Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” Written Among Feminism


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“[W]omen are used to worrying over trifles,” states Mr. Hale in Susan Glaspell’s 1916 play Trifles.  With this statement, he shows the frame of mind that spurs Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters into action, mimicking the brewing feminism in the play’s time.  As the play weaved itself into Glaspell’s mind, America was challenging its views on women.  Women were demanding woman’s suffrage as well as control over their own bodies through birth control.  States were slowly moving toward progressive ideas of race and sex, forcing a gradual change in the overall United States.  Even though women were moving toward change, some women fought against moving forward, worried about what the future would bring.  A year after Trifles, Glaspell wrote the short story counterpart called “Jury of her Peers” to better enhance the feelings and connection between women to demonstrate the need of solidarity among the female gender. Glaspell demonstrated her own feminist views.  Using a case she reported on from her journalism days, Glaspell creates a story that showcases the why women needed to join together against the constraints placed on them by a patriarchy dictated society.

Glaspell had been a spitfire her whole life.  As Barbara Oziebol says on a website dedicated to Glaspell, “[She] had never liked to feel controlled or delimited; born in Davenport, Iowa, in 1876, she rebelled against society’s expectations and, rather than passively wait for a husband to appear, went to Drake University in Des Moines, graduating in June of 1899, and then worked as a reporter for the Des Moines Daily News” (Oziebol 3).  Receiving an education and a job, Glaspell fought the status quo that limited the women in her time.  Back in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the women’s place was in the house and caring for their husband and children.  Glaspell ignored this and went on to write fiction after her days in journalism.  In 1913, she married a man named George Cram Cook whose reputation reeked of scandal, creating gossip for herself (Oziebol 4).  Cook had been married twice before and was known for being a socialist.  Despite his scandalous past, Glaspell still remained with him, apparently happy until he died, and also became associated as a socialist (Black 2).  Not only was she connected with socialism but also as a member of two different feminist groups: the Heterodoxy group and the Lucy Stone League.  The Lucy Stone League was founded in 1921 and believed that woman had the right to keep their last name after marriage (Gilfillian 1).  Similarly, the Heterodoxy group was a feminist group that was formed by Marie Jenney Howie in 1912 for “unorthodox women” to meet and converse at “luncheons” (Corbman 2).  Charlotte Perkins Gilman, another feminist writer, was also part of this group.  From her days with fellow feminists, Glaspell found a safe place to share her ideas and find solidarity with like-minded women.

From her reporting days at the Des Moines Daily News, Glaspell found the basis of her play Trifles during this feminist fireAccording to Thomas Wolf and Patricia Bryan, after eighteen months of reporting “statehouse politics,” Glaspell was assigned to cover the murder case of John Hossack, “a prosperous Warren County farmer who had been killed in his sleep” (Bryan and Wolf 1).  The murder occurred on December 2nd, 1900 and was accomplished by a blow of an axe to John Hossack’s head (Ben-Zvi 144).  What made this case interesting was the issue of John Hossack’s wife, Margaret, who claimed to have slept by his side as he was murdered.  Initially, police believed a burglar to be at fault until an axe was discovered in the family corn crib and a history of marital disputes between the Hossack couple were revealed (Ben-Zvi 144).  Once this discovery was made, Margaret Hossack was taken into custody.

The majority of Iowa believed Margaret Hossack was guilty of the murder of her husband until Glaspell reported with a different view.  At the start of her commentary, Glaspell depicted Margaret Hossack as an emotionless woman with no apparent grief or regret at the demise of her husband, using words such as “cold” and “powerful” to emphasize her seeming guiltiness, highly unusual and unacceptable for a woman in that time (Ben-Zvi 146).  Yet, after Glaspell received entry into Margaret Hossack’s kitchen, her words shifted to painting a frail, helpless, and maternal woman who is innocent and wrongly judged, more acceptable and easier to empathize with for that audience.  Later, it was revealed that some kind of abuse was happening to Margaret Hossack behind closed doors (Ben-Zvi 151).  Despite this revelation, Margaret Hossack was found guilty for the murder of her husband due to her past scandals of gossip and a baby before marriage.  After this report, Glaspell resigned from reporting and moved to fiction.

From her reporting of the Hossack case, it is obvious Glaspell used aspects of it to write both Trifles and “Jury of Her Peers.  As with their origin, from the inspection of the kitchen and the rest of Minnie’s possessions, the other women present in the story and play are moved to empathize with Minnie for murdering her husband.  They realize the emotional abuse she endures from her husband and understand why she cracks from the constraints of their marriage.  When she was reporting the case, it is believed that Glaspell’s venture into Margaret Hossack’s kitchen is what changed her view of the murder, similar to the women’s observations of the kitchen (Bryan and Wolf 3).  However, instead of the murder weapon being an axe, a rope is used to strangle the husband of Minnie Foster in the play as Mr. Wright strangles Minnie’s bird with his bare hands.  When Mrs. Hale comments on why she never stopped over, she admits, “I stayed away because it weren’t cheerful… I never liked this place.  Maybe it’s because it’s down in a hollow and you don’t see the road.  I dunno what it is, but it’s a lonesome place and always was” (Glaspell 916).  Delving deeper, Mrs. Hale says, “She used to sing.  He killed that too” (Glaspell 918).  Mr. Wright suffocated and abused Minnie to a point in which she could not handle the limits any longer.

Written sixteen years after the original murder case, Trifles comes into being because of the growing feminist wave to change women’s lives.  At the time of 1916, Glaspell was starting the progressive drama theater of the Provincetown Players.  The Provincetown Players had a specific reason for coming together under Cook and Glaspell as Gerard Bach points out:

“The impelling desire of the group is to establish a stage where playwrights of sincere, poetic, literary, and dramatic purpose can set their plays in action, and superintend their production without submitting to the commercial manager’s interpretation of public taste…it facilitated the experimental needs of a beginning playwright on a very practical level, and on the other hand the playwright was incorporated into the creative exchange between writer, actor, and producer, a purpose serving the philosophy of a communal artistic expression (Bach 33).”

Taking place at the theater was new subjects and apparent risky material that included Eugene O’Neill’s plays and Glaspell’s own one act plays. Because of their openness of ideas, Glaspell and the others were able to experiment with themes that would have appalled the public, such as a murder of a husband by his wife.  Bach also brings into awareness that Glaspell “was an integral part of the forces that shaped the creative processes… [and] acted, not only in her own plays, but also in the plays of others; she produced and designed her productions; and she closely observed the productions of others” (Bach 37).  During her time with the Provincetown Playwrights, she was still a part of the feminist groups and brought some of her feminist ideas into the plays.  After the first production of Trifles, in which she played the part of Mrs. Hale, Glaspell wrote the short story Jury of her Peers to better illustrate the shared agreement of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters to help Minnie.  Mrs. Hale is the louder voice in the play calling for attention to the abuse wives and women in general endure.  Mrs. Hale states, “I might have known she needed help!  I know how things can be— for women… We live close together and we live far apart.  We all go through the same things— it’s all just a different kind of the same thing” (Glaspell 919).  From the short story format, she better described the unison feeling of protection and understanding that women felt as they were undermined by the men and abused by the weight of the men’s boot.  With the relationship of Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters, Glaspell accentuates her own feminist views that were growing along with the feminist movement.

Written and produced in 1916, Trifles was conceived in the start of the feminist movement.  The largest and most significant start to the feminist movement in this time was the women’s suffrage movement.  Spanning from 1840 to 1920, the women’s suffrage movement was fought for a long time and in the heat of battle during Susan Glaspell’s lifetime.  In 1893, Colorado was the first state to adopt women’s suffrage (“Woman Suffrage Timeline”).  Idaho and Utah followed three years later, providing promise to the suffrage campaign.  However, it was not until fourteen years later that another state adopted suffrage: Washington in 1910.  After Washington, many other states trickled on board with the women’s suffrage campaign.  By August 26th, 1920, the nineteenth amendment of women’s suffrage was made official (“Woman Suffrage Timeline”).  Women saw the suffrage movement as the first step to gaining equal ground with men.  With the ability to vote, a woman’s voice would be as important in election as any man.  If women gained the right to vote, which they did, then that was one step closer to fighting the suffocation of a patriarchy society.

Other feminist movements took place during the conception of Trifles.  Similar to how Minnie in the play did not have the option to control her life or body outside of her husband’s reach, most women in the early 1900’s did not have the option to control their bodies.  Before the birth control movement grew in 1912 by the efforts of Margaret Sanger’s advocating for contraceptives, women had no control over their bodies (Kauffman 1).  At first, Sanger tried to teach women about their bodies, specifically about their sexual desires being natural and how to keep a proper hygiene to stay healthy (Kauffman 4).  Running articles about the women body under The Call, Sanger was ordered to stop educating women because it was “obscene”  because women were not supposed to have such desires and had no need to worry about such hygiene.  Unperturbed, she continued her efforts and soon formally mentioned contraceptives as a way to improve women’s well-being in the article The Woman Rebel (Kauffman 4).  In 1914, she was arrested for breaking the Comstock Law, a law that ordered any conversations about contraceptives or sexual aids illegal.  Later, shops appeared by the end of 1916 as women strove to have control over their own bodies instead of their fathers or husbands.  Though the shops were quickly shut down more often than they were open, Sanger did not give up educating and aiding women.  The movement found ground later in the 1920’s after Glaspell’s production of the plays were over.

Trifles was written in response to the wave of feminism that took place during the early 1900’s to the 1920’s.  Women were beginning to have access to fighting against the limits that their husbands, fathers, and the general male population placed on them.  Seeking to have their voices hear, women fought for their right to vote and proclaim their opinions.  As women were emboldened by the growing suffrage movement, other movements like the birth control movement sprouted into being, nourishing the idea that women had the option to control their own lives. Glaspell wanted to show the real side of women and rebel against the patriarchy that longed to control her into a maternal image.  Through her play and short story, Glaspell writes her solidarity with other women.

 

Works Cited

Bach, Gerhard. “Susan Glaspell– Provincetown Playwright.” The Great Lakes Review, vol. 4, no. 2, 1978, pp. 31–43, JStor, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41337535.pdf.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. “‘Murder She Wrote’: The Genesis of Susan Glaspell’s ‘Trifles.’” Theatre Journal, vol. 44, no. 2, May 1992, pp. 141–162, JStor, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3208736.pdf

Black, Cheryl. “Susan Glaspell: Pioneering Playwright of Midwestern Roots and Modernist.” Links, Purdue, 2007, http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~fliotsos/b/b/glaspell,_susan.html.

Bryan, Patricia, and Thomas Wolf. “Midnight Assassin.” Midnight Assassin, 2005, www.midnightassassin.com/glaspell.html.

Corbman, Rachel. “Heterodoxy.” Greenwich Village History, Omeka, www.gvh.aphdigital.org/exhibits/show/herstoric100/3orgs/heterodoxy.

Gilfillian, Daniel. “Life as a Lucy Stoner.” Jane Grant: Life as a Lucy Stoner, University of Oregon, 1999, http://www.library.uoregon.edu/ec/exhibits/janegrant/lucy/.

Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” Literature: A Portable Anthology. 3rd ed. Gardner, Janet, et. al., eds. Bedford, 2013, pp. 909-920.

Kauffman, Jill. “Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement.” Issues & Controversies in American History. Infobase Publishing, Feb. 6 2013, pp. 1-13, http://icah.infobaselearning.com/icahfullarticle.aspx?ID=107576.

Ozieblo, Barbara. “About Susan Glaspell.” The International Susan Glaspell Society, The International Susan Glaspell Society, 2010, http://www.blogs.shu.edu/glaspellsociety/sample-page/.

“Woman Suffrage Timeline (1840-1920).” National Women’s History Museum, National Women’s History Museum, www.nwhm.org/education-resources/history/woman-suffrage-timeline.

 

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