The Idea of Feminism in the Character of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, a Novel by John Steinbeck

Categories: Ma Joad

John Steinbeck's, The Grapes of Wrath, is about the Joad family, who is forced to leave their home during the Dust Bowl. Thousands of other families in Oklahoma are also forced out of their homes by the "monster", a faceless corporation that also includes the banks.

The Joad family begin their journey to California in hopes of a better living condition, a new home, and jobs to support them. Steinbeck uses the character, Ma Joad, to portray the idea of feminism more effectively.

Ma Joad, a determined and loving woman, is the center of strength and the backbone of the family.

Her primary obligation is to take care of the family, provide nourishment, comfort, healing, and support. Without Ma's strong character, the family would have faced more challenges in their journey.

For centuries, women have been considered as the weaker-links in society; however, today they are viewed in a different perspective. In the 1900's, women were known as housewives who were responsible for taking care of the household, cooking the meals, and making sure the members of the family were satisfied.

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"Patriarchy prefers to treat all women as essentially and forever as volunteer caregivers.". Steinbeck displays Ma's clear transition from being the typical housewife to transforming into a leader.

Ma Joad demonstrates great leadership as the family's guiding force. She is influential in the decision-making process and acts with authority. When Pa is worried about not having enough food and transportation for everyone to California, he turns to Ma for assurance.

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"Ma cleared her throat. 'It ain't kin we? It's will we?' she said firmly. 'As far as 'kin', we can't do nothin', not go to California or nothin'; but as far as 'will', why, we'll do what we will.".

"This process of surpassing the limited housewife and mother's role is a gradual one, in tune with the various obstacles faced by the Joads during their journey, especially Pa Joad's loss of control over his family. She begins to stand out as a family leader when circumstances force it and she finds the inner strength to do so." (Costa 10). Ma is not like traditional women who wait on their husband's guidance and comfort.

Instead, Pa seeks comfort from her. The first chapter of the novel describes how the men and women interacted, "And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men- to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men's faces secretly.... Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole." This passage illustrates the traditional patriarchal family and the hierarchal positions.

In the initial stages of the book, Ma's character and temperament is displayed as respectful, humble, and accommodating to the patriarchal system. Although Ma is a woman with an independent mind, she only speaks when her opinion is sought, and when she does, her assertiveness is clear on the issue. However, as the story progresses this starts to change.

The Joad children also seek for comfort in Ma. “And since Tom and the children could not know hurt or fear unless she acknowledged hurt or fear, she had practiced denying them in herself. And since, when a joyful thing happened, they looked to see whether joy was on her, it was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials. If she ever really deeply wavered or despaired the family would fall, the family will to function would be gone." Her disposition is what completes her, and keeps the family from falling apart as they journey to California and face challenges.

On their drive to California, Al asks Ma if she is scared and she replies, "When someone happens that I got to do some pin- I'll do it.". Ma shows she is a woman of action when situations arise. "She seemed to know, to accept, to welcome, her position, the citadel of the family, the strong place that could not be taken.”. She is aware of her importance and position as a leader in the family, but her sense of tradition and respect for hierarchy hinders her from overt expressions unless it was imperative that she does so.

Ma demonstrates her role as the protector of the family at another point in the journey, when the family camps to rest and is confronted by the sheriff. Ma tells the sheriff that it is just she, Granma, and Rose of Sharon, and that they will leave at night. The sheriff is rude to Ma, telling her they'd better be gone when he comes back or he would run them in.

Steinbeck writes:

"Ma's face blackened with anger. She slowly got to her feet. Ste stopped to the utensil box and picked out the iron skillet. 'Mister,' she said, 'you got a tin button an' a gun. Where I come from, you keep your voice down.' She advanced on him with a skillet." (Steinbeck 124).

Ma's actions show that she will not tolerate anyone who disrespects her, and that she is willing to fight to protect her family. "It is in Ma that the rest of the family looks for comfort, and it is in Ma that they find the needed safety." True leadership fights for the protection of those they lead.

Ma Joad 's primary desire is keeping the Joad family together and whole. "Her determination is able to overcome traditional family boundaries and leads her to undertake more than the role of motherhood assigned to women in a traditional patriarchal system of family organization.".

While the family was traveling to California, Rose of Sharon tells Ma that when they arrive in California, she and her husband, Connie, will live in a town. Connie will study and get a job, and Connie says that Rose of Sharon will become a doctor after their baby is born. Worried about the family separating, Ma says, "We don't want you to go' way from us... It ain't good for folks to break up."

Later along the trip, Ma again displays her fear of the family separating when she refuses to leave Tom and Casy behind. “She is more capable of defending her points of view than Pa, which will make all the difference on the Joads' journey." The Wilson's car breaks down, and Tom and Casy offer to stay behind to repair it. However, as Ma holds the jack handle, she revolts and refuses to leave without them:

"An' I'll shame you, Pa. I won't take no whuppin', cryin' an' a-beggin'. I'll light into you. An' you ain't so sure you can whup me anyways. An' if ya do get me, I swear to God I'll wait till you got your back turned, or you're settin' down, an' I'll knock you belly-up with a bucket. I swear to Holy Jesus' sake I will."

She demonstrates that she will put up a fight before she allows the family to separate. She is ready to use physical strength to keep her family together, and is also willing to fight her own husband. As a result of their circumstances, Ma grasps that family is the only important and valuable thing in life.

Ma displays self-control and her incredible capacity in keeping it together for the sake of the family. "Ma Joad's adaptability to the new circumstances is extremely important for her family's survival." (Costa 76). During their journey, Granma becomes very ill, and begins to hallucinate and talking to Granpa, who had recently passed away. Ma tries to comfort Granma in the only way she knows how to regarding their current circumstances.

"On the back of the truck Ma lay on the mattress beside Granma, and she could not see with her eyes, but she could feel the struggling body and struggling heart; and the sobbing breath was in her ear. And Ma said over and over, 'All right. It's gonna be all right.'

And she said hoarsely, 'You know the family got to get acrost."" (Steinbeck 225). When they reach agricultural inspection, Ma pleads that they let them go because Granma is very ill and they need to get to the doctor. The officers let them go, and later on Ma reveals that Granma had already passed away before inspection. "I was afraid we wouldn' get acrost,' she said. 'I tol Granma we couldn' he'p her. The fambly had to get acrost." (Steinbeck 228).

Ma is afraid that Granma's dead body would cause a delay in their trip, and because Tom, her eldest son, is not allowed to leave the state of Oklahoma due to his parole, he is considered a fugitive of the law. "In normal conditions, a mother would never conceal the death of a beloved family member. Under new circumstances, the search for survival is capable of changing Ma's attitudes in the name of the entire family's welfare." (Costa 81-82). Ma suffers quietly

laying next to Granma's corpse because she was determined for the family to reach California. This distressing act requires great strength and composure. As Steinbeck describes Ma, "Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and superhuman understanding.” (Steinbeck 74). The hardships she has experienced in life have molded Ma into a strong woman. Her experiences in life have also contributed to her mental strength.

In the latter part of the novel, Ma makes the ultimate decision to send Tom away from the family to protect him from getting caught and going back to prison. This decision contradicts what she has persistently advocated throughout the novel, which is keeping the family together, no matter what. Ma is motivated to this decision because of her strong position as the family's leader and protector.

The family is at a new property, and when they arrive at the site, an angry, shouting crowd surrounds the entrance. While attempting to find out what has angered the people, Tom comes across Casy, who explains that the crowd is protesting against the Hooper Ranch for unjust pay. As Casy explains the situation to Tom, they encounter a group of men with weapons and flashlights. One of them strikes Casy in the head with a pick handle, killing him.

Tom immediately takes action, “He wrenched the club free... his crushing blow found the head, and as the man sank down, three more blows found his head.” (Steinbeck 386). Tom tells his family of what has happened, and once again Ma takes charge of the situation saying, "Pa, break up some boxes. We got to get breakfas'. You got to go to work. Ruthie, Winfiel'. If anybody asts you- Tom is sick- you hear?"" (Steinbeck 390). She insists that Tom remains with them and is willing to put the entire family at risk for the sake of keeping the family together.

Ma Joad remains faithful to the thought of the family staying together until Ruthie blabs about what Tom has done. Ma searches for Tom in the woods to warn him about what has happened, saying, "You got to go away, Tom' ... 'I thought that maybe you could go to a big city.

Los Angeles, maybe. They wouldn' never look for you there."  Sometimes leaders have to make tough choices in trying times. Her decision to send Tom away is not because she has given up hope for the family; rather, as the decision maker and protector of the family, she is protecting them, even though it means it means they will not be together physically for some time. Her ideas are based on the good of others, and like a true leader and a mother, her interests are not centered on herself but towards the well- being of the family she loves.

"Ma cannot keep the Joads together up to the end of the novel, however, and the narrative ends before we know what happens after the flood. Nonetheless, she endeavors to keep the Joads as a whole existing, and she achieves that in the sense that the unity of the family still remains at the end of the novel." (Costa 90).

"In current leadership theory, the moral principles of sympathy and service are captured in servant leadership; this advocates that great leaders are first servants to others and true leadership emerges from those whose primary motivations is a deep desire to help others " Ma Joad's caring heart does not only stop within her family, but also extends to people other than her family. Once they reach California, they stop at a place called Hooverville, which was a crowded, dirty camp full of hungry families.

Ma cooks stew for her family, and she shares their meal with the starving children that surrounded her. "She smiled at the children. 'Look,' she said, 'you little fellas go an get you each a flat stick an' I'll put what's lef' for you. But they ain't to be no fighting"."

Ma's family also has insufficient food, but her compassionate nature did not allow her to ignore the starving children. Cederstrom describes Ma as one of the "Great Mothers", the life giver, depicted in The Grapes of Wrath. "Preparing food and making shelter are their most immediate concerns, and Ma is the prime mover in creating the rituals of this primitive civilization." (Cederstrom). Her personality has a positive effect on people around her because of her generating spirit as the "Great Mother”.

Throughout the Joad family's journey to California, Ma Joad has demonstrated admirable strength in the face of great turmoil. When the family unity or safety is under threat, Ma Joad, regardless of her gender, rises to their rescue. A crisis reveals a person's true colors, and in the story Ma's true colors were revealed. She advocates that even in the worst circumstances can be faced with grace and dignity.

Not only does Ma exhibit the characteristics of a "Great Mother", she also exhibits great leadership and carries the role of the family's protector. Ma becomes the backbone of the family as she transitions from a traditional housewife to the guiding force of the family and maintainer of the family's integrity. Steinbeck makes great use of Ma Joad's character to support the concept of feminism.

Updated: May 16, 2023
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The Idea of Feminism in the Character of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, a Novel by John Steinbeck. (2023, May 16). Retrieved from

The Idea of Feminism in the Character of Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, a Novel by John Steinbeck essay
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