In the summer when she is thirteen, Francie writes in her diary, “Today, I am a woman.” That summer Saturday should have been the happiest of Francie’s life so far. She sees her name in print. The best composition from each class grade is published in the school magazine and Francie’s, entitled “Winter Time,” is chosen as the best seventh-grade work. School closed for summer the day before, however, and Francie is worried that she won’t get a copy of the magazine. However, Mr. Jenson tells her that he will be working on Saturday and that if she brings a dime, which is the cost of the magazine, he will give her a copy. By the early afternoon, Francie stands in front of her door with a copy of the magazine and the pages turned to her story. She hopes someone comes along so that she can show it to them.
Francie’s declaration of womanhood ironically precedes the onset of her first period, as well as the day when she will come to understand why her neighbor Joanna is ostracized by the other women in the neighborhood. Francie eventually stops writing in her diary about womanhood when she realizes that she really has nothing to say on the subject. On the other hand, she’s proud of the composition that she’s written. Her fondness for writing about nature coincides with her growing desire to experience a world beyond Brooklyn.
Francie shows it to her mother, but Katie says that she has no time to read it and Johnny is at Union Headquarters. Francie continues to look at her name in print. Her excitement never subsides. A few doors away, she sees a girl named Joanna come out of her house. The housewives who are doing their Saturday shopping stop gossiping and gasp at the sight of the girl. Her baby is illegitimate and everyone knows it. These “good women” feel that Joanna has no right to bring her baby out in public but ought to hide it “in some dark place.”
Francie is too excited to be hurt by her parents’ inability or unwillingness to make time for what’s so important to her. Meanwhile, the neighborhood women’s reactions to Joanna briefly force Francie to stop thinking about herself as she observes and studies their condemnation. The notion that Joanna should hide her baby in a dark place suggests that the child has no right to exist either because of her mother.
Francie has heard her parents talking about Joanna. The baby is beautiful and better-kept than the children of the women who shun Joanna. Joanna works in a factory while her mother looks after the baby. Her mother is too ashamed to take the baby out, however, so it only gets fresh air on the weekends. The child looks just like Joanna. Johnny compares the baby girl’s skin to a magnolia petal, her hair to a raven’s wing, and her eyes to forest pools. Interestingly, Johnny has never seen any of these things.
In his ability to find sympathy with those who face social condemnation, Johnny sees extraordinary beauty in Joanna’s baby. It is ironic to Francie that the women who hold themselves up as better mothers care less for their children than Joanna does for hers. Francie doesn’t realize that these women have children out of obligation, not desire—unlike Joanna.
Katie insists that the child’s looks will be a curse to her, just as they are a curse to her mother. Katie talks about how Joanna’s brother is in Sing Sing and surmises that there must be “bad blood” throughout the line. However, she insists that none of this is her business. She will not join in spitting on Joanna, but she will not praise her either. She turns to Francie and says that Joanna should be a lesson to her.
Katie is judging Joanna, though she pretends not to. She sees Joanna’s actions as evidence of bad character and thinks that a woman’s good looks are “a curse” because sexual desirability, in Katie’s mind leads to future troubles. She may be thinking of her own life with Johnny, in this regard.
While watching Joanna that Saturday afternoon, Francie wonders why the girl should be “a lesson.” Joanna is seventeen, friendly, and proud of her baby. One day, Joanna smiles at Francie, as she does at everyone else, but Francie doesn’t smile back. Francie notices how Joanna maddens the local women by touching her baby’s cheek and smiling lovingly at her. Many of these women didn’t enjoy raising children and they did not like sleeping with their husbands. For them, the act of love was one of brutality on both sides. Joanna’s tenderness and happiness suggests that this was not so between her and the child’s father.
Francie doesn’t yet understand Katie’s subtle message on how sex makes women vulnerable. When Francie looks at how happy Joanna is with her baby, in contrast to the miserable women who condemn her, it seems that the problem is less about sex and more about those who have the courage to make their own choices and those who don’t. The women resent Joanna for having the audacity to do as she pleased.
Joanna recognizes their hate, but she doesn’t let it bother her. A “stringy woman” asks Joanna if she isn’t ashamed of herself. Joanna replies, “What for?” The woman becomes furious and says that Joanna has no right to be outside and calls her a whore. A man passing by touches Joanna’s arm and suggests that she go home; she can’t win with these “battle-axes.” Joanna jerks her arm away and declares the women jealous because men like her. She then says that the stringy woman’s husband probably spits on her after they finish having sex. This further outrages the stringy woman who calls Joanna a “bitch” and throws a stone at her. The other women follow suit. Some of the stones hit Joanna, but a sharp pointed one hits the baby on the forehead. A thin trickle of blood runs down her face. The women drop their stones and suddenly feel ashamed. The baby whimpers, as though it has no right to cry aloud and Joanna carries her baby into the house, crying.
Joanna ignores the women because she doesn’t believe that she should be ashamed of herself. She slept with a young man whom she loved and had a child with him. The absence of a marriage between her own parents has also shown her that it’s possible for a woman to raise a child on her own. Furthermore, Joanna has no sense of guilt about sex and, in her comment about men liking her, she admits to enjoying it. For the other women, sex is not a thing to enjoy but an obligation that they endure so that they can be married. Having nothing other than marriage and motherhood to give their lives value, they resent anyone who suggests that these institutions don’t matter.
Francie gets her lesson from Joanna, but it’s not the one that Katie intended. Often, on her way home at night from the library, Francie would see Joanna with the boy whom she loved. She saw the boy stroke Joanna’s hair tenderly. She saw how Joanna put her hand up to his cheek. She also knows how one of the stone-throwers had a baby three months after she was married. The woman’s father forced the groom to the altar. On that day, the groom had black shadows under his eyes and looked very sad. Joanna has no father, no one to get the boy to the altar. Francie realizes that that was Joanna’s crime—that she hadn’t found a way for the boy to marry her.
Francie, in this instance, draws a distinction between love and marriage. Marriage, according to what Francie has witnessed, makes the difference between being a socially acceptable and honorable woman and a disrespectable one. In the view of the women of the neighborhood, a woman who allows men to have sex with them without their being married presents a threat to their own marriages and the possibility of their daughters being married.
The waves of hurt she feels over Joanna and the baby subside when Francie realizes that something strange is going on with her. She thinks that her heart has broken inside her over Joanna’s baby and that the blood is now flowing out of her body. She goes upstairs to the apartment and looks at herself in the mirror. She has dark shadows under her eyes and her head aches. When her mother arrives home, Katie realizes that Francie has gotten her first period.
Francie naively thinks that the blood is coming from empathizing too much with Joanna. In a way, she’s right. By starting her period at the moment that she witnesses Joanna’s condemnation, she gets a glimpse of how she is now vulnerable to the same fate as Joanna if she, too, falls in love with a man who won’t marry her.
Katie warns Francie to be “a good girl” because she can have a baby now. She says that Francie mustn’t allow boys to kiss her. Francie wonders if a woman can get pregnant from a kiss. Katie tells her that it doesn’t happen that way, but it starts with a kiss. She adds, “Remember Joanna.” Francie thinks back to Joanna in the street with the boy. She knows that Katie doesn’t know about the street scene. Francie marvels at her mother’s powers of insight and looks at her with new respect.
By “good girl,” Katie means that Francie is not to have sex with a man until she’s married. Afraid to explain how babies are actually made, Katie uses a kiss as an overall reference for sex. Francie marvels at her mother’s seeming ability to read her thoughts because she doesn’t yet realize that Katie knows things about men and sex that Francie has yet to discover.
Francie repeatedly hears the message “Remember Joanna.” As prompted, Francie never forgets her and hates the women who stoned her that summer Saturday. Francie thereby develops a general hatred and mistrust for women. The passing man had been the only one who spoke to Joanna with any kindness in his voice. Most women have one thing in common: the pain of enduring childbirth. However, they only stick together to trample on and gossip about other women. Francie perceives it as the only loyalty they have. Francie opens the copybook that she uses for a diary and writes that she will never have a woman as a friend and will never trust a woman, except for Katie and “sometimes Aunt Evy and Aunt Sissy.”
Francie doesn’t understand why the neighborhood women resent Joanna; she only recognizes their cruelty. Francie doesn’t realize that Joanna represents their fears about being unable to keep men in their lives by maintaining some control over sex and childrearing. This struggle to maintain control over those realms makes up for their lack of power over anything else. Women like Joanna disrupt that control. Neither they nor Francie understand the misogyny that traps all women and girls.