Exploring women's alienation in works of John Steinbeck

Doctoral Thesis / Dissertation, 2000
122 Pages, Grade: 7/10






1. Introduction

2. Feminism and the Theory of Alienation – an Approach to Steinbeck

3. Women’s Sexuality as a form of Alienation in The Wayward Bus, The Winter of our Discontent, and East of Eden

4. Alienated Wives in The Pearl, The Grapes of Wrath, The Wayward Bus and “The Chrysanthemums”

5. Alienation in Mothering – The Grapes of Wrath, The Wayward Bus, The Winter of Our Discontent and East of Eden

6. Conclusion. Steinbeck: Pro or Anti Feminist

7. Works sited


I am deeply indebted to Professor Robert Crist, The Head of my Doctoral Committee, for his encouragement and understanding. His invaluable advice, continuous support and willingness to help at every stage of this work contributed to the completion of my thesis.

I am also indebted to the other members of my Doctoral Committee, Professor L. Sakelliou – Schultz, and Associate Professor D. Tsibouki, for their helpful criticism, insightful comments and useful corrections that helped me improve my work.

I am grateful to Dr. Susan Shillinglaw, Director of the Steinbeck Research Centre and Professor of English at San Jose State University, for her providing valuable, out of print material on John Steinbeck.

Finally, I owe a special debt of gratitude to my husband, George Moraitis. This thesis would probably never have become a reality without his love and unfailing support ver the years.


This study focuses on the theme of the alienated woman in John Steinbeck’s canon. The novelist, consistent in his depiction of his female characters as stereotypes from the beginning of his career as a writer until the end, reveals the alienation they experience in the predetermined roles they assume in life-mothers, wives, sexual objects. The term alienation is applied to describe a certain condition Steinbeck’s women figures experience, as this is defined in the context of Socialist Feminist thought, particularly Alison Jaggar’s reinterpretation of the Marxist concept of alienation. Despite their ostensible differences, female characters in Steinbeck’s writing share a common characteristic; they are alienated from the product upon which they “work”. As prostitutes, when their role and motif is erotic, Steinbeck’s female figures are-in the same way a factory worker is alienated from his product-alienated from themselves and their body which becomes an object for men. In turn, wives are not seen as entities who feel, suffer, think to act independently, but confined within the boundaries of their domesticity are objectified to the extreme and are relentlessly exploited. Depicting his female characters in the role of mother are stereotypes of a socially accepted model, the author not only attempts to render the reality of his time, and to understand motherhood as one of the facets of woman’s polymorphic existence, but also to reveal the alienation woman experience, obliged to act in such a stereotyped mother role. The perpetuation of mothering in its existing form is also sharply depicted by Steinbeck in the mother/daughter pattern. Despite his being labeled as a “masculine” writer John Steinbeck dares to present through his works, moreover, tabooed subjects such as surrogate parenting and male sterility. What is more, his heroines are not mere stereotypes but vivid portrayals of women in anguish.


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten



Female characters in Steinbeck’s works have been considered, until very recently, as studies in failure with some critics suggesting that this state of affairs might reflect the author’s personal relationships with women.

At the Third international Steinbeck Congress, held in Honolulu in My, 1990, John Ditsky’s keynote address was entitled “Stenbeck’s Elusive Woman.” Ditsky suggested that the author “…made a lifelong quest to understand that elusive thing called Woman-and perhaps-failed.” (qtd. In Gladstein 1991:38) The last part of this statement can be related to a comment by Mimi Gladstein: “It may be said that-as in East of Eden -when Steinbeck handles the translation of the real women in his life to the pages of his fiction, this follows a well established pattern: he deletes them.” (1991:32) Comments and interpretations such as these, both from critics and from Steinbeck’s own explanations of his works, abound.

So far, critics have traced two distinctive narrative views of female characters in the works of John Steinbeck. In the first one, in novels such as The Grapes of Wrath, a positive image is mostly associated with the role of mother or wife, offering room for a symbolic interpretation of Ma Joad’s character as Mother Earth and its equation with the American Land as described by feminist critics such as Annete Kolodny. (qtd. in Mckay 1990:49-50) In novels such as East of Eden, Tortilla Flat, Wayward Bus and some of his short stories, the image is a negative one. It presents most of the women as tramps, or prostitutes. Peter Lisca, in The Wide World of John Steinbeck, points out that these female characters seem to have no other option: “they seem compelled to choose between homemaking and whoredom.” (qtd. in Beatty 1979:1) Such a depiction of women characters in John Steinbeck’s writing provides a clear example of the phenomenon Josephine Donovan identifies as Female Stereotypes in the Western Canon. According to Donovan, women characters in Western Literature fall into categories:

Much of our literature in fact depends upon a series of fixed images of women, stereotypes. These reified forms, surprisingly few in number, are repeated over and over again through much of Western literature. The objectified images have one thing in common, however, they define the woman insofar as she relates to, serves or thwarts the interests of men. In Western tradition, these stereotypes tend to fall into two categories reflecting the endemic Manicheistic dualism in the Western world-view. Female stereotypes symbolise either the spiritual or the material good or evil. Under the category of the good-woman stereotypes, that is those who serve the interests of the hero, are the patient wife, the mother/martyr and the lady. In the bad or evil category are…the madam, the witch, the shrew or domineering wife. (1997:211-215)

Prominent critics attempted to explore and explain these types of women in Steinbeck’s literary canon. Robert E. Morsberger, in an essay characteristically entitled “Steinbeck’s Happy Hookers,” associates the phenomenon of prostitution in Steinbeck’s novels mostly with the writer’s role as a social critic and his intention to expose the hypocrisy and moral decay of the establishment. Morsberger acknowledges “a degree of misogyny in Steinbeck’s fiction” and exposes the negative image of female characters who are ether “promiscuous, neurotic, repressive and demanding” wives or whores who, “having been paid for,” have “become a commodity.” However, he goes on to interpret the phenomenon of prostitution in Steinbeck’s canon from a male stance. According to Morsberger, brothels are an escape for Steinbeck’s men, who are “denied a normal sexual outlet because they are widowers or married to unwilling wives.” No matter what the case may be, prostitution in the world of Steinbeck’s fiction is a place of loneliness that male characters are driven to “longing for fun and feminine companionship.” (1979:43-46)

Steinbeck’s depiction of women has invited a lot of criticism. Bobi Gonzales and Mimi Gladstein, in their essay “The Wayward Bus: Steinbeck’s Misogynistic Manifesto?” are critical of Steinbeck grotesque and humiliating portrayal of women. They suggest it is evidence of the writer’s misogyny, since, in most of this works, “women are seen by men in their lives as serving only one purpose: they are objects, objectified to the extreme.” These critics ascribe such a phenomenon to the troubles the author had in his personal life. (1989:158-173)

Less critical of Steinbeck’s portrayal of women, however, is Brian Railsback. Although he acknowledges that “Steinbeck’s portrayal of male and female relations has earned him the label of misogynist,” in his article: “The Wayward Bus: Misogyny or Sexual Selection?” he observes that, in The Wayward Bus, male characters are equally loathed by the author. He challenges Bobi Gonzales and Mimi Gladstein’s critical approach that “The Wayward Bus is an ugly look of everywoman,” pointing out that it is an equally unflattering look of everyman. Steinbeck spares neither sex.” Brian Railsback supports the idea that the existing “streak of brutality in John Steinbeck’s darker view of male/female relationship” is no evidence of misogyny or an outlet for personal problems but rather an expression of “inductive reasoning” and an indication of the author’s influence by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and biological view of sex. Under this influence, according to Brian Railsback, John Steinbeck views sex as “something cold and brutal,” as part of the “competition for the survival to violence and war,” creating thus a “disturbing picture of the human as animal.” (1995:125-134)

A different perspective on the examination of the author’s use of women characters is offered by the critics Beth Everest and Judy Wedeles. In their essay “The Neglected Rid: Women in East of Eden” they support the idea that women in Steinbeck’s literary work are “essential: they are not just used to add colour.” Unlike Morsberger, Gonzales and Gladstein, who fault Steinbeck as a misogynist offering a negative portrayal of completely objectified women characters, Everest and Wedeles claim that the writer has created fully developed characters. The two critics, analyzing major and minor female characters in East on Eden and challenging what so far has been said, support the notion women are: developed characters with the strength to unite and enhance plot developments,” and that , taking into consideration the historical, social and economical realities of his time, Steinbeck creates women “who are intrinsic to both the plot’s and the male character’s development. The women are crucial to the whole; each as an individual. Each holds her own convictions.” (1988:13-23)

The view that the novelist’s work involves a more original exploration of female characters in the light of feminist theory is expressed by critic Nellie Y. Mackay. In her article “Happy (?)-Wife-and Motherdom: The Portrayal of Ma Joad in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath,” she focuses on the role of women in the novel as wives and mothers. This critic claims that the author, a follower of the American tradition and myth that associates “women with nature, and thus primarily with the biological and cultural functions of motherhood and mothering,” realised the significant role women were called to play in the unity of the family in times of social and economic changes. According to Mckay, the structure of the traditional family was changing in order to meet the challenges of society. Steinbeck grasped this situation and perceived “happy-wife-and-motherdom as the central role for women.” (1990:47-67)

Apart from the emphasis on the presentation and analysis of women in Steinbeck’s work, there have also been certain insightful critical comments concerning the origin of Steinbeck’s female characters. In her article “The Strong Female Principle of Good-or Evil: The Women of East of Eden,” Gladstein explains the writer’s misogyny “as a representation of the way Steinbeck handled the translation of real women in his life to the pages of his fiction.” She notices that he follows a “well-established pattern,” representing good versus evil. East of Eden is a case in point. The dominant evil female character is Cathy (or Kate) Trask. Utilising Thomas French’s interpretation of the Covici/Steinbeck correspondence, Gladstein indicates that Steinbeck has created this character in the novel out of “the indicates that Steinbeck has created this character in the novel out of “the worst perceived faults of his first and second wives.” According to Gladstein, the creation of East of Eden coincided also with the novelist’s new marriage and happy life. Thus, she asserts it is not “so farfetched then to suggest that Steinbeck, in a happy an optimistic period, seeing a joyous new life ahead, a life brought about largely by his new woman, would create a parallel woman,” who in the novel is Abra, a full and loving character, the personification of Steinbeck’s moral solution, “timshel incarnate.” (1991: 30-40)

Barbara Albrecht McDaniel, in her dissertation, “Self-Alienating Characters in the Fiction of John Steinbeck,” attempts to explain “a pervasive pattern of alienation consistent with Steinbeck’s work from the beginning of his career as a writer to the end.” In order to “shed light” on this pattern of alienation, McDaniel utilises Kaufman’s concept of alienation, according to which “an alienated agent is a character who is separated from another person, a group of persons, society of the person’s ideal self.” She proceeds to explain that Steinbeck’s alienated characters attempt to escape the effects of alienation through pleasant human relationships. To understand, analyse and interpret such behavior, Barbara McDaniel applies Martin Buber’s concept of Ich und Du. According to Buber the great meaning of life is found in experiences between human beings who confront each other as whole individuals and accept each other as such, each saying / to the other’s Thou. It is important for a man to realise, based on his whole life and being, what relations are possible to him. McDaniels asserts the belief that “understanding Steinbeck’s characters through a study of their alienation proves finally that a few characters are fortunate enough to live so that they suffer neither from delusions nor from alienation; other fortunately have experiences in life which allow them to join free; but the largest number of them are unhappily and irrevocably lost.” (1974:15-18) However, McDaniel’s focus and primary concern is the author’s male characters’ predicament and alienation.

One may argue that what emerges from this overview of critical commentary is a certain consensus regarding the distinction of two narrative views of female characters in the literary work of John Steinbeck, mother/wives or whores. Each of the critics ascribes, analyses or interprets them from a different perspective using a relative theory. Our approach will deal with such critical views, showing where they can be effectively modified and supplemented. Moreover, prolific and prominent through he is, there is no doubt that John Steinbeck is a child of his time in his depiction of women characters. As Gladstein observes:

…through what he (Steinbeck) may have depicted about women and sexuality flew in the face of early-twentieth-century conventionality, read in the 80s, his work reflects his cultural and historical limitations… a certain ambiguity toward “liberated” women is reflected in his work. (1986:107)

The novelist failed to offer self-sustaining, independent female characters in his work. He follows the prevailing socio-historical pattern in which women are either expected to move in the domestic sphere as faithful housewives and caring mothers or are in the public sphere as prostitutes hidden in whorehouses. In both cases, they serve the interests of men.

However, one may argue that what has not so far been discussed or attracted the critical attention it deserves is the impact of stereotyping-the stagnation and subordination as well as the resulting various forms of alienation Steinbeck’s female characters experience.

The aim of this thesis is to fill this gap, attempting to explain how, on occasion, John Steinbeck transcends the prevailing socio-historical limitations, not only by creating “indestructible women characters” as Mimi Gladstein correctly points out, but also by employing stereotyping to expose the various form of alienation women have to endure in Western phallocentric society. Moreover, he does not balk as such taboos as male sterility and surrogate parenting. Thus Steinbeck emerges as what might be called a “subliminal” feminist. It is important to mention here that the word “alienation” is not used in its traditional context as a human being’s estrangement from society, although Steinbeck’s female characters can be such a case in point. The term alienation will be used to describe a certain condition Steinbeck’s women characters experience as this is defined in the context of socialist feminism an in particular the reinterpretation of the Marxian term of alienation. Such an interpretation, moreover, fits well with Steinbeck’s view of the gender issues of his time and his views on labour and the market place. It must be said that Steinbeck’s motivating forces remain-in some aspects of his treatment of woman characters-to some extent a mystery; but, it could be argued, is inevitable in a work of fiction, and in any case in no way detracts from the validity of the approach we intend to adopt.

A re-reading of Steinbeck’s work, in the light of feminist theory, has, it will be argued, given the possibility for a fresh interpretation-at least in part-of this treatment of female figures, complementing recent work in Steinbeck studies. Despite their ostensible incongruities, female characters in Steinbeck’s writing share a common characteristic-alienation. We will attempt to examine this trait as it appears in the different women characters and in various aspects such as sexuality, motherhood, work. Regardless of their role, women in Steinbeck’s work are alienated from the product upon which they “work”. The character Camille Oaks in The Wayward Bus may be taken as an example. Being a whore, her role and motif is sexuality. She may say that she dresses and take care of herself-but she is actually adorning her body for men. Thus, in the same way a factory worker is alienated from the product of his work, she is gradually alienated from herself and her body which becomes an object for men.

Ma Joad, in the The Grapes of Wrath, in the role of mother and wife, experiences another form of alienation. She is a peaceful, obedient and patient housewife who endures the relentless workload imposed on her. She has no time for herself. Under harsh conditions, Ma is transformed into strong-willed, practical, hard-working person full of courage. She is determined to provide her family with moral support. In such a difficult physical and mental state, mothers feel unable to express their personal needs; they are trained to be passive, and remind us of Marx’s description of alienated wage-worker’s conditions, whose toil “mortifies his body and runs his mind.” (qtd. in Jaggar 1983:313)

A typical example of another form of alienation is experienced by Mary Hawley in the role of mother in The Winter of our Discontent. When her son’s plagiarism in a national essay competition is revealed, she is regarded as a failure by both society and her own child. In this case, society considers the mother as the unskilled worker and the child as the product which has to be produced according to certain specifications set by male experts. Moreover, as Nancy Chodorow explains, children turn against their mothers, perceiving them not as human beings but as objects who are found guilty of offering either too much or too little. (1978:188)

To explore the various forms of alienation that characterise the female characters in Steinbeck’s writing we will follow the socialist feminist approach, focusing on Alison Jaggar’s theory of alienation as a unifying concept. In her work Feminist Politics and Human Nature, Jaggar notes that the reinterpreted Marxian term “alienation” provides a theoretical framework potent enough to offer a concerted answer to women’s plight and at the same time argue with the Marxist, radical and psychoanalytic feminist thoughts.

Contemporary feminists are united in their opposition to women’s oppression, but they differ not only in their views of how to combat that oppression in contemporary society. Liberal feminist… believe that women are oppressed insofar as they suffer unjust discrimination; traditional Marxists believe that women are oppressed in their exclusion from public production; radical feminists see women’s oppression as consisting primarily in the universal male control of women’s sexual and procreative capacities; while social feminists characterise women’s oppression in terms of a revised version of the Marxist theory of alienation. (1983:353)

The main reason Jaggar’s methodology has been chosen is the concern that if only a certain feminist approach were used, there would be a failure to explore and offer insight into one of the major concern and themes in Steinbeck’s cannon-social justice. Jaggar’s theory of alienation as a unifying concept is a synthetic one. Such a synthesis incorporates and discusses central feminist issues such as reproduction, sexuality, wifehood, etc., as forms of alienation. It attempts to describe women’s oppression, to explain its causes and consequences, and to prescribe certain strategies utilising major feminist theories, such as Marxist, radical and psychoanalytic, attempting at the same time to encompass these theories under the conceptual umbrella of alienation, offering in this way a broader understanding and in-depth analysis.

In sum, this study will attempt to provide a constructive basis for a new interpretation of the female characters in John Steinbeck’s writing. In pursuing the theme of the alienated woman in Steinbeck, the study will treat representative works-the novels East of Eden, The Wayward Bus, The Grapes of Wrath, The Winter of our Discontent, several major short stories such as “The Chrysanthemums,” and “The Pearl,” and the play-novelette Burning Bright -taking into consideration Steinbeck’s autobiographical essays and literary commentaries.

Our reading of John Steinbeck’s works is deliberately selective, focusing on those works and those elements in them that display more clearly and effectively the various levels of alienation in the author’s major and minor female characters. The examination of his work will be based on a thematic approach, as we will attempt to expose, analyse and interpret the various form of alienation as they are projected through the different women characters in his major novels and short stories. Thus, after an initial chapter on feminist theory focusing in Josephine Donovan’s Beyond the Net: Feminist Criticism as Moral Criticism, Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering: psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender and Alison Jaggar’s Feminist Politics and Human Nature, which can serve as a useful background to Steinbeck’s treatment of his female characters, the body of this thesis will be organised into chapters that will establish and elucidate the significant feminist issues of sexuality, wifehood and motherhood as forms of alienation Steinbeck’s female protagonists experience in their lives.

More specifically, Chapter Two will explore the motif of sexuality as a form of alienation. By examining female characters in works such as East of Eden, The Wayward Bus and The Winter of our Discontent we can see how women in John Steinbeck’s writing are often not seen as entities who feel, suffer, think or act independently but are completely objectified and, because of their sensuous physicality, they become passive recipients of men’s feeling. In some instances, indeed, woman is treated as a source of evil and uncontrolled power. Then she becomes the seductress, an Eve, whose sensuality wields irresistible power over man.

Chapter Three will focus on the motif of wifehood as yet another kind of alienation that Steinbeck’s women characters experience living in a male-chauvinist society. They are confined within the boundaries of the domestic sphere and are relentlessly exploited. Even strong female characters, like Ma Joad, who in moments of crisis step outside their traditional role and fight for the survival of their family, immediately after the crisis retreat where they are taught they are taught they belong-back to the house, to woman’s place and woman’s works.

The final chapter will concentrate on a different form of alienation associated with motherhood. John Steinbeck, without doubt, had realised the significance of the role of women as mothers. However, even in his most powerful and positive woman character, Ma Joad, who represents Steinbeck’s attempt to embody this support and recognition of the role of women as mothers, he fails to create an independent character. Ma Joad is the paradigmatic mother just because she meets the standards male “experts” have set and becomes a symbol of “Mother Earth” without ever extending the awareness of her existence beyond the boundaries of the domestic sphere, where she has “graciously” been “crowned a Queen.”

The conclusion will sum up the various forms of alienation in Steinbeck’s female characters and attempt to provide a constructive basis for the problems women encounter.



… Elaine (Scott) Steinbeck (thrird wife) found herself listening to chapters from a novel in progress…She started to give (her opinion), when he quickly and impatiently interrupted her. “No, no”-he shook his head emphatically- “I don’t want a critique.”

The true Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer

Jackson Benson

In preparation for discussion of John Steinbeck’s portrayal of woman’s alienation, this chapter examines the feminist movement with particular emphasis on Alison Jaggar’s study of the forms of feminine alienation. From time to time, Steinbeck’s views and experience will also be focused on, so as to draw some preliminary ties between feminist issues and Steinbeck’s treatment of women in his fiction.

Feminism is a movement and concept that attempts to answer the “woman question.” What is a “woman?” What should the word “woman” be understood to mean?[1] Numerous are the attempts to define woman. So far, recorded history reveals a wide range of distorted definitions, a review of which leads to the root of the problem of subordination women encounter. An early definition of woman “as a defective man” was suggested by the prominent and influential Greek philosopher Aristotle[2] in the fourth century, B.C. “We should look on the female as being as it was a deformity, though one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature.” (1953:v) His view on women was to have an enormous and pervasive influence on vast segments of human thought. Rediscovered during the Middle Ages, Aristotle’s work helped the religious establishment, which to a great extent determined the philosophical conceptions of the Western World, to maintain and refine religious conceptions that display a remarkably consistent attitude of hostility towards women, stress women’s inferiority, their primary procreative function, and their “evil” influence on the world. As Thomas Aquinas put it:

It was necessary for woman to be made, as the Scripture says, as a helper to man; not indeed, as a helpmate in other works, as some say, since man can be more efficiently helped by another man in other works; but as a helper in the work of generation.” (qtd. in Bates et al. 1983:65)

Considered by the male dominated Establishment throughout the ages as something “other,”[3] defective, inferior and the primary source of what is wrong in the world, women universally have a great deal of experience with what it is like to be dominated and subordinated. Feminism, in this sense, depicts women’s oppression, attempts to elucidate its causes and consequences, and finally prescribes certain reforms that will lead to women’s liberation. Like most broad-based concepts, feminism accommodates several perspectives under its conceptual umbrella. Each one of these perspectives, unique in its methodological approach, strengths and weaknesses, explores a different form of oppression women experience during their lives.

Strong advocates of a pluralistic approach to female subordination are the postmodernist feminists[4]. For them, a mosaic of various strands of feminist theory comes in the wake of the different forms of oppression women experience over the ages. A pluralistic theory argues that the greater the number of the feminist thoughts, the wider the variety of forms of female oppression that are exposed and analysed.

In this variety of feminist thinking a prominent place is occupied by liberal feminism. For liberal feminists, the key issue to the problems women face is Gender Justice. They attribute the subordination of women to legal and customary constraints and to society’s false assumption that women are, by nature, physically and intellectually inferior to man. The result of this misconception is the exclusion of women from the decision making as well as the ruling process and their confinement within the boundaries of their home. (Bates et al. 1983:85-87)

Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first women philosophers to support reliance on human reason, opposed forcefully this fallacious notion of woman’s physical and intellectual inferiority. Arguing with the prominent French philosopher Rousseau on this idea, she wrote in 1792:

Men, indeed, appear to me to act in a very unphilosophical manner when they try to secure the good conduct of women by attempting to keep them always in a state of childhood…It is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason. This was Rousseau’s opinion respecting men: I extend it to women. (qtd. in Bates et al. 1983:91)

Marxist feminists, on the other hand, utilizing the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, put the blame on the capitalistic system and not just the social rules for women’s oppression. They maintain that, under capitalism, middle-class women will not be subjected to the same kind of oppression that lower class women have to endure. Regardless of social status, Marxist feminism invites every woman to perceive oppression and subordination as the product of political, social and economic structures associated with the capitalistic system rather than the result of international actions of individuals. (Jaggar 1983:51-79)

A different perspective to the problem of female subordination is offered by radical feminists. They support the notion that the real cause of women’s oppression is a domineering, patriarchal system with powerful legal and political structures supported by strong social and cultural institutions such as family and church. Emma Goldman, one of the most eloquent and fervent supporters of woman’s emancipation, observes:

As to the great mass of working girls and women, how much independence is gained if the narrowness and lack of freedom of the home is exchanged for the narrowness and lack of freedom of the factory, sweatshop, department store, or office?...No wonder that hundreds of girls are so willing to accept the first offer of marriage sick and tired of their “independence” behind the counter, or the typewriting machine… Emancipation, as understood by the majority of its adherents and exponents, is of too narrow a scope to permit the boundless love and ecstasy contained in the deep emotion of the woman, sweetheart, mother, in freedom… The demand for equal rights in very vocation of life is just and fair but after all, the most vital right is the right to love and be loved. Indeed, if partial emancipation is to become a complete and true emancipation of women, it will have to do away with the ridiculous notion that to be loved, to sweetheart and mother, is synonymous with being a slave or subordinate. (qtd. in Bates et al. 1974:517)

Moreover, radical feminists strongly object to the disparaging way women have been subordinated by men used only as childbearers and childrearers without being able to decide when to use their reproductive capacities.

As to Steinbeck’s treatment of women and feminist issues, critics are divided. On the one hand, Brian E. Railback notes that, in The Wayward Bus, Steinbeck’s attack on the stereotyping of the woman’s body and the oppressive single role of the housewife parallels radical feminist studies like Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystic. (1995:89) On the other hand, Mimi Reisel Gladstein chastises Steinbeck for failing to depict able women scientists, teachers, and labor leaders in his books. The novelist knew such persons, but neglected to represent similar modern women in his work. (1986:91-94)

Unlike radical, Marxist or liberal feminists, who attitude the problem of female subordination to external factors such as regimes, institutions and political systems, the psychoanalytic feminists seek the answer to women’s oppression deep in the female psyche. Dorothy Dinnerstein and Nancy Chodorow, two eminent psychoanalytic feminists, examine the mother-infant relationship, focusing on Freudian concepts such as the pre-Oedipal stage as well as the Oedipus complex. In the pre-Oedipal stage, because of the strong mother-infant relationship, mothers are always held responsible for the upbringing of the children and are blamed for giving either too much or too little. In the Oedipus stage, on the other hand, mothers are abandoned by their male children, who follow their in ruling over nature and women.

The Oedipus complex is considered the root of male rule and patriarch. According to Dinnerstein and Chodorow, much of what is wrong with man and woman as individuals has its root in the fact that women do all the mothering. Psychoanalytic feminists claim that, in this way, women are trapped into male-orientated interpretations. Accordingly autonomy and authority are considered male, while love and dependence are considered female. As Chodorow observes:

Parenting, as an unpaid occupation outside the world of public power, entails lower status, less power, and less control of resources than paid work. Women’s mothering reinforces and perpetuates women’s relative powerlessness. (1979:3)

One way argue that what emerges, then, from this overview of feminist perspectives is a pluralistic approach and the creation of a mosaic synthesis of answers to “woman’s question,” all intersecting to encourage women to fight the system, seek development as human beings, and take charge of their own destinies.

To achieve freedom and growth woman must engage in a concerted effort to eradicate all forms of subordination. A significant attempt to explore the problem and weave the various skeins of feminist thought and achieve a synthesis within feminist thought has been made by the distinguished socialist feminist Alison Jaggar. The outcome of this effort is her theory of alienation as a unifying concept that is successfully articulated in her book Feminist Politics and Human Nature.

At the beginning of her book Alison Jaggar offers an extensive exploration of the phenomenon of feminism, supporting the notion that its existence is as old as the subordination and domination women have encountered throughout the centuries. In a sense, feminism has always existed. Certainly, as long as women have been subordinated, they have resisted that subordination. The resistance has been either collective and conscious or solitary and only half-conscious.

“Feminism” was originally a French word. It referred to what in the 19th century United States was called “the woman movement”: a diverse collection of groups all aimed in one way or another, at “advancing” the position of women…Now, “feminism” is commonly used to refer to all those who seek, no matter on what grounds, to end women’s subordination. That is how I shall use the term in this book (1983:5)

Jaggar acknowledges the existence of a variety of feminist perspectives, each one of which-unique in its approach, strengths and weaknesses-explores and attempts to offer a solution to the different form of oppression women experience. She concedes that the answer to female subordination is a difficult one, and calls for complex explanations because women’s experiences differ across racial, class and cultural lines, and the forms of women’s oppression are numerous. She is of the opinion, however, that working through their racial, cultural and individual differences, women could systematically develop a reality not prejudiced in favor of men. Nevertheless, out of this variety of strands of feminist perspectives, Alison Jaggar comes to identify four “conceptions of women’s liberation” that she considers to be political theories:

It is clear that contemporary feminists hold a variety of theories concerning women’s oppression and women’s liberation…I shall try to identify four distinct conceptions of women’s liberation by exhibiting them as systematic political theories. I call these theories, respectively, liberal feminism, traditional Marxism, radical feminism and socialist feminism. (1983:8)

An eminent and influential socialist feminist, Jaggar values unity and integration as the key elements for a conceptual approach that will attempt to deal with title woman question and provide a constructive basis for a feminist perspective powerful enough to accommodate a fresh view of the until recently “man-made” world, built directly on the exploitation of women. Furthermore, she warns that any overemphasis on diversity and difference may cause feminism to lack unity and consequently be unable to claim what is good for women in order “to achieve the fullest possible liberation.” Working towards a unitary theory, Jaggar makes use of the Marxist theory of alienation as a broad framework that can provide a theoretical base for systematizing the socialist feminist critique of women’s contemporary oppression. Jaggar aims at accommodating and utilizing the insights of Marxist, radical and psychoanalytic feminist thought in an attempt to expose the existing differences, and offer new perspective to the problem of women’s oppression:

Contemporary feminists are united in their opposition to women’s oppression, but they differ not only in their views of how to combat that oppression, but even in their conception of what constitutes women's oppression in contemporary society. Liberal feminists…believe that women are oppressed insofar as they suffer unjust discrimination; traditional Marxists believe that women are oppressed in their exclusion from public production; radical feminists see women’s oppression as consisting primarily in the universal male control of women’s sexual and procreative capacities; while socialist feminists characterize women’s oppression in terms of a revised version of the Marxist theory of alienation. (1983:135)

She argues however, that “this new theoretical framework” must go beyond the Marxist theory of alienation and that within this framework, the facts of women’s oppression must be given new meaning.

The socialist feminist analysis of women’s oppression shows that women’s liberation requires totally new modes of organizing all forms of production and the final abolition of femininity [emphasis in the original]. Traditional Marxism has taken the abolition of class as its explicit goal, but it has not committed itself to the abolition of gender. Socialist feminism makes an explicit commitment to the abolition of both class and gender. (1983:317)

Since alienation is a notion initially used by Marxists, Jaggar opens her discussion with a review of Marxist theory of alienation. She begins her analysis with Marx’s definition of work “as the essential human activity which links human individuals to the non-human world and to each other and which makes possible the development of their own capacities.” (1983:308)

Jaggar explains that, under capitalism, this “human activity” of work is transformed into a dehumanizing process in which workers “are deprived of control over their own labor power” and individuals are put at odds with everything and everyone. Work becomes a competition and fellow workers become rivals. According to traditional Marxist view, therefore, alienation “is a concept the central feature of which is that things or people which in fact are related dialectically to each other come to seem alien, separated from or opposed to each other.” (qtd. in Jaggar 1983:308)

Alienation is ubiquitous in our capitalistic society, manifests itself in many aspects of a person’s life and is apparent in a variety of ways. In the most obvious cases, a person under the heavy burden of dehumanizing work sees no meaning in his or her life and perceives him or herself as a miserable character in a performance of illusions. The result is a sense of fragmentation of human existence, which according to Marxists is expressed in four fundamental ways.

Initially, wage workers are alienated from the product of their work as “what they produce is taken away from them by the capitalists and used to enslave them.” (qtd. in Jaggar 1983:216) In addition, work itself as an activity constitutes another form of alienation. This is so because wage workers experience work as something unpleasant, an unbearable burden, and a constant source of dehumanization. What is more, they are forced “to undergo this activity in conditions over which they have little control,” as Alison Jaggar explains regarding Marx’s Early Writings.

…the work is external to the worker, …it is not part of his nature, … consequently, he does not fulfil himself in his work but denies himself has a feeling of misery rather than well-being, does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is physically exhausted and mentally debased. (1983:216)

The third form of alienation wage workers experience is from what Marx terms “species-life” and is a direct result of the “structure of work under capitalism.” (qtd. in Jaggar l983:216) The relentless work and the dehumanizing conditions under which they do it force wage workers to perceive “free productive activity” and the “transforming of nature” not as a “mark of their humanity” and the fulfillment of their potentialities but rather as an obstacle to their survival, as Jaggar points out:

Wage workers do not work for enjoyment; they work in order to survive. One aspect of this feature of alienation is that workers are alienated from non-human nature, viewing it as an external object that must be subjugated for the sake of physical survival rather as the ground of human freedom and “the inorganic body of man.” (1983:216)

Finally, under these unpleasant and dehumanizing work conditions, wage workers are alienated from other human beings. This comes about because the demanding and competitive capitalist economy encourages workers to encounter each other as competitors “for scarce resources, either competitors for their jobs or employers who are attempting to exhaust their energies.” (Marx qtd. in Jaggar 1983:216)

As Jaggar correctly observes, though, one must be involved in the process of production in order to experience alienation. In this sense, utilizing the traditional Marxist point of view, according to which “women are alienated insofar as they participate in capitalist relations of production either as wage laborers or, more rarely, as capitalists,” one may claim that not all women participate in production and consequently the concept of alienation may not seem applicable to all. However, work in the home or subjugation by males confront women with forms of alienation analogous to factory work. (1983:307-8)

Thus, according to Jaggar, it is this aspect of Marxist conception of alienation that “socialist feminism wants to revise” and, as she points out, if people are interested more about the essence and less about the letter of Marxist thought, there can certainly be a broader interpretation of the meaning of alienation according to which:

Socialist feminism is to begin the construction of a new theoretical framework that will show the quality and systematic interrelations of the non-familiar facts of women’s contemporary oppression. This theoretical framework is based on and must go beyond the framework provided by the Marxist theory of alienation. Within this framework the facts of women’s oppression may be reinterpreted and given a new meaning. The framework of alienation, moreover, links women’s oppression in the home with women’s and men’s experience in wage labor. The socialist feminist analysis of women’s oppressions show’s that women’s liberation requires totally new modes of organizing all forms of production and the final abolition of gender. Traditional Marxist has taken the abolition of class as its explicit goal, but it has not committed itself to the abolition of gender. Socialist feminism makes an explicit commitment to the abolition of both class and gender. (1983:317)

Proceeding to organize the analysis and justification of her approach and interpretation of alienation in women’s oppression, Jaggar identifies alienation as a characteristic that appears in various aspects of woman’s life particularly though in sexuality, motherhood and intellectually. Moreover, she correctly raises the point, quoting Ann Foreman, that “femininity itself is a form of alienation.” (1983:316) Throughout the centuries woman has been considered as something different, “other,” than man. Regardless of their racial, class or cultural differences, or their “work place,” women experience the same form of oppression and are alienated form the product upon which they “work.” (Jaggar 1983:218)

Many a word has been written about the sexual exploitation of women and, in fact, it can be argued that it is the first, most obvious and more easily recognizable form of alienation women experience. In the male-orientated Western World, women have undoubtedly been reduced to sexual objects and their images are such as to appeal to male fantasies and solidify the view that they are there only to serve male sexual desires.

But, whatever his personal attitudes toward women were, John Steinbeck was aware of the effect of reducing women to sexual objects. For example, he explains to actress Claire Luce, who is playing Curly’s wife in Of Mice and Men, that she is a woman who knows that sex is her only value. Consequently, “She is afraid of everyone in the world” and only pretends to be “wise and hard and voluptuous.” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 1975:155)

Hackneyed terms, such as “sweetheart,” “baby,” and “cookiebar” are used to underline that women are regarded as mere merchandise. In addition, names of small animals such as “chick” or “bunny,” are employed to project female weakness and helplessness and serve to promote and reinforce the dominant male image.

On other occasions, woman is perceived as the irresistible seductress in which case certain parts of her body, such as her breasts and buttocks, may be accentuated. Some women are “ready made” for male fantasy, while others are encouraged and indirectly obliged to reform, reshape their bodies to comply with male erotic expectations. They are compelled and feel obliged to diet, exercise, use excessively tight corsets that elevate the breasts and enlarge the hips in response to the dictates of male fantasies. In some cultures, crippling bindings were used to miniaturize the feet. All the foregoing have been endured by women in the name of sexual attractiveness, projected as their primary purpose on earth next to procreation. Although women claim that it is all an effort to improve their appearance just for themselves, in fact they adorn their body to conform to male erotic requirements.

Consequently, as Alison Jaggar explains, in the same way a wage worker is separated and therefore alienated from the product of his work, so is a woman detached and alienated from her body, upon which she works. It is worth mentioning here that under these conditions woman has suffered some sort of “fragmentation” as “parts of a woman’s anatomy are portrayed or referred to in isolation and contribute to the idea that a woman is nothing more than the sum of her bodily parts.” (1983:309)

Women are viewed relentlessly as sexual objects … they are expected to fascinate, to arouse and to satisfy men. In short, men rather than women control the expression of women’s sexuality: women’s sexuality is developed for men’s enjoyment rather than for women’s. In this respect, women’s sexual situation resembles that of wage workers who are alienated from the process and product of their labor. (Jaggar 1983:308-9)

Radical feminists offer a deep insight into this form of alienation women experience. Like Jaggar, they too agree that our “male culture defines women as sexual objects for male pleasure.” Unlike Alison Jaggar or Nancy Chodorow though, they attribute this phenomenon to patriarchal ideology and not to the division of labor or the Oedipal stages. Radicals delineate patriarchy as a male-system of values that seeks to dominate all other beings on earth and “defines women in a way specific to their sex, as beings whose special function is to gratify male sexual desires and to bear and raise children.” (qtd. in Jaggar 1983:255)

Under these socially constructed sexual roles, it is extremely difficult and even impossible for a woman to identify and develop her own sexual desires and needs. What is more, as Sarah Ketchum and Christine Pierce explain, under a patriarchal system women are not only “evaluated in terms of their sexual desirability” but they are also expected to work and be “concerned primarily with being sexually desirable to men.” (qtd. in Jaggar 1983:260) Having defined sexuality as a distinctive characteristic of a woman’s personality, one may argue that, radical feminists parallel the oppression of wage workers to the oppression and subordination women experience, though slightly differentiated from Jaggar’s perspective on alienation. According to radical feminist Karen Lindsey, “We [radicals] have long held that all women sell themselves: that the only available roles of a woman -wife, secretary, girlfriend- all demand the selling of herself to one or more men.” (qtd. in Jaggar 1983:264) Thus, when the patriarchal system deprives a woman of her sexuality, the most important element of her personal identity, she feels alienated from herself. What is more, when women try to use their sexuality as a “job Option” –prostitution- the patriarchal ideology refuses to accept this revolt and “identifies prostitutes as seducers and exploiters of men, as masochists or as nymphomaniacs,...‘fallen’ or dishonorable women -by contrast to those women who preserve their honor for their husbands.” (Jaggar 1983:264)

It is worth mentioning here that, throughout the centuries, clothing has been selected and used by society to achieve women’s subordination. Fashion emphasizes gender differences, where women’s clothes symbolize and project sexuality, frailty, frivolity and fragility in contrast to men’s which stand for strength, power, will, seriousness and aggressiveness. What is more, clothes reinforce the ideology of separate spheres for men and women. In parts of the Muslim world for example, veils known as chadors, are obligatory, not only to restrict women physically and symbolize the domestic role they are expected to perform in their society, but also to protect them as “property” from the lustful eyes of other males. (Bates et al. 1983:201)

Advertising, just like fashion, offers women “prescriptions” on how to be “in fashion” and become desirable. The perfectly slim bodies of fashion models in the pages of fashion magazines become standards for women all around the world. Needless to say, although nobody has or will ever impose a law, all women realize what is expected of them and what the “image of the desirable” woman is.

Apparently, under these circumstances, one may claim that a woman has little or no say concerning the use of her body, which depends largely on cultural artifice. If she chooses to resist the system she will be rejected and in many instances punished. She will be considered fat, unattractive, not in fashion and most importantly, sexually undesirable by the male, as she will not meet the standards the system has set. If, on the other hand, she chooses to conform, she has to comply with the rules set by a male -orientated and- ruled society. A shocking example of the various extremes of physical restraints imposed on the female body, as well as of the systematic brainwashing women undergo in this situation, is the surprisingly large number of women that, following the Western World’s latest “trend” as to the image of an attractive woman having large breasts, have resorted to silicone implants, running the risk of breast cancer. Clearly, this is grotesque.

This no-way-out situation creates numerous problems in her relation with other women, whom she encounters as rivals in the competition for male approval and thus experience another form of alienation. As Jaggar asserts, women once again resemble a wage worker who, in our competitive and consumerist society, are in constant competition with their fellow workers for “top dollar” shutting their eyes to the exploitation and oppression they all suffer.

The final aspect of women’s sexual alienation is that the masculine definition of women as sexual objects for male enjoyment alienates women from each other by making them compete for sexual attention. Women appraise each other’s sexual attributes and compare them with their own. The sexual competition between women often makes them unable to perceive their underlying shared interest just as wage workers are often unable to perceive the interests they share with their co-workers. (1983:310)

Motherhood, like sexuality, is a crucial feminist concern. Women have been taught from childhood to expect and welcome motherhood because it is rewarding, uplifting and fulfilling. It has also been drummed into them that their reproductive powers will give them status, respectability, and, in most instances, economic security in life. Depending on the circumstances, a pregnancy can be a source of pride or shame. The pregnant mother has to adjust not only to the hormonic changes that occur in her body but to the reactions of the people around her. In other words, if the pregnancy is the pleasant consequence of a marriage, then it is received with social approval and the woman should expect to receive extra attention and special care from both her husband and family. If, however, the pregnant woman is not married, then society considers the pregnancy as an illegal or improper condition. In this case, the woman will encounter hostility and contempt. In most instances she will be offered the solution of the legal or otherwise abortion. She could well be isolated and feel anxious and embittered.

Therefore, very often and for many reasons, women who live up to this ideal of motherhood experience dissatisfaction, resentment, frustration, as well as isolation. The prevailing view is that maternity is a full-time job that “comes naturally” to women, and their capacity to become mothers has been used as a rationale for the unbearable and harmful social and psychological constraints placed upon them. A male-dominated society has institutionalized motherhood, so that it oppresses women and makes the experience humiliating and debilitating.

Like sexuality, motherhood is identified by Jaggar as yet another form of alienating experience for women. This form of alienation becomes apparent in the various questions of motherhood, such as the decision of whether or not to have children and how many, childbearing and childrearing. Although motherhood has been praised and exalted by men and women alike, women have traditionally been denied the right to decide whether or when or how often they should have children, in fact the right to control their own body and life. In the past, the question was not whether to have children but how many and how often. Nowadays, in Western countries that face the problem of aged populations, women are encouraged to have as many children as possible in order to avoid the problems associated with a declining birth rate. In the past, the use of children in the work force was another reason to pressure women to have numbers of children in rapid succession. On the other hand, countries concerned about severe poverty in the midst of a rapidly expanding population have made it official policy to encourage contraception and discourage women from giving birth to as many children as they wish.

Since motherhood is a “full-time job” assigned to women, Alison Jaggar argues that a woman is alienated from the “product” of her reproductive labor when she is denied the right to decide when and how many children she should bear.

Women are also alienated as mothers. Just as women do not control how and how often they express their sexuality, neither do they control the conditions of their motherhood. …In past times, women have often been forced to bear more children than they wished, in order to satisfy the demand for labor power. By contrast the involuntary sterilization of poor women has become a widespread practice in the United States, affecting disproportionate numbers of black, Hispanic and Native American women… whether women are forced into motherhood or prevented from becoming mothers, it is not they who decide how many children they bear.(l983:310)

Continuing her analysis, Jaggar claims that when it comes to childbirthing women are alienated from the “process” just as they are alienated from the “product” of their productive labor. She continues to explain that while childbirthing is a natural event, in which undoubtedly women should have control of their bodies, it has come to be considered as a medical event taking place in a hospital where the whole process is organized and controlled by medical professionals. Deliveries are performed with the most sophisticated technological methods available, anaesthetic is used to eliminate pain and thus women’s participation and the obstetrician has total control of the whole process. With a new method called In Vitro fertilization a woman can have some of her eggs surgically removed from her body and fertilized in vitro with her husband’s or a donor’s sperm and then transferred into her womb or the womb of a surrogate mother. (Bates et al. 1983:293)

Taking all the above into consideration, one may conclude that as the new reproductive technologies develop, women are likely to be further alienated from both the “product” and the “process” of their reproductive labor and viewed as hatching machines or workers on a production line.

Regarding woman’s productive role, aside from motherhood and the family, Mimi Reisel Gladstein maintains that Steinbeck’s portrayal of women in his fiction was not true to his life experience. He glorifies the nurturing role of mother but leaves out dynamic professional women, intellectuals and social leaders -for example, women who were Steinbeck’s writing mentors as teachers, and capable woman laboratory scientists. (1986:87,89,91)

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, mothering fosters the perpetuation of women’s subordination and is considered the root of what is wrong with men and women as individuals. Nancy Chodorow, like Alison Jaggar, believes that mothering is “one of the few universal and enduring elements of sexual division of labor.” (1979:3) Regardless of the fact that a substantial number of contemporary women see themselves primarily as mothers, Chodorow rejects the idea that mothering is innate or instinctive and supports the notion that women’s mothering has “profound effects on the reproduction of masculinity and sexual inequality.” (1979:5) She distinguishes two spheres of influence in every society-the domestic and the public-and, as she explains, “because of the child-care responsibilities, women’s primary location is domestic” while, on the other hand, men belong to the public sphere. However, it is the public sphere that “forms society and culture” and since “men’s location is the public sphere,” society automatically becomes male-dominated. This, as Nancy Chodorow observes, “gives men the power to create and enforce institutions of social and political control…that express men’s rights in women’s sexual and reproductive capacities.” (1979:9) Furthermore, she argues that, since men have the power, they choose not to parent but instead to perpetuate women’s mothering. They consciously choose to do so because they are aware of the fact that parenting as “an unpaid occupation outside the world of public power, entails lower status, less power, and less control of resources than paid work. Women’s mothering reinforces and perpetuates women’s relative powerlessness.” (1979:31)

Chodorow shares Jaggar’s opinion that femininity is a form of alienation imposed on women and she strongly opposes any theory of mothering based on the assumption that gender roles can be freely chosen in our society. To support this argument, Chodorow claims that by the time a human being reaches the stage of decision making, he or she has already been engendered. Therefore, as she explains, “women’s mothering, like other aspects of gender activity, is a product of feminine role training and role identification.” (1979:31) It has nothing to do with conscious choice and much to do with a slow and gradual process that conquers the psyche of a girl before she is old enough to make choices and deliberately decides to assume a certain role. As Chodorow observes:

Girls are taught to be mothers, trained for nurturance, and told they ought to mother. They are wrapped in pink blankets, given dolls, learn that being a girl is not as good as being a boy, are not allowed to get dirty, are discouraged from achieving at school, and therefore become mothers. They are barraged from early childhood well into adult life with books, magazines, ads school courses, and television programs which put for pronatalist and promaternal sex-stereotypes…girls choose to do “girls-things” and eventually “woman-things,” like mothering, as a result of learning that they are girls. (1979:31)

In this way “the reproduction of women’s mothering” is used for women’s subordination and confinement within the boundaries of the “domestic sphere,” alienated from all social activities, decision making and political control. Women’s mothering as basic to the “sexual division of labor…generates a psychology and ideology of male dominance… reproduces the family as it is constituted in male-dominant society and produces men who fear, act superior to women and do not parent.” (1979:209)

From a radical perspective, reproduction is considered as the cause of women’s oppression. Shulamith Firestone, a prominent radical feminist, claims that patriarchy, the main source of women’s subordination, is rooted in the biological inequality of the sexes. Like Alison Jaggar, Firestone attempted a revision of the Marxist theory in an effort to explain women’s reproductive role as a source of systematic subordination. Utilizing Engels’ definition of historical materialism, in the book The Dialectic of Sex, Firestone offers her own interesting version of how reproduction under patriarchy can become the source of female subordination and alienation:

Historical materialism is that view of the source of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historical events in the dialectic of sex: the division of society into two distinct biological classes for procreative reproduction, and the struggles of these classes with one another; in the changes in the modes of marriage, reproduction and child care created by these struggles; in the connected development of other physically differentiated classes; and in the first division of labor based on sex which developed into the class system. (qtd. in Jaggar 1983:90-91)

According to Firestone’s interpretation and reformulation of Engel’s theory, therefore, the real explanation of female subordination to men calls for biological answers. Considering that the real class distinction is that between man and woman, she attributes the inequality between the sexes to the different reproductive roles the patriarchal system has assigned to men and women. She, therefore, blames reproduction rather than production for the division of labor. A revolution is necessary if women wish to eliminate the sexual class system. To accomplish such a goal, Firestone claims that women should seize control of the means of reproduction using the advanced technology available nowadays, such as contraception and in vitro fertilization. As long as reproduction remains women’s primary role in society, according to Firestone, there will be no fundamental change in women’s subordination.

Whatever categories of women Steinbeck introduced into his novels, he shows, for example, that he wants to avoid stereotyping of the mother image at the end of The Grapes of Wrath. He explains to Covici in a letter that Rose of Sharon’s breast feeding of the starving man is intended as a symbol neither of love, nor of mothering. It is one person giving substance to another. “It is a survival symbol not a love symbol.” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 1975: 178)

Childbearing is one of the most distressing forms of alienation women experience during motherhood. As Jaggar saw it, childrearing is a lonely and painful experience that demands a tremendous amount of physical and emotional effort on behalf of the woman, who carries out this difficult task without any assistance and support from her family or society. Jaggar proceeds to identify two aspects of childrearing where the “concept of alienation is especially applicable” and the pressures on mothers “who are rearing children in contemporary capitalistic society” are enormous. The first is “the application of science to childrearing” and the second is “the isolation of mothers.” These two aspects have also been identified by radical feminists, as Jaggar notes:

[Childrearing] in male-dominant society, as radical feminists have pointed out, women have never completely controlled the process of childrearing, but have always had to raise their children according to patriarchal standards. In the 20th century, however, there have been qualitative changes in Childrearing. These changes make the concept of alienation especially applicable to mothers who are rearing children in contemporary capitalistic society. The changes are, first, the application of “science” to childrearing and, second, the isolation of mothers. The development of “science of child development has reduced mothers’ control over childrearing almost as much as the development of modern obstetrics has reduced mothers’ control over the birth process.(1983:311)

The advent of industrialization marked a period where much of the work formerly done in the home was transformed into activities increasingly performed outside the house for wages. So mothers were serving the interests of business by producing and servicing workers, without pay, and by forming a pool of cheap labor. They were also serving military interests by producing soldiers for man’s military machine.

The middle of the 20th century, however, marked a new era of relative prosperity where “child labor was eliminated” and “childrearing no longer seemed to be determined by immediate economic necessity.” (983:311) As the standard of living improved, more and more experts turned their attention to childrearing which by the end of the century, has been developed into a science where male authorities rush to answer the question of how children should be reared. Suddenly, women instead of full-time experts, to whom until recently society had trusted the upbringing of its future citizens, were reduced to clumsy, neurotic, overemotional amateurs that were expected to execute every edict of the male experts.

Since the establishment of childrearing as science, a variety of methods of “scientific rearing” has followed so that very often “mothers are baffled by this variety of experts’ advice and, as Jaggar correctly notices, the whole situation is yet another form of alienation women experience.

In spite of their variety, the methods of scientific childrearing all share two assumptions. The first is that the child is a product which has to be produced according to exact specifications. The second is that mothers are ignorant of how to rear children and have to be instructed by experts. These experts of course, are mostly male. ... Although mothers are not paid for rearing their own children, the increasing subjection of the domestic childrearing process to scientific control suggests that mothers’ experience is parallel in this respect to the experience of wage laborers and provides one reason for characterizing mothers’ work as alienated.(l983:312)

The second and most horrifying aspect of alienation women experience during childrearing is their “isolation.” Detached from active social life and isolated to newly created suburban communities, women are occupied for the best part of their life with the upbringing of their children, not according to their wish but following the male experts’ advice. This “isolation” creates a “mutual dependence of mother and child” where mothers infinitely and unreservedly devote themselves to their role and consume all their time and energy with their children.

This, in a sense peculiar, situation leaves women virtually no outlet in the form of employment, intellectual activity and social purpose, evoking feelings of dissatisfaction, inadequacy, resentment and sometimes anger. Jaggar parallels this condition to Marx’s description of the “alienated wage laborer’s conditions,” as she observes:

The isolation of contemporary mothers means that at least when their children are infants, they must face single handed a tremendous amount of work…The foregoing description of the new mother’s condition recalls vividly Marx’s description of the alienated wage laborer’s conditions, whose work “mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” (1983:313)

The consequences, however, of the belief that childrearing is an end in itself in women’s life and the “isolation” women suffer while raising their children, are dramatic for the majority of women. Restricted in their activities and isolated from the adult social world, full-time mothers focus all their emotions, hopes and aspirations on the caring of their children, sometimes reaching extremes. Suddenly, when children attain adulthood and leave home, mothers, who “have been devoted to their children” find themselves with nothing “to do,” no meaning and purpose in life, experiencing what Alison Jaggar identifies as “the empty nest” syndrome.


[1] I borrow from a phrase in Women’s Realities, Women’s Choices (Bates et al. 1983:59).

[2] Aristotle’s view of women was based partly on a theory that among animal species, females have less vital heat than males. He reasoned that woman, lacking this heat, was unable to impart shape to what flowed away as menstrual blood. Woman’s part in conception was merely to supply the container, the “flower pot,” one might say in which the distinctive seed, implanted by man grows. The function of woman according to Aristotle is to bear children, whereas the function of man is rational activity. (Bates et al. 1983: 63)

[3] The term was used by the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir in her book The Second Sex. According to Beauvoir “Man seeks in woman the Other as Nature and as his fellow being…Woman sums up nature as Mother, Wife and Idea.” (1974:163)

[4] The term postmodern feminism gained credence as U.S. audiences realized that what such writers as Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva had in common was not so much their “Frenchness” as their philosophical perspective, which was shared by postmodern philosophers such Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Like Derrida, Cixous, Iriraray, and Kristeva are deconstructionists in the sense that they delight in illuminating the “internal contradictions in seemingly perfectly coherent systems of thought,” which serves to attack “ordinary notions of authorship, identity and selfhood.” (Sturrock qtd. in Tong 1991:218)

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Exploring women's alienation in works of John Steinbeck
National & Kapodistrian University of Athens  (Department of English Studies)
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Penelope Moraitis (Author), 2000, Exploring women's alienation in works of John Steinbeck, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/304496


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