The traditional male and female roles that take place in Celie’s life in the American south often mirror the gender roles in her sister Nettie’s African culture. In both worlds, women are considered inferior and therefore are subservient to the males surrounding them. This custom was prevalent throughout the world at the time of The Color Purple’s setting (circa 1930). Beside the hierarchy of male dominance, many other similarities between the sexism of Nettie’s African surroundings and the sexism of Celie’s American society exist. In both cultures, women were the primary caretakers of their children and their homes.
The man or husband acted essentially as an owner and dictator of his woman. The woman would act as mother, maid, and sexual partner in her home, without the respect and dignity that is given to modern women. Something interesting that differs between the Olinkan women of Nettie’s world and the women in Celie’s is that the Olinkan women worked while the majority of American women at the time of the story did not. The women in the Olinkan tribe of Liberia would work in the fields and tend to crops while the main job of the American woman was taking care of her home, the children, and the man who inhabited it.
Another difference between cultures in the book is the way that Tashi’s mother, Catherine is treated after her husband dies. It is said in the book that she is treated as an “honorary man” because of the fact that she had so many male children. With this title, Catherine does not have the obligation to remarry that most women have in her situation. This differs from the American culture slightly because women were not exactly forced to remarry if their husbands were to die. It may have been expected of them to resume the role of mother and wife with another man, but it was not obligatory.
Some similarities between the two cultures concerning gender roles overlap with race relations of the depicted era. For example, in the Olinka tribe’s customary way, female children were not to be put through school the way that male children were. This could be seen as similar to the American southern standards of the time, but for different reasons. In the American south at the time of the novel’s setting, African American children were not given the same rights to be educated as Caucasian children were. With these unfair rules in mind, resemblances could be seen between the inequalities concerning children’s education.
This quote from one of Nettie’s letters to Celie illustrates Nettie recognizing the common themes in each culture: “There is a way that the men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa. they listen just long enough to issue instructions. They don’t even look at women when women are speaking. They look at the ground. The women also do not ‘look in a man’s face’ as they say. To ‘look in a man’s face is a brazen thing to do. They look instead at his feet or his knees. And what can I say about this? Again, it is our own behavior around Pa. ”
The women in Celie’s surroundings seemed to receive different punishments for disobedience than the Olinkan women. A common thing in Celie’s life was the beating of a woman to make her obey her husband. It can be gathered that an Olinkan woman could possibly be put to death for ultimate disobedience of her husband. One way that this could be orchestrated is a man would accuse his wife of infidelity or witchcraft, she would be killed. One striking difference between the customs of the Olinkan tribes and those of Americans is the mainstream matrimonial roles.
In the Olinkan culture, it is considered normal and expected of a man to have multiple wives. Although some instances occur in American life, it is not as prevalent, accepted, and widespread as it is in Olinkan tradition. Something unusual that occurs within these polygamous families is that the wives of one man treat each other as friends, gossiping and lending favors to each other. In American culture, it can be assumed that women who share a husband would grow jealous of each other and act cattily, in the Olinkan culture, the polygamous nature seems like the only normal way of life because of years of tradition.