Respect is something that everyone in their life wants to have and knows that it takes a lot to gain it. During the 1940’s and the 1950’s woman in general did not have a lot of respect, but if you were a Black woman during this time, it was even worse. In Gwendolyn Brook’s novel Maud Martha, displays the idea that Black woman had to be beautiful, obedient, and is able to produce children in order to have respect. Gwendolyn Brooks brings this idea forward with her characters Helen and Martha in her novel Maud Martha.
The idea of respectability politics is that if a minority group, in this situation it is Black woman, they most act in a certain way in order to gain any sort of respect. In regards to woman, they had to be this beautiful, obedient person who is able to have children in order to gain any respect. In Maud Martha, Martha’s sister Helen is the one who described to have the most respect in the family. Helen was the beautiful sister out of Helen and Martha. She was the one who had the nice tame hair, as compared to her sister Martha who had unruly and untamable hair (Brooks 37).
Helen is also seen putting on what is called “Golden Peacock powder”, making her look more gorgeous than she already was. You never saw Martha putting on makeup like that. Martha was never the picture of beauty with her hair and never putting on any makeup, so in the end she did not gain any respect because of that. Beauty was and still do this day is everything, even if people say that it is not. If you are beautiful, you are respected, you get what you want, and you get the attention you want. Clearly, this was not the way that Martha would gain respect.
But, she did gain some respect in regards to her actions, but also lost some respect at the same time. A job can make people think that you are important, like you have a place in this world. People will respect you if you have a job. This idea has been around for a long time. In Maud Martha, Helen was the sister that had a job, she worked for a successful lawyer (Brooks 34). It seems as though she was the obedient employer. Martha however did not have job. So, because of that she did not have any respect from her father (Brooks 35). Also, Martha is a reader. She liked to read magazines and books.
Helen said to Martha that if she did not stop reading, she would never get a boyfriend (Brooks 37). So, essentially what is being said here is that if you are smart and a well-read woman, you will not gain boyfriend, which leads to not having any respect. You need to have a boyfriend in order for society to see you as a woman. If Martha would act like her sister and get a job and stop reading so much she might just gain some respect from people in society. But, later in the novel when she is an adult, Martha finally gains some respect because she is seen as the obedient wife.
When Martha’s husband would come home every night he would go straight to the bathroom and never say a word. One night when he came out he asked her to come cuddle with him. She told him that she wanted to read for a while, so her husband said he would too. When he sat down he kicked off his shoes and Martha quickly jumped up and put them in the closet, and her husband seemed to be pleased by that. Also, her husband asked her to read a chapter a night from the book that he was reading because it would make him happy.
Martha agreed and then proceeded to ask him if he would like some hot cocoa and toast, and the husband said yes (Brooks 65-68). This scene in the story is the epitome of an obedient wife because she did exactly what her husband wanted her to do. You could tell that she did not want to read the book because when her husband feel asleep on the couch, she did not even bother to pick it up, but she probably would later and read the book like her husband asked, “Paul’s book fell, making a little clatter.
But he did not wake up, and she did not get up. (Brooks 68). Later in the novel, Martha’s husband is seen dancing with another woman, a White woman at that. She does what society expects of her and bites her tongue and does nothing. Oh, how she wanted to say something, you could just tell, but she did not (Brooks 85). She is also concealing her jealous at this time, she is trying to not show that she feels that she is inferior to her husband and that she has feelings of doubt because she is a Black woman. Inferiority and doubt can have such a horrible effect on the mind.
Had she let those feelings get to her, maybe she would have let herself go and make a remark to her husband that night. But, in the end she did not do it. Had Martha said something to her husband, society probably would have looked at her like she was disobedient, uncontrollable, and would not be worthy of their respect. But, because she did not say anything, she was able to keep the respect of society. Another time that Martha is obedient is when she finds out her husband is cheating on her. She lets him do what he wants to do because that is her husband and does not have a place to say anything to him.
Another instance where Martha was respectable, but had every right to not be, was when she was in a store and the storeowner used a word that was very offensive to Black people. Martha very well could have said something, but instead she stood back and remained silent. Martha wanted to keep her respect, even though it would be justifiable if she had not in that situation. Martha is also respected because she brought up the idea that a woman’s worth is based exclusively on her ability to reproduce children.
During that time in society it was a woman’s place to have a baby and then stay home to take care of it, and also take care of the home. If you did anything differently, people would look down upon you and they would think that you are different. In chapter 8 of Maud Martha, Martha was in labor and she did not want to scream, she did not think it would be respectable. But, Belva told her it was all right to scream. Martha was had a fear of screaming because she did not want to lose her respect.
Maybe it was not okay to show that she was in pain and if she were to scream, she would have shown pain. Eventually, Martha did end up screaming and lucky for her nothing ever came of it. Society put such a pressure on woman to be obedient to their husbands and to pump out children like it was going out of style. If you did these two things you would gain the respect of everyone because you were doing what society wanted you to do. What is trying to be said here is that because Martha was not beautiful, kept her nose in literature, and did not have a job, she was not a respected woman.
But, on the other hand because she was an obedient wife by keeping her mouth shut when her husband was dancing with a White woman and also cheating. She also did not say anything when the storeowner used a very offensive word to another White woman. Martha also had children, she did what society expected of her to do. It is as if gaining respect had a checklist almost. Does she have a job? Yes, she has a job. Check. Is she beautiful? Dang right she is beautiful. Check. Is she obedient? She does everything her husband says and does not speak when it is not her place. Check.
Does she have any children? Yes, she has children and she did not even scream during the birth. Check. What if Martha never met this check list, or at least most of it anyway? What if Martha had been untamable, like her was in the beginning of the novel? What would her life been like if she were to have said something to her husband when he danced with a White woman and cheated on her? One could only guess that her husband might have abused her verbally or physically because she would be disobedient if she had said anything to him. What if Martha had divorced her husband?
One could only guess that society would see her as the one that messed up and the husband was that wanted the divorce, not Martha. What if Martha would have never had any children? One could only guess that she would be seen as a baron woman. What if Martha had spoken out when the storeowner had said the Nword to the costumer? One could only guess that she had an uncontrollable mouth. All together had she done all of these things, one could only guess that she would have lost the respect of everyone. In the end of all of this, it seems as though Martha did care that she had respect, even though she did gain it.
It seems as though she found herself through all of the situations she was in. The last chapter, titled “back from the wars! ” and the last line of this novel is what really sells that point, “The weather was bidding her bon voyage. ” (Brooks 180). One could read this as Martha was back from the war of needing people’s respect, she finally let go, like the weather left her. Martha probably knew that if she was just herself and respected herself, that was all that she needed because in the end, who really cares what other people think. It is what you think about yourself that matters.
Black woman of the 1940’s and 1950’s will only gain respect if they are beautiful, obedient, and able to produce children. In Maud Martha, Brook’s brings this to light with her two characters Helen who is beautiful and obedient, and Martha who is obedient and is able to produce children. Respect is something that almost everyone wants, such as Martha, and she was willing to play to society’s rules and roles in able to be respected. Martha is every woman, she wants to be respected but also knows that she does not have to have it. As long as she is herself, who cares what people think.