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Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Womens History and Feminism

Tara Conover

Towson University


In 1937, when Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published, it received a lot of negative criticism. Richard Wright, who was a famous African American writer during this period, criticized Hurston's novel most harshly. He stated that the novel carries no theme, no message, no thought (Wright, 1937). Yet throughout the 1970's, Hurston's novel was in high demand, especially where there were high interests growing in African American Literature. Hurston was an author before her time. This novel was a statement in feminism but was not appreciated until later when the movement was on the rise. The feminism is obvious in the novel and is presented through the main heroine, Janie. In Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the heroine, Janie, represents aspects of feminism when she takes the initiative to liberate herself from each of her three dictatorial relationships. Through it all, Janie seeks, freedom to be herself--heroic, beautiful, full of feeling and needful of love, in the prime of life (Walker, 1979). The story Their Eyes Were Watching God is a wonderful and appropriate text to use in the classroom. However, students may yearn for a more contemporary look at feminism. This chapter will outline other ways for educators to explore the feminist movement as it relates to Zora Neale Hurstons Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Literary Approach:

This unit is organized so that a single student, a small group of students or a classroom of students may work on the activities as long as the students have access to the Internet. A few computers in the classroom, library, or computer lab need to be available. All students should do all the activities, although they do not have to be done sequentially. However, each activity broadens and deepens a student's understanding of the units objectives. Elements of language arts including reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing will be incorporated in to unit. Readers response logs will also be used to aid the teacher with ongoing informal assessment.

General Objectives:

The following objectives are derived from as the NCTE/ IRA standards for the English Language Arts. The students will be able to:

1. Read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.

2. Read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.

3. Apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, andappreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

4. Apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and non-print texts. 5. Use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.

6. Develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.

What is Feminism?

Feminism is the ideology that supports uplifting the status and improving the rights of women and has been one of the most influential political ideas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since its beginning, feminism has been both hailed as a profound liberation of society but also responsible for the breakdown of the nuclear family and the degradation of society in general. There is no doubt, however, that the work of feminist activists and reformers has been responsible for enormous improvements in the position of women in the United States over the past 200 years. In addition, to take a glance at the power structure of most of the world's governments and businesses shows that male dominance is still very much a reality. In spite of this, feminism has changed the American social order, from the superficial, such as media portrayals of women, to the deepest underlying assumptions of science and religion.

When discussing the history of feminism, we must discuss the feminist movements. These movements lead women to attain womens rights. Feminist historians divide the history into three waves (Humm, 1995). Each is described as dealing with different aspects of the same feminist issues. The first wave refers to the movement of the 19th through early 20th centuries, which dealt mostly with womens suffrage. The second wave (1960s-1980s) dealt with the inequality of laws, as well as cultural inequalities and civil rights. The third wave (late 1980s-early 2000s), is seen as both a continuation and a response to the perceived failures of the second wave (Krolokke, 2005). Some now believe as of 2010, we are in a fourth wave of feminism (Paglia, 2008).

The Novels: A Brief Summary of Each

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

The story begins as the main character, Janie Crawford arrives home, in Eatonville, FL. after a long trip. She begins to tell the story of the last twenty years of her life to her best hometown friend, Pheoby.

Janie's relives her story that begins with her youth, as a girl in search of great things. Raised by her grandmother, a black woman raped by a white man, Janie never really has the chance to go out in search of her dreams. Her grandmother was a slave and never had her own voice. She was always repressed by white people, and never could have the kind of nice things that she wanted. When Janie's mother is raped, she runs away and leaves Janie to be taken care of by her grandmother. Her grandmother only wants Janie to have the kinds of things she never had the chance to have. So, despite Janie's refusal, she arranges for Janie to marry a man named Logan Kellicks a black older man and land owner.

This marriage does not fulfill Janie like she imagines a marriage should. Logan makes Janie work hard and cares little about her opinions. Janie is in search of a husband and a love that make her feel wonderful all over, just like watching the bees sink into the pear tree blossom. When Joe Starks, a well-dressed man with big dreams comes along, Janie thinks this might be her chance at love and a better life. She leaves Logan and runs off with Joe Starks. They get married and move to the town of Eatonville, where Joe becomes a big voice as the mayor. He becomes such a big voice that he is always silencing Janie. She never has a chance to speak her mind, and her marriage to Joe is not what she had hoped for. After Joe dies, Tea Cake starts hanging around Janie. She falls in love with his carefree attitude and the way that he makes her feel like a pear tree in bloom. He allows her to speak and loves her for herself, and not the money she made while with Joe.

Tea Cake and Janie move to the Everglades to work on the muck where beans and sugar cane thrive. They live off the money they earn and are happy and in love. When a great hurricane comes, they are forced to flee for their lives. Tea Cake saves Janie's life from a rabid dog, but he gets bit in the process. Tea Cakes falls ill from the rabid dog, and, in his delirium, tries to kill Janie. She shoots first and kills Tea Cake. She is broken-hearted that she shot and killed the one man she ever loved, but she is happy to have found and loved the love of a lifetime.

The novel ends as Janie finishes her story to Pheoby. As Janie goes upstairs to bed she feels Tea Cake is still with her and is satisfied.

Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch

Rose Nolan, her parents, her sisters Maureen and Bridget, and her little brother Joseph boarded a ship bound for New York City. They left their home and their life in Ireland hoping that America would give them new opportunities and a better life than the one they had at home. During the turn of the century, thousands of immigrants entered America through the harbor in New York. All the steerage passengers went through the immigration building on Ellis Island. Afraid and bewildered, Rose's family was processed like so many others before and after. Unfortunately it is discovered that little Joseph had trachoma, a disease of the eyes. Anyone who has such an illness is turned away at Ellis Island and must return to their country of origin.Rose, Maureen, and their mother go and stay with Rose's uncle Patrick in New York City. Though Patrick is glad to see them and to help them, his wife and her daughters are not. Eventually a dreadful argument breaks out over a job that Rose has taken on, and Mrs. Nolan decides to return to Ireland. Her daughters however, decided to stay in America to try their luck for a better life. Rose, determined to get a job, soon enough has one at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. She comes to form close friendships with some of the other girls who work in the factory, and is just beginning to learn how to be a working girl when a disaster changes her whole world.For many of us just hearing the name of the factory is enough. We know the story and it fills us with horror. The author of this book takes that story an


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