During the 1930s, sexist attitudes were prevalent and women were primarily confined to domestic roles. Although the 1920s had been a significant time for women’s rights and changing attitudes (women were given the vote across the USA in 1920 with the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment), the Great Depression saw a widespread shift back to more traditional views. Working women were considered greedy (taking work from men at a time when jobs were scarce) and distasteful (their role should be in the home looking after their families). Women were still campaigning for equal rights in the workplace and elsewhere, but the issue was largely ignored in magazines and newspapers, and still met significant opposition in government.
Common views held that women should stay in the home, and should remain demure and chaste and ladylike. A woman who was considered to flirt too much, show too much skin, or who liked make-up and fancy clothes a little too much, would be branded a tramp, particularly in rural areas. This attitude can be seen throughout Of Mice and Men in the ways in which the male characters talk about Curley’s wife. They repeatedly use derogatory language when referring to her (“bitch”, “tramp”, “tart”, etc), and criticise her for leaving her house and for talking to the men. If a man does something bad as a result of her ‘flirting’, they would consider this her fault (“jail bait”).
John Steinbeck’s own attitudes to women are a little harder to define. Later in the novel he suggests that society’s treatment of women creates the same kind of loneliness that arises from the segregation of black people, and he does show some sympathy for Curley’s wife. However, the lack of any female characters in roles other than care-takers of men or prostitutes, the repeated idea that the men’s downfall is caused by a woman’s sexuality, and the fact that Curley’s wife is never even named, do suggest sexist attitudes. Was Steinbeck using these elements to deliberately highlight and condemn such attitudes, or did he share these attitudes himself? Either way, it is clear that there is simply no place for women in this book’s idealised vision of a paradise built on male comradeship.
Curley’s wife is such a complex character that modern readers find it hard to agree on what, exactly, Steinbeck was trying to convey. Here are two examples of very different readings of the character:
Is Steinbeck trying to show that “even the worst of us can have our humanity”?
Or is Curley’s wife portrayed “not as a villain, but rather as a victim”?
Read more about feminism and sexism in 1930s America here – 1930s America, Feminist Void?