Many of the characters in The Poisonwood Bible, especially Orleanna Price and her four daughters, struggle with society’s expectations for how women should behave. On one hand, they have to contend with Nathan Price, who represents one set of sexist social expectations for women (those of the Christian and Western world); on the other, the Price women face the sexism of the Congo, where the vast majority of women have no education, and where it’s not uncommon for men to have multiple wives.
One of the basic similarities between these two forms of sexism is the idea that women should be docile and domestic. Nathan Price is reluctant to let his children attend college, because he believes that women should stay in the home, take care of the children, and not have proper jobs or careers. It’s clear enough that the villagers of Kilanga believe in the same principle—most of the women in the community are married off by the time they’re 10 or 12 (since women’s primary purpose is to take care of the house and children, there’s no point in waiting around longer to see what kinds of careers they’re fit for). Ironically, then, Nathan and the Congolese men have a great deal in common: they subscribe to the same form of sexism. This is especially surprising considering the contrast that Kingsolver draws between the domineering West (represented by Nathan and by the Belgian and U.S. governments) and the exploited Congolese (represented by the people of Kilanga, Lumumba, etc.)—even an exploited culture, it would seem, can still endorse the exploitation of its own women.
Because Kingsolver’s protagonists are women, their development over the course of the novel suggests some ways that women learn to fight sexism and misogyny. Interestingly, the Price sisters seem to end up attaining a greater degree of autonomy and power in the Congo than they would have had they grown up in the United States. Because of the fragility of Congolese society (during the course of the novel the government changes hands at least three times) Adah, Leah, Rachel, and even Ruth May are forced into situations where they’re forced to lead, teach, control, and fight—in other words, to conform to the male stereotypes of their own society. Encouraged by their successes in the Congo, the Price sisters enter adulthood and continue to disrupt sexist expectations. Adah becomes a doctor (traditionally a male-dominated profession) and even Rachel, who seems perfectly willing to play the role of a ditzy, pretty lady, ends up owning her own successful hotel. Witnessing the collapse of a culture—a sexist, misogynistic culture—teaches the Price children to question any culture that orders them to be inferior to men.
Women and Sexism ThemeTracker
Women and Sexism Quotes in The Poisonwood Bible
“Nakedness,” Father repeated, “and darkness of the soul! For we shall destroy this place where the loud clamor of the sinners is waxen great before the face of the Lord.” No one sang or cheered anymore. Whether or not they understood the meaning of “loud clamor,” they didn’t dare be making one now. They did not even breathe, or so it seemed. Father can get a good deal across with just his tone of voice, believe you me. The woman with the child on her hip kept her back turned, tending to the food.
Once in a great while we just have to protect her. Even back when we were very young I remember running to throw my arms around Mother’s knees when he regaled her with words and worse, for curtains unclosed or slips showing—the sins of womanhood. We could see early on that all grown-ups aren’t equally immune to damage. My father wears his faith like the bronze breastplate of God’s foot soldiers, while our mother’s is more like a good cloth coat with a secondhand fit.
“That road,” said our mother, bemused, gesturing with a lazy bent wrist out the window. “Why, I can’t imagine.” She shook her head, possibly not believing. Can she allow herself not to believe him? I have never known. “It was at the end of a dry season, Orleanna,” he snapped. “When it’s hot enough the puddles dry up.” You brainless nitwit, he did not need to add.
But where is the place for girls in that Kingdom? The rules don’t quite apply to us, nor protect us either. What do a girl’s bravery and righteousness count for, unless she is also pretty? Just try being the smartest and most Christian seventh-grade girl in Bethlehem, Georgia. Your classmates will smirk and call you a square. Call you worse, if you’re Adah.
Nelson squatted on his heels, his ashy eyelids blinking earnestly as he inspected Mother’s face. Surprisingly, she started to laugh. Then, more surprisingly, Nelson began to laugh, too. He threw open his near-toothless mouth and howled alongside Mother, both of them with their hands on their thighs. I expect they were picturing Rachel wrapped in a pagne trying to pound manioc. Mother wiped her eyes. “Why on earth do you suppose he’d pick Rachel?” From her voice I could tell she was not smiling, even after all that laughter. “He says the Mvula’s, strange color would cheer up his other wives.”
Oh, it’s a fine and useless enterprise, trying to fix destiny. That trail leads straight back to the time before we ever lived, and into that deep well it’s easy to cast curses like stones on our ancestors. But that’s nothing more than cursing ourselves and all that made us. Had I not married a preacher named Nathan Price, my particular children would never have seen the light of this world. I walked through the valley of my fate, is all, and learned to love what I could lose.
“He is the one wife belonging to many white men.” Anatole explained it this way: Like a princess in a story, Congo was born too rich for her own good, and attracted attention far and “wide from men “who desire to rob her blind. The United States has now become the husband of Zaire’s economy, and not a very nice one. Exploitive and condescending, in the name of steering her clear of the moral decline inevitable to her nature. “Oh, I understand that kind of marriage all right,” I said. “I grew up witnessing one just like it.”