The novel jumps back in time to Skeeter’s perspective on the day of the bridge game when Hilly brought up the bathroom bill. After the game, Skeeter drives home to her family’s cotton plantation in a fury. She recalls how Hilly turned on her so quickly, threatening to fire her for just making a joke. Skeeter, Hilly, and Elizabeth Leefolt have been friends since elementary school. Skeeter and Hilly went to college together at the University of Mississippi, but Hilly dropped out when she got engaged. Skeeter stayed on to graduate.
In the 1960s, society expected men to go to college in order to join the workforce, while women were supposed to go to college to meet their future husbands. Having internalized these gender roles, Hilly sees no reason to graduate as soon as she finds a husband. But Skeeter’s decision to graduate implies that she values a college education as more than just a fast track to marriage.
At the plantation, black men are in the field waiting for the cotton to bloom so they can begin the harvest. Skeeter’s mother, Charlotte Phelan, tells her to use her college education to get a job in a “man-meeting situation” where she can find a husband. Skeeter doesn’t tell her that she wants to be a writer, because she knows her mother won’t understand. Skeeter also thinks that marriage is out of the question for her. Over six feet and with kinky hair, Skeeter imagines herself living alone in an apartment with other plain-looking spinsters.
Like Hilly, Charlotte does not see the value of a college education other than as a way of meeting men. Skeeter, however, does not conform to genders norms, since she wants to stay single and pursue her passion for writing. Skeeter’s physical appearance also does not conform to female beauty standards, suggesting that Skeeter, inside and out, opposes what society expects a woman to be.
Skeeter remembers her brother, Carleton Jr., giving her the nickname “Skeeter” because she looked like a mosquito as a baby. In her bedroom, Skeeter looks at the wanted ads in the newspaper for a job. There’s one column for women, another for men. Most of the women’s jobs consist of secretarial work. The men’s list has a wide selection of jobs for higher pay.
Again we see the gender double standards in Jackson. While white men can explore their passions in the workforce for fair pay, white women have a seriously limited range of job opportunities.
Hilly calls and says she’s set Skeeter up on a date with her husband’s cousin, Stuart Whitworth – the handsome son of a state senator. She also tells Skeeter to run an ad for the bathroom bill in the League newsletter. Hilly is president of the newsletter. Looking at the separate help bathroom in her own home used by their current maid Pascagoula, Skeeter remembers her beloved childhood maid, Constantine Bates.
Hilly, in many ways, is the prime enforcer of societal conventions in her white community. Hilly pressures Skeeter to conform to gender norms by setting her up on a date, while simultaneously trying to get Skeeter to conform to the racist status quo by upholding segregation and inequality.
Skeeter remembers growing up under Constantine’s care. One time, Skeeter came home crying after being called ugly at age thirteen. Constantine told her that ugliness is the cruelness on the inside. On another night, the two of them spent hours doing a jigsaw puzzle of Mount Rushmore. Constantine points to the image of Lincoln and says that her own father was a kind white man who looked like Lincoln. Intrigued, Skeeter asks some questions about Constantine’s white father but Constantine doesn’t reveal anymore about her past.
Constantine’s wisdom about the difference between external appearances and internal realities is a truth that relates directly to the theme of racism. In America at the time, conventional beauty standards considered dark skin to be inherently ugly, but Constantine recognizes that true ugliness is not about looks or skin color. Instead, ugliness is the cruel and racist way people treat others.
Skeeter and Constantine sent each other letters when Skeeter went to college. Weeks before her graduation, Constantine sent her a letter about a special surprise waiting for her when she got home. But when Skeeter arrived home, her mother informed her that Constantine quit and had gone to live with her family in Chicago. This news hits Skeeter hard, making her feel as if her only true ally disappeared into thin air.
Skeeter most likely considers Constantine a truer ally than her own mother, because Skeeter’s mother pressures her to conform to gender norms, while Constantine gives Skeeter the self-confidence to disregard society’s standards of feminine beauty.