Before women gained the right to vote in the United States, feminists hoped that the end of suffrage would give women of the future a public voice and subsequently the ability to better their lives. Most middle to upper class women in the early twentieth century were raised under the cult of domesticity where women were considered social outcasts if they did not dream of becoming the perfect housewife. Since social alienation would have been the end of these women’s lives as they understood it, the only option they had was to get married and hope that they could learn to find happiness in their roles as mothers and wives. In The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman addresses how these women were affected by these life-long social restrictions in her characterizations of Birdie and Regina. While both characters are trapped in the cycle of social expectations that restrict them to the roles of wives and mothers, Birdie and Regina react to their predicaments in highly different manners. The comparison and contrast of these two women as wives/mothers and of their leadership roles in their households reveals the theme that women of this era were forced to either conform to the roles in which they were born into or risk being permanently alienated by their peers.
Due to the laws and regulations of the time in which Hellman is writing, Birdie is limited in her ability to have an egalitarian relationship with her husband Oscar. When Birdie and the family are having dinner with Mr. Marshall, Oscar’s attitude about his wife’s place in the family is revealed when he says, “You have had too much wine. Get yourself in hand now”(Hellman 153). Oscar is condescending and demoralizing to Birdie because he feels that it is his right as a husband to take out his frustrations on his wife whether she deserves the verbal abuse or not. He orders her to follow his instructions like a father would speak to his child and she is compelled to do what he says because she was not raised to be anything other than a housewife. Even when Oscar physically abuses her, Birdie tells Regina’s daughter, “Nothing, darling. Nothing happened. I only- I only twisted my ankle”(Hellman 174) when Alexandra hears Oscar hit her. Birdie is aware that no one can help her or keep her safe from her husband without having to sacrifice the stability of her marriage, family, and future so she is forced to pretend that she is content with her life as it is. Yet, her true feelings about being married to such a controlling patriarchal figure are revealed when she tells Alexandra about Regina’s plans for she and Leo to get married; “He is my son. My own son. But you are more to me- more to me than my own child”(Hellman 173). Birdie is aware that her son is being raised to become a replica of his father and she can not bear to imagine that Alexandra would be forced to live in such a restrictive home where she would undervalued and unhappy. Although Birdie is helpless in her ability to assist Alexandra in escaping her potential future, she does try to convince her to run away before it is too late. Birdie sees herself as a young girl in Alexandra and she fears for her niece’s fate more than she fears for her own well being if Oscar were to overhear her desperate conversation. Birdie has come to the realization that her own future has been set in stone since she the day that she became Oscar’s wife and that the only option that is accessible to her is to continue playing the role of the contentedly ignorant housewife.
Seemingly opposite of Birdie, Regina is conniving in her relationship with her family. For the potential of personal monetary gains, she is indifferent about risking her own daughter’s future happiness. In order to convince Ben and Oscar to allow her to invest in their financial scheme, she hints that she has greater plans for the future when she casually announces, “So my money will go to Alexandra & Leo. They may even marry some day”(Hellman 169). Regina uses her own daughter as a pawn in her ultimate plan to become a wealthy widow and move to Chicago. She is aware that this is the only way that she as a woman can gain power without risking being alienated by her peers for not conforming to social norms. Instead of resigning to become a woman who allows herself to be repressed by the patriarchal males of her family, she attempts to work within the confines of her social limitations to take control of her own future. Regina realizes that she gave up control of her life to her husband when she got married and the only way to release herself from her constraints is to make sure that her husband does not outlive her. She reveals her feelings toward her husband when she tells him, “It took me a little while to find I had made a mistake. As for you- I don’t know. It was almost as if I couldn’t stand the kind of man you were”(Hellman 212). Regina knows that she is completely trapped in her role as a wife and mother and she understands that rejecting these roles would only alienate her from her community and therefore make it impossible for her to maintain her social status. The only way that she can succeed in becoming a woman who is in control of her own destiny is to manipulate her family into giving her money and power without realizing that they are doing so. Yet, as much as Regina feels that her only path toward her individual success is through purposeful deceit, at the end of the play she decides to give her daughter the opportunity to live her life as she would like. She says to Alexandra, “Life goes too fast. Do what you want, think what you want, go where you want. I’d like to keep you with me but I won’t make you stay”(Hellman 224). Regina is skeptical that Alexandra will be able to push past societal restrictions and live her life as an individual. Yet, Regina has risked everything to connive her way out the life she hates and therefore she is unable to advise Alexandra to follow in her mother’s footsteps. Regina feels that she has done her best to create a new life for herself but her new attitude toward her daughter suggests that she hopes that Alexandra may be able to overcome the immense obstacles that have haunted her and she no longer has the heart to try to stop her.
Although Birdie and Regina are both mothers and wives, Birdie feels that she must pretend to be content with these roles and her place within the family in order to maintain the stability in her life. At the dinner with Mr. Marshall in the beginning of the play, Ben states; “Out brother’s wife is the only one who belongs to Southern Aristocracy”(Hellman 156). Birdie’s familial status reveals that her place in Oscar’s family is to give it legitimacy. While money is important to members of the upper class, social status is also imperative for a family to be considered respectable in their community. Birdie is a part of the family because she has been used as a tool to heighten the family’s name and in this respect, Oscar does not even view her as a valid member of his family. When Birdie attempts to join in on a conversation about what everyone wishes to do with their share of the money when the deal goes through, Oscar cuts her off stating; “Very well. We’ve all heard you. That’s enough now.”(Hellman 165). While Birdie is doing everything she can to take on the role of a good wife and mother, her opinions are still ignored. She has been raised to be the “perfect woman” and yet being what she was supposed to become has not gotten her any amount of respect because of the simple fact that she is a woman. In order to cope with her pathetic role in the family, Birdie feigns ignorance about family problems as to not involve herself in them. When Regina asks her about an issue involving Oscar, Birdie tells her, “Oh I didn’t know it was that bad. Oscar never tells me anything”(Hellman 201). While Regina feels the need to manipulate her family to gain control, Birdie finds freedom in pretending that she is not a part of the despicable acts that are taking place. By living half-way in a world of her own making, Birdie can separate herself from her surroundings and pretend that her life is not as out of her controls as it is in reality.
As Birdie attempts to separate herself from the males in her family so that she can find peace in her own mind, Regina instead seeks to manipulate her brothers and husband so that she can gain the individuality which she desperately longs for. When Regina is discussing the financial agreement between she and her brothers, she attempts to gain control when she states; “I don’t know about these things… I should think that if you knew your money was very badly needed, well you might just say, I want more”(Hellman 167). Regina believes that she has the ability to connive her way into getting the money she needs so that she can leave the life that she has felt trapped by for so long. She feels that this is her last resort and she will do anything she can to make sure that she will succeed. Her ill husband and her daughter both seem like obstacles which are holding her back from a better future and they represent the chains of oppression that are blocking her from attaining freedom. Hellman reveals how far Regina is willing to go when she refuses to get her husband his medicine and instead tells him, “But I couldn’t have known that you would get heart trouble so early and so bad. I’m lucky Horace. I’ve always been lucky”(Hellman 212). When Regina refuses to give her husband his medication, she is cutting away from the final obstruction in her path toward freedom. At this point, the route that Birdie has decided to take is out of the question for Regina. She can no longer pretend to be the submissive housewife her husband thought he had married and now she is taking control of her own household and making sure that it is no longer the patriarchy it was with her husband in charge. Regina’s leadership role in her home is solidified when she finally realizes that she has succeeded in her plan and she states; “All right. I take it that’s settled and I get what I asked for”(Hellman 224). This statement is ironic in that while Regina has manipulated her way into finally freeing herself from being a wife and mother, she has also lost all of the people in her life that could have cared for her if she spent more time loving them rather than working out devious plans to get away from them. Although Regina feels that she has broken free from the social restrictions that kept her trapped for so long, she does not realize that she has only restructured her cage rather than escaping from it completely. Now that she is “free”, the cycle of the cult of domesticity will only begin again when she goes to Chicago and once again relies on a man (Mr. Marshall) to introduce her to her new community. For both Birdie and Regina, the paths that they have chosen to take within their social confines are insignificant because both roads have led them to the same end.
Birdie and Regina are two characters with entirely different personalities that have both experienced feeling trapped by the patriarchal social restrictions of the early twentieth century. Birdie attempts to submit to her husband/son and be the mother and wife that she is expected to be but she still must rely on her deliberate ignorance to get her through a lifetime of abuse. Regina, on the other hand, uses her husband and daughter as tools to help her gain the independence she has longed for; all the while unable to realize that her new found freedom only leads her into the same cycle in which she came from. For each of these women, the prospect of being alienated by their communities was enough to keep them from escaping the societal standards which eventually decided their fate. While the cult of domesticity promised women such as Regina and Birdie that they would find the happiness they deserved in their roles as wives and mothers, it seems that this desired lifestyle was not nearly as fulfilling as they were led to believe.