The Relationship between Respectability and Sexuality

Even though the daughter doesn’t seem to have yet reached adolescence, the mother worries that her current behavior, if continued, will lead to a life of promiscuity. The mother believes that a woman’s reputation or respectability determines the quality of her life in the community. Sexuality, therefore, must be carefully guarded and even concealed to maintain a respectable front. Consequently, the mother links many tangential objects and tasks to the taboo topic of sexuality, such as squeezing bread before buying it, and much of her advice centers on how to uphold respectability. She scolds her daughter for the way she walks, the way she plays marbles, and how she relates to other people. The mother’s constant emphasis on this theme shows how much she wants her daughter to realize that she is “not a boy” and that she needs to act in a way that will win her respect from the community.

The Transformative Power of Domesticity

The mother believes that domestic knowledge will not only save her daughter from a life of promiscuity and ruin but will also empower her as the head of her household and a productive member of the community. She basically believes that there are only two types of women: the respectable kind and the “sluts.” Undoubtedly for many Antiguan women, domestic knowledge leads to productivity, which in turn wins respect from family and society. Household work therefore brings power and even prestige to women in addition to keeping them busy and away from temptation. Readers recognize the reverence the mother has for the power of domesticity because of the numerous specific instructions she gives her daughter, such as how to cook pumpkin fritters, sweep, grow okra, buy bread, and wash clothes. For her, domesticity brings respectability; sewing up a dress hem thus becomes more than an act of maintenance because it saves a woman’s sexual reputation within the community.

Read about the related theme of the burdens of motherhood in Tillie Olsen’s I Stand Here Ironing.