For decades women have battled to achieve success and equality in a male-dominated world. This is reality. But fiction can be a valuable tool when studying this phenomenon.
Wofford assistant professor of foreign languages Dr. Camille Bethea is using Mexican fiction to study how women with access to powerful men navigate the “rules of the game” of a patriarchal society.
“While Mexican literature has traditionally reflected the patriarchal reality of representing males in dominant positions of power, since the 1980s there have been a large number of novels published in Mexico, to great critical and public acclaim, that are primarily centered on the significant role of a female protagonist,” says Bethea. “This shift in focus provides fertile ground for reexamining conventional gender roles and how these roles are changing or at least how they are being represented in works of fiction.
“The two specific novels that I examine to discuss women and power are Ángeles Mastretta’s Arráncame la vida (Tear This Heart Out) and Silvia Molina’s La familia vino del norte (The Family Came From the North). Both works feature a female protagonist who, because of her social status or family ties, has direct access to powerful, influential men, and both protagonists become active players in the game of power that takes place in society.”
How did this idea come about?
“It’s an extension of the research that I did as I prepared my doctoral dissertation,” Bethea says. “Toward the end of my dissertation, my director said to me, ‘If you go in the other direction, it would be interesting, also.’ I didn’t want to start on something new at that point, but I thought it was a topic that I could pursue in the future.
“I think there is a lot to be learned in terms of how both men and women see issues related to gender. To be successful, how do women react to the typically male-dominated game of power? The ethics involved in this game are another aspect that we must consider.”
Bethea has high hopes for her research, and rightfully so.
“I will present a paper based on my research at a professional conference in October, and afterwards I hope to publish an article in which I explore how modern-day Mexican women challenge conventional gender constructs with strategies of empowerment,” she says. “I am particularly interested in examining the role that ethical behavior plays as part of the measure of how one may gauge their success. To what extent can the women who adeptly employ the same questionable tactics that they learn from men to get ahead be considered models of ‘successful women’?
One of the best things about the Community of Scholars is how it brings together eager minds from all disciplines. One of Bethea’s colleagues, associate professor of religion Dr. A.K. Anderson, proved a valuable sounding board when the scholars came together to discuss their ideas.
“A.K. and I got together with (retired Spanish professor) Nancy Mandlove and she was able to help both of us with our topics. I was talking with A.K. about my main question about my main question of whether or not women have a moral obligation to avoid mimicking the unethical behavior that they often witness in their male counterparts. A.K. asked me, ‘Why do women have to be held to a different standard?’ It’s something I had to address in my presentation. It was great having other scholars to bounce ideas off of while doing my project. Christine Dinkins provided some very valuable sources and my student/mentee, Regina Fuller, also was great at listening to my presentation and offering feedback from the perspective of a member of the audience.”
So where will Bethea go from here?
“I would like to continue to pursue this topic and perhaps look at some other novels where women are at center stage and see how they deal with matters concerning gender,” she says.