March is Women’s History Month, which has its origins in the first national Women’s Day in 1909. Four years after the first Women’s Day, on March 3, 1913—the day before Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration—5,000 women marched up Pennsylvania Avenue to the US Capitol demanding the right to vote. It was the first civil rights parade to use the Capitol as a backdrop, and it kept the issue of women’s suffrage in the newspapers for weeks. Women gained the right to vote in 1920 when the 19th amendment to the Constitution was passed. In 1981, Congress proclaimed a “Women’s History Week,” and by the end of that decade the commemoration had expanded to a month.
Susan Glaspell’s short story “A Jury of Her Peers” is perfect for beginning the conversation about Women’s History Month, raising powerful questions about justice and equality for students to discuss. Although the issues it raises are complex, the gist of the story is simple: Law enforcement officials and a key witness, joined by the wives of the sheriff and the witness, search the domestic scene of a crime, seeking clues to why the woman of the house might have murdered her husband. A farmer, John Wright, had been found—by a visiting neighbor, Mr. Hale—strangled to death by a rope in his bed. His wife, Minnie (née Minnie Foster), has been arrested, jailed, and accused of the murder.
The story takes place the next day, when Sheriff Peters and the county attorney (Mr. Henderson), accompanied by Mr. Hale, visit the Wright house, seeking evidence that might convict the accused. Martha Hale, Mr. Hale’s wife, is summoned by Sheriff Peters to accompany his own wife as she gathers some things from the house to bring to Mrs. Wright in jail. The two women, formerly unfamiliar to each other, spend their time downstairs, looking through “kitchen things” and the like—dismissed by the men as mere “trifles”—while the “real” investigators search the bedroom upstairs and the outside barn. The men come up empty. The women do not.
More penetrating in their vision, they piece together the sort of married life Mrs. Wright had lived. And, following up on a series of clues—including unfinished work in the kitchen; some crooked stitching on the quilt she had been sewing; a broken door hinge on an empty bird cage; and, finally, the corpse of a strangled canary—they also reconstruct Minnie Wright’s motive. In silent collusion, Mrs. Hale and Mrs. Peters choose not to disclose the clues that reveal the motive, thereby constituting themselves as a jury and tacitly acquitting Minnie of any wrongdoing.
The men and the women in the story have decidedly different outlooks, sympathies, and insights, and perhaps even different views of justice. Carefully describe those differences. With which group do you most sympathize, and why? (Before answering the question, try to make a positive case for each group.)
Why are the women better able than the men to discover the motive for the murder?
Why do the women withhold the evidence that would have supplied the motive? Are they knowingly rendering a verdict of “not guilty”? Or are they forgiving her for the murder?
Do you approve of their decision? What would you have done in their place? Does your answer depend on your sex (or the sex of the accused)? On the historical time in which the crime took place? Or something else? If the person killed were a brother of yours, would your answer be different?
Who is our “peer,” fit to judge us?
Do men and women—or people of different races, religions, and classes— have different standards of what is just or how to judge? If so, what should the law do about this? Is one or the other standard to be preferred? Which one, and why?
Distinguished scholar-teachers Amy and Leon Kass demonstrate how short stories, speeches, and songs can be used to enhance civic education and how a pedagogical approach that stresses learning through inquiry can make primary sources come alive for students of all ages.