Traditional gender roles are clearly defined from the very beginning of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. When John attends his Harlem church on Sunday mornings, “the women all seem patient,” and “all the men seem mighty.” Women are considered fragile and dependent upon men, and the men who head the patriarchal families are often cruel and abusive. According to Florence, John’s aunt, “ain’t no woman born that don’t get walked over by some no-count man.” Florence’s obvious resentment of men continues throughout the novel, and after John’s biological father, Richard, dies, Florence tells John’s mother, Elizabeth, that “the menfolk, they die, and its over for them, but we women, we have to keep on living and try to forget what they done to us.” Richard commits suicide after he is falsely arrested and tried for robbery, a victim of America’s racist society that considers all black men criminal. Black women in Go Tell It on the Mountain must endure the oppression of a racist society as well, but they must also endure the oppression of a sexist society—and often at the hands of black men—which Baldwin argues is doubly tragic.
The oppression of women is reflected in Elizabeth’s marriage to Gabriel, John’s stepfather, who, as the family’s patriarch, rules his wife and family with an iron fist. Often, John and his family are late for church on Sunday mornings, and “this lateness is always [Elizabeth’s] fault—at least in the eyes of [Gabriel]; she cannot seem to get herself and the children ready on time, ever.” Not only does Gabriel assume that Elizabeth is solely responsible for their children, he resents her when she isn’t able to handle them on her own, which is no doubt an impossible task. After Roy, Gabriel and Elizabeth’s son, is stabbed while running with a bad crowd, Gabriel blames Elizabeth for allowing Roy to run wild. Elizabeth, who is pregnant at the time, attempts to stand up for herself and demands Gabriel take some responsibility for Roy’s behavior. Suddenly, “with all his might, [Gabriel] reaches out and slaps her across the face.” Gabriel physically abuses his pregnant wife in this instance simply because she challenges his authority. Elizabeth must also contend with Gabriel’s punishment because John is not his biological son. Elizabeth became pregnant with John out of wedlock before she met Gabriel, and both Gabriel and their sexist society hold Elizabeth exclusively responsible for her pregnancy, not the man who impregnated her. Because Elizabeth never married John’s biological father, she risked being branded a “harlot,” and Gabriel agreed to marry Elizabeth to spare her this scorn. But Gabriel mistreats Elizabeth and their children, and because of this, her “thoughts are bitter.”
Florence, Gabriel’s older sister, also reflects the way women are severely oppressed in the novel. As Gabriel “was a manchild,” Florence was made to “sacrifice” from the moment of his birth. Rachel, Gabriel and Florence’s mother, “did not, indeed, think of it as sacrifice, but as logic.” Since Gabriel was born a boy, he was given priority in their household. As a boy, Gabriel would eventually be expected “to do a man’s work,” and Rachel reasoned “he needed, therefore, meat, when there was any in the house, and clothes, whenever clothes could be bought.” Florence was denied all the things her brother was given—including an education, even though “Florence desired [it] far more than he”—simply because she was born a girl and thus forced to play second fiddle. Because of this, Florence “hates all men” and believes “that all women have been cursed from the cradle; all, in one fashion or another, being given the same cruel destiny, born to suffer the weight of men.” Particularly, Florence believes that black men are guilty of oppressing women, and she tells Elizabeth, “I don’t believe the [n_____’s] been born that knows how to treat a woman right.” No man is immune to Florence’s resentment of the patriarchy.
Black and white men alike oppress women in Baldwin’s novel, and after Florence’s friend, Deborah, is brutally raped by a group of white men, she begins to hate men too. Deborah’s “violated body” becomes “a living reproach,” and she is “looked on as a harlot.” Deborah alone is punished for her rape, not the men who rape her, and this, in addition to Florence’s vehement hatred for men, “reinforces in Deborah the terrible belief against which no evidence had ever presented itself: that all men were like this, their thoughts rose no higher, and they lived only to gratify on the bodies of women their brutal and humiliating needs.” While Baldwin is quick to point out that “no evidence” exists to prove the fact that “all men” oppress women, several of his male characters abuse and subjugate women, which supports his overarching argument that women frequently, and unfairly, suffer at the hands of men.