eras in time, different norms and behaviors are considered normal for men and women. Nevertheless, the notion of women being inferior to men prevails for most periods throughout history. Stereotypically, masculinity still implies a certain strength and dominance, while femininity “is defined as passivity, weakness, sentimentality, and submission”. (Wortis, 1972: 53)

As previously stated, literature reflects society. This in turn suggests that socio-cultural changes regarding gender roles during the last decades are likely to be found in Atwood’s fiction as well. After all, her first short story collection was published in the 1970s during the second wave of feminism, an era that logically differs from today’s women’s movement.

The following chapter will turn its focus on the women’s movement in Canada and highlight the key events as well as the goals of each of its three waves.


When women slowly gained more power and privileges, they naturally started to question and their assigned roles in society. This was a first step towards women demanding change, and towards a movement that came to be known as the women’s movement or the feminist movement. Since this thesis focuses on gender roles in Margaret Atwood’s works specifically, we shall concentrate on the women’s movement in her home country Canada. Furthermore, special attention will be given to the second and third wave of feminism, as those coincide with and run parallel to Atwood’s career.

Feminism is the driving force behind the women’s movement. However, giving just one definition for the term feminism is a nearly impossible task. Subcategories such as liberal, radical and socialist feminism, which all follow different schools of thought, make it difficult to find one definition that does all of them justice (Beasley, 1999: 48) The keynote of feminism can be roughly summarized as the notion of raising awareness for inequalities between women and men and eventually diminishing social and economic imbalances between the sexes.

The women’s movement is usually broken down into three waves, each with its own set of goals and achievements respectively. However, it should rather be seen as a continuous string of events and achievements, for there are no gaps in between the separate waves during which feminism suddenly became irrelevant and forgotten. Nonetheless, we shall stick with the common distinction for reasons of simplicity and comprehensibility.

Pinpointing the very beginning of the women’s movement is an impossible task. Firstly, because many factors contributed to the emergence of the women’s movement and secondly, in a society that favors masculinity, history books often neglect women’s history. “In some major textbooks the whole history of American women takes up less space than a minor political party”. (Wortis, 1972: 11) Nevertheless, the achievements of the first wave of feminism are remarkable. The main goal of this first wave was the women’s suffrage, which describes “the right to vote in political elections”. (“Women's Suffrage”)

When the first wave of the women’s movement began, women were neither allowed to control their finances nor own property of their own. Additionally, they did not have free choice of employment and were not allowed to vote in political elections. (“Women’s Rights”) In fact, women were not even considered “persons” by law (Prentice, 1988: 282), but rather extensions of their husbands who had “the official status comparable to that of an infant […]” (Brodie, 1995: 35)

With the turn of the 20th century, the first changes for women on a legislative level took place in Canada. In 1876, Dr. Emily Howard Stowe and her daughter founded the Toronto Women’s Literary Club, a group that focused on suffrage activities. Stowe, who was later known as a renowned suffragist, had studied medicine at New York State University. At that time, women were not able to receive diplomas from Canadian universities, which is why Stowe had to enroll at an American university. Once she returned to Canada, she was not allowed to seek employment in her profession, as women could not receive a medical license at that time. This changed in 1875, when the first woman in Canada graduated from a Canadian University and the first female was licensed to legally practice as a doctor. However, women still did not receive the same wages men did, an issue that was addressed during a strike in 1882 in Toronto. In 1883 a bill was introduced that was supposed to grant “[d]ominion franchise to unmarried women and widows”. (“Women’s Rights”) The bill did not pass. By 1887 the first women were allowed to vote, however only in municipal elections and only in the province Manitoba. Even so, women were still not entitled to run for municipal office themselves, because by law they were still not considered “persons”. (“Women’s Rights”)

Only in 1920 were women granted the right to vote in elections on a federal level. Eligible voters were now men and women over the age of 21, not including Aboriginal peoples, Inuit, Asians or Hindus. (“Women’s Rights”) Throughout the next few years, more laws passed that paved the way for equality between men and women. By 1925 women were given the same control over their property as men, they were allowed to file for divorce on the same grounds as men and a six weeks maternity leave was introduced.

In 1927, the “Famous Five”, Emily Murphy, Irene Parlby, Nellie McClung, Henrietta Muir Edwards and Louise Crummy McKinney, stood before the Supreme Court to argue that women should be considered ‘persons’ by law. After the Supreme Court rejected their request at first, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council finally recognized “Canadian women as persons under the law. As a result, women [were] ‘eligible to be summoned to and become members of the Senate of Canada’”. (“Women’s Rights”)

Women’s suffrage and gaining recognition as legal persons were the most memorable milestones as well as the end of the first wave of feminism in Canada. The feminist groups founded during this era remained active, but with those political goals achieved, they started to slowly fade into the background. (Brodie, 1995: 38)

After the successes of the first wave, women had to face a different set of disadvantages. In the 1960s women were equal to men on paper, although in realty discrimination remained an evident problem. The legal limitations for women were officially removed; sexism however stopped women from becoming truly successful economically.

They could vote, but few would become lawmakers and none would become premiers; they could graduate from university and even from professional schools, but they could not expect to be judges or surgeons; they could work for pay, but it would be for less pay than men received, and they were unlikely to become rich by their own achievements. (Burt, 1988: 152)

Those economic inequities were addressed by, among others, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada, an institution that was created in 1967 with the aim to analyze and reduce gender inequalities. (“Royal Commission”) The commission presented a total of 167 recommendations to the Canadian government, including issues such as the aforementioned need for pay equity. The commission considered equality between women and men “possible, desirable and ethically necessary” and achieved a partial or full implementation of most of their suggestions by the 1980s. (“Royal Commission”) In addition to raising awareness for the women’s movement, equal minimum wage and maternity leave can also be accredited to the work of the commission. (“Royal Commission”)

Other issues the second wave of the women’s movement was concerned with were violence against women, a women’s role within the family and reproductive rights. (Burt, 1988, 154) In contrast to the first wave, which was mainly dominated by white, middle-aged women from the middle class, the second wave also appealed to young supporters. The women’s liberation movement, which had its roots in the student’s movement of the 1960’s, relied on demonstrations and a generally more aggressive demeanor than traditional feminists of the first wave did. Among those rebellious acts was the illegal publishing of the Birth Control Handbook in 1968. (Prentice, 1988: 350-352) Reproductive freedom and sexual education for women were central to the women’s liberation movement, not only in Canada, but throughout Western civilization. In 1969, birth control became legal in Canada; however, abortion was still considered a criminal act until 1988. (“Women's Movements”) Since the United States legalized abortion roughly 15 years earlier, Canada witnessed a flood of women crossing the border to seek abortions on US soil. (Backhouse, 1992: 13) By gaining control over reproduction and therefore their bodies, women made another step towards equality and away from masculine oppression. Sexual and physical violence as well as rape are regarded as the strongest and most negatively affecting form of patriarchal dominance over the ‘weaker sex’. According to Bonner, “rape and other forms of sexual violence act to strip victims of their will to resist and make them passive and submissive to the will of the rapist.” (263) Naturally, raising awareness for this issue and fighting its causes also became a crucial element of the women’s movement. Before feminism, society saw violence against women as “a logical extension of a patriarchal system where the husband is viewed as the ruler and head of the family.” (Lindsey, 1990: 175) Only under the influence of the women’s movement, did the Canadian government recognize the matter as problematic. In 1983, reforms were introduced that criminalized sexual assault and marital rape. (Tremblay, 1998: 45-47) Moreover, feminists groups like Women Against Violence Against Women introduced shelter for women who suffered from violence and abuse, such as health clinics and rape crises centers. (“Women's Movements”) In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled sexual harassment as a form of discrimination based on sex as well.

With the successes of the second wave and women’s growing confidence, feminist issues were more overtly addressed in literary works of the 1960s. Women authors such as Gabrielle Roy, Alice Monroe and Margaret Atwood became internationally renowned for their works and added to the former male dominated Canon. (Prentice, 1988: 340)

With women seemingly entering all areas of economy and society, a balance between the sexes appeared to have been created. The achievements of the second wave were evident in most aspects of women’s lives, for feminist grievances were not only addressed, but to some extent eliminated. For quite some time, feminist voices had become less noticeable. Maureen McTeer, an advocate for women’s advancement explained: “[W]e figured we had the law, everything would work” and that “we all went home”. ( The numbers however suggest that full equality has not been achieved yet. The wage gap between the sexes has shrunken insignificantly, as women with a university degree still only earn about 63 per cent of the salary a man in a similar position would earn; Only 22 per cent of the members of parliament are female and as little as 13 per cent of the seats on the boards of Fortune 500 companies are held by women. ( In response to those remaining inequalities, the third wave of feminism emerged. Since it is still in its infancy, it is hard to predict what its focus will be, how long it will last and if it will be as successful as its predecessors.

The third wave of feminism should indeed be more fittingly called ‘the third wave of feminisms’. As opposed to the second wave, the third wave includes a much broader range of individuals who focus on different personal goals, which makes it difficult to attribute to it a singular, primary focus. While the second wave was mostly led by white, heterosexual women, the third wave includes the needs of the lesbian community, women of different races as well as of different social statuses. ( Moreover, second wave feminists argue that third wave feminism is too restrictive as to how feminism should be acted out. For example, it raises the question as to whether or not you can enjoy stereotypically female activities like cooking for your husband and wearing make-up without succumbing to patriarchal expectations. ( Nevertheless, 3rd wave feminism does not disagree with the ideas of the second wave; it merely suggests a broadening of the feminist horizon beyond the heterosexual white woman and encourages extending feminism to a larger, more inclusive scale. (

Apart from merely extending the reach of the second wave, the third wave of feminism tackles some new issues. One of them is the misogynous tendencies of language, where femininity is equated with weakness, ignorance and impotence. Words, phrases and expressions like “bitch” or “pussy” or “you throw like a girl” are consequently used in a negative and condescending manner. The consequence of using such language is the “undermining [of] female intelligence, ability and strength in everyday life to continually suppress their potential.” ( Feminism therefore tries to raise awareness about the effects of said language in an attempt to deconstruct the recklessness with which it is used. (

Another goal of the third wave is providing equal treatment of the genders in terms of life choices, earnings and job opportunities. On an economic level that means not just getting women into all professional fields but getting them into leading positions within those fields, as well as eradicating the prevalence of the wage gap. (

On a socio-cultural level, feminists demand equal opportunities regarding their life choices without being judged. If a woman for example decides to be a mother and also pursue a career, she should easily be able to do so. If a woman on the other hand decides not to have children at all, she should not be condemned as cold or selfish by society. ( On an emotional and personal level – which pulls in the aspect of sexist language patterns mentioned earlier – women should be able to express emotions and opinions without being called “hormonal” or asked if she was PMSing. And lastly, women should have the opportunity to engage in sexual intercourse without being judged, insulted or spoken to disrespectfully. ( This last point has led to the creation of the now popular and common term ‘slut-shaming’ which refers to the experience of being labeled a sexually out-of-control girl or woman […] and then being punished socially for possessing this identity. Slut-shaming is sexist because only girls and women are called to task for their sexuality, whether real or imagined; boys and men are congratulated for the exact same behavior. This is the essence of the sexual double standard: Boys will be boys, and girls will be sluts. (Slut-Shaming)


Excerpt out of 31 pages


Gender Roles in Margaret Atwood's Short Fiction "Stone Mattress"
University of Constance  (Literaturwissenschaft)
American Literature and Culture
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
Literature, American Literature, American Culture, Sexism, Feminism, Margaret Atwood, Gender Roles, Gender, Atwood, Stone Mattress, Fiction, Short Fiction, Sex, Sexismus, Feminismus, Female Authors, Literaturwissenschaft
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2016, Gender Roles in Margaret Atwood's Short Fiction "Stone Mattress", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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