In particular, women growing more into leadership roles (Ma assertiveness and usurping Pa's position) and the final scene of a woman nursing a starving dying man.
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The Grapes of Wrath Theme of Gender
The narrator of The Grapes of Wrath paints vivid and general portraits of life in Dust Bowl America, and clearly delineates the roles of men and women. The men consider the losses, while the women look on silently, reading their husband's expressions. Men make decisions, and women tend to the house chores. Men slaughter and hunt, while women prepare and cook. However, despite these very specific descriptions of gender roles, we see Ma Joad often assume a "man's" duties, and we see Tom Joad display more traditionally feminine sentiments. The novel complicates its own understanding of women and men in 1930s America.
Pa Joad makes a significant comment about gender roles, lamenting the fact that he no longer runs the family, but Ma makes it clear that the roles have only changed because he no longer fulfills his duties as husband and father. Since Ma is the only Joad who fulfills her obligations to the rest of the family she is the caretaker and moral center she gains the right to make decisions for the rest of the family. This is the major loss that Pa suffers; he no longer has the right to make decisions for the family, and must subordinate himself to his wife. (Chapter 26)
"Ma Joad: Ma is, in Casy's words, "a woman so full of love" she can be frightening. Against all gender expectations of her day, Ma provides the moral and emotional center for the Joad clan. She is committed to caring for all people as she can (witness her inclusion of Casy when the family sets out for California) and, even though this conviction faces sore testing along the journey, Ma ultimately holds fast to the truth that true family is larger than biological relations. While Ma urges her parole-breaking son Tom not to get angry, she finds her own righteous (not self-righteous!) anger growing as her family faces more and more deprivation and humiliation. She learns-and, through her, readers learn-about the right use of anger in changing society, even if in small but significant ways (such as persuading Rose of Sharon to offer the breast milk produced for her stillborn child to a "stranger" dying of hunger at the novel's end)."
"Pa Joad is a strong man who "figures" as hard as he can how to handle the family's problems (a recurrent motif in the novel), but his "figuring" ultimately yields to Ma's decisive actions. This sea change in gender roles of the time is seen perhaps most clearly in the final chapter, when Ma makes the decision that the family must seek a dry place to stay. Throughout the book, Pa comments that Ma's increased assertiveness represents a fundamental change in the world he knows."