Everybody loves To Kill A Mockingbird. This New Yorker article perfectly extols the cultural significance of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, which one a Pulitzer Prize and became an Oscar- winning movie within years of its publication.
My eighth English grade class reads To Kill A Mockingbird to study race, class, prejudice and coming of age. The story goes a little like this: a small- town lawyer and single father named Atticus Finch defends a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in 1930’s Alabama.
Atticus dispenses a great deal of good advice. You can find Atticus Quotes far and wide across the cultural lexicon. Even Barack Obama quoted Mr. Finch in his farewell address:
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
While Atticus seems “woke” for a Depression- era white dude, people never talk about his attitudes toward the other dehumanizing prejudice at play in To Kill A Mockingbird– sexism.
Atticus, like many other men of the time, assigned women definite domestic roles and thought them inferior to men.
But he lets his tomboy daughter Scout run around in overalls and a bob! He teaches her how to read! He fights evil Aunt Alexandra when she tries to turn Scout into a lady!
He also says this:
“We know not all men are created equal in the sense that some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they’re born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others.”
Oh yes. Men make money. Ladies make cakes. Check this passage where Atticus (and Lee!) justify leaving women off juries:
“Jem was scratching his head. Suddenly his eyes widened. ‘Atticus,’ he said, ‘why don’t people like us and Miss Maudie ever sit on juries? You never see anybody from Maycomb on a jury- they all come from out in the woods.’
Atticus leaned back in his rocking- chair. For some reason he looked pleased with Jem. ‘I was wondering when that’d occur to you,’ he said. ‘There are lots of reasons. For one thing, Miss Maudie can’t serve on a jury because she’s a woman-‘
‘You mean women in Alabama can’t-?’ I was indignant.
‘I do. I guess it’s to protect our frail ladies from sordid cases like Tom’s. Besides,’ Atticus grinned, ‘I doubt we’d ever get a complete case tried- the ladies’d be interrupting to ask questions.’
Jem and I laughed. Miss Maudie on a jury would be impressive. I thought of old Mrs. Dubose in her wheelchair- ‘Stop that rapping, John Taylor, I want to ask this man something.’ Perhaps our forefathers were wise.”
And this one’s reaching a bit, but it gets under my skin mainly because it shows how men see men as both the protectors and tormentors of a woman’s sexual virtue as opposed to the woman herself:
“You know the truth, and the truth is this: some Negroes lie, some Negroes are immoral, some Negro men are not to be trusted around [our] women- black or white. But this is a truth that applies to the human race and to no particular race of men.”
All things considered, Atticus is still pretty fly for a white guy. He stands for empathy, justice, and equality under the law.
But he’s also pretty sexist.