The Women

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2004
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 19. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Character overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 29
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Women


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Clare Boothe Luce's social satire The Women was a smash hit when first performed on Broadway in 1936 and has enjoyed several revival productions during the 1970s and 1990s.

The Women is set in the world of high society wives in New York City during the height of the Great Depression. Mary Haines, the protagonist, learns from a gossipy manicurist that her husband, Stephen, is having an affair with a shop-girl named Crystal. After the news of Stephen's affair is published in a gossip column, Mary decides to divorce him. To obtain her divorce, she travels to Reno, Nevada, where liberal divorce laws attracted many society women wishing to downplay any potential for scandal. While she is in Reno, Mary learns that Stephen has married Crystal. Two years later, Mary, now living back in New York with her children, learns that Crystal has been unfaithful to Stephen. With the help of her friends, Mary sets out to expose Crystal's infidelity in order to win Stephen back.

Although men are at the center of the lives of the women in The Women, no male characters appear in the play, which is set in such locations as beauty parlors, women's clothing stores, and other predominantly female environments. The Women addresses themes of the modern woman, marriage and divorce, female friendship, beauty standards, gossip, and socioeconomic class.

The Women has been criticized over the years as a work that portrays women as shallow, conniving, Page 282  |  Top of Article "catty" creatures whose lives revolve around their efforts to look beautiful so as to obtain and hold onto wealthy husbands. Others, however, have regarded The Women as a feminist text that addresses lasting issues about women's status in society.


Ann Clare Boothe was born April 10, 1903, in New York City. Her father abandoned the family when she was eight years old, and her mother was left to support them. Despite the family's poverty, Boothe's mother managed to send Boothe to private schools, with the hopes of grooming her to marry a wealthy man.

At twenty, Boothe married forty-three-year old George Brokaw, a wealthy businessman. Six years later, she divorced Brokaw, in part because of his severe alcoholism. Boothe received a settlement from the divorce that allowed her to continue living in comfort. Her experience of a "Reno divorce" informed her later writing of The Women.

Boothe's second marriage was to Henry R. Luce, the well-known publisher of Time magazine, who later founded Life magazine. At this point, Boothe changed her name to Clare Boothe Luce. During the 1930s, Luce worked in the publishing industry as both an editor and a journalist. She served as an editor for Vogue and Vanity Fair from 1930 to 1934. She also contributed short satirical sketches about New York's high society, which were later collected in Stuffed Shirts (1933). During the early years of World War II, Luce worked as a war correspondent for Life. Her experiences during the war are portrayed in Europe in the Spring (1940).

Luce's first play to be produced was a failure. However, her second play, The Women, was a great success. The Women satirizes the lives of the high society women that Luce knew so well as both a socialite and a journalist. She wrote of the society women who inspired her writing of The Women, "I did not like these women. I liked them so little that I put them into this small Doomsday Book, in order to rid myself once and for all of their hauntingly ungracious images."

The Broadway success of The Women resulted in a 1939 screen adaptation of the same title. Luce's plays Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938) and Margin for Error (1939) were also stage successes that were adapted to the screen as major motion pictures. After her only child, a nineteen-year-old daughter, was killed in a car accident, Luce became interested in Roman Catholicism and converted in 1946.

Beginning in the 1940s, Luce became very involved in politics. She was elected to the House of Representatives, serving two terms as a Republican from Connecticut. From 1953 to 1956, she served as United States ambassador to Italy. Luce was active in the Republican party throughout the rest of her life, supporting politicians and sometimes serving political appointments for Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan. Luce was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983. She died of cancer on October 9, 1987, in Washington, D.C.


Act 1, Scene 1

The Women opens with Mary Haines's circle of high-society friends playing bridge at her Park Avenue apartment in New York City. When Mary walks out of the room, Sylvia relates that she has learned from a manicurist named Olga that Mary's husband Stephen is carrying on an extramarital affair. When Mary returns, Sylvia encourages her to make an appointment for a manicure from Olga.

Act 1, Scene 2

A few days later, Mary goes to Michael's beauty salon to get a manicure from Olga. Olga, who does not know that Mary is the wife of Stephen Haines, relates the gossip that he is having an affair with Crystal Allen. Mary informs Olga that she is Mrs. Stephen Haines and gets up to leave, asking Olga not to continue gossiping about this matter.

Act 1, Scene 3

An hour later, in Mary's bedroom, Mrs. Moorehead (Mary's mother) arrives and Mary tells her about Stephen having an affair. Mrs. Moorehead advises Mary to do and say nothing about it. She says that all married men, including Mary's father, have such affairs and that it is in the wife's best interest to pretend not to notice. Mrs. Moorehead persuades Mary to go on vacation with her to Bermuda in order to get away and let the affair blow over. Just then, Stephen calls to say he will be working late again and will not be home in time for dinner.

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Act 1, Scene 4

After a two-month vacation in Bermuda with her mother, Mary returns to New York. At a women's clothing store on Fifth Avenue, she finds herself trying on clothes in a fitting room right next to one in which Crystal Allen is trying on clothes. Encouraged by her friends, Mary enters Crystal's dressing room and confronts her about Stephen. Crystal appears unthreatened by Mary and tells her that Stephen plans on marrying her. Feeling humiliated by Crystal, Mary walks out.

Act 2, Scene 1

Two weeks later, at Elizabeth Arden's beauty salon, Mary's friend Edith confides to her friends Sylvia and Peggy that she unthinkingly told a well-known gossip-columnist about Stephen's affair with Crystal and about Mary's confrontation with Crystal at the clothing store.

Act 2, Scene 2

A few days later, Mary's maid and her cook discuss the fact that Stephen's affair with Crystal was published in a gossip column of a tabloid newspaper and that Mary and Stephen are in the midst of a quarrel over the affair. Stephen claims to have ended the affair, but Mary still will not forgive him for it.

Act 2, Scene 3

A month later, Mary is preparing to travel to Reno, Nevada, where she can obtain a divorce from Stephen. Mrs. Moorehead (Mary's mother) tries to persuade her to take Stephen back, but she refuses. Mary explains to her daughter, Little Mary, that she and Stephen are going to get divorced.

Act 2, Scene 4

A month later, Mary's friend Peggy visits her friend Edith, who is in the hospital with a newborn baby. Peggy says that both she and Sylvia will be going to Reno to obtain divorces. Sylvia knows that her husband wants to marry another woman, but she does not know who the woman is.

Act 2, Scene 5

A few weeks later, Mary and several of her friends discuss their divorces while staying at a resort in Reno. The Countess de Lage, one of Mary's friends, announces that she is considering marrying Buck Winston, a young cowboy. After
Clare Boothe Luce Clare Boothe Luce Sylvia learns that her husband is divorcing her in order to marry Miriam, she and Miriam get into a hair-pulling fight, which Mary tries to break up. Stephen calls for Mary and informs her that he and Crystal have gotten married.

Act 3, Scene 1

Two years later, Crystal is taking a long bubble bath in the New York apartment where she lives with Stephen. While bathing, she talks on the phone to Buck Winston, with whom she is having an affair. Buck Winston is now married to the Countess de Lage, who has helped him to succeed as a movie star. Mary's daughter, Little Mary, enters and overhears Crystal's conversation with Buck, although she is not sure what it means. While Crystal is still in the bathtub, Sylvia comes to visit her in her bathroom. Sylvia sees a key to the Gothic Apartments, which is known as a location for conducting extramarital affairs.

Act 3, Scene 2

That night, Mary has a dinner party—"a memorial reunion for old Renoites"—with her friends and their various new husbands to celebrate the two-year anniversary of her divorce from Stephen. The Countess mentions that she suspects Buck Winston Page 284  |  Top of Article is cheating on her. Mary's friends invite her to join them at a late-night party on the Casino Roof, but she declines.

After the guests leave, Little Mary inadvertently provides Mary with the information that Crystal is having an affair with Buck Winston. Mary immediately dresses to go to the party at the Casino Roof, where she knows that Crystal, Buck, and Stephen are in attendance.

Act 3, Scene 3

Late that night, in the ladies restroom of the Casino Roof, Mary and her friend Miriam discuss how to go about revealing Crystal's affair with Buck Winston so that Stephen will find out about it and decide to divorce Crystal. When Crystal enters the ladies room, Mary and her friends trick her into admitting to the affair. Mary goes off to tell Stephen about Crystal's affair, confident that she will win him back for herself.


Miriam Aarons

Miriam Aarons, a twenty-eight-year old stage actress who stars in musical comedies, is part of Mary's social circle. Early in the play Miriam is having an affair with Howard Fowler, Sylvia's husband. While in Reno, Sylvia learns that Miriam is the woman for whom Howard has divorced her and that he plans to marry Miriam after the divorce. Upon hearing this, Sylvia physically attacks Miriam, and the two women engage in a vicious hair-pulling fight. After Miriam marries Howard, she is referred to as the second Mrs. Fowler. Toward the very end of the play, Miriam helps and encourages Mary to trick Crystal Allen into admitting that she is cheating on Stephen.

Crystal Allen

With Crystal Allen, Luce portrays a working-class woman who is able to improve her socioeconomic status through being the mistress, then wife, of a wealthy man. Crystal is a young shop-girl who is having an affair with Stephen Haines, the husband of Mary Haines. Crystal first met Stephen while working at the perfume counter of Saks Fifth Avenue. As the play opens, Crystal has been living for several months as Stephen's mistress in a fancy apartment in the Hotel Waverly.

Crystal is described by one character as a "terrible man-trap." She first appears in the play at a women's clothing store, where she is trying on clothes to be paid for by Stephen. When Mary confronts Crystal in the dressing room of the store, Crystal is completely unapologetic about being Stephen's mistress. She tells Mary that Stephen plans to get divorced and marry her. Crystal thus succeeds in humiliating Mary.

After Crystal is married to Stephen, she complains that he is no fun to be with, because he feels guilty and regretful about having lost Mary. Crystal is unfaithful to Stephen and has an affair with Buck Winston. After Little Mary overhears Crystal talking "lovey-dovey" on the telephone to Buck, she tells her mother about what she has overheard. Mary is thus able to sabotage Crystal's marriage to Stephen by forcing her to confess to the affair with Buck.

Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake, aged thirty-five, is the only woman in Mary's social circle who has never been married. Nancy is a financially independent woman who supports herself as a novelist, although her novels are not particularly popular. Because she's never been married and does not seem to be trying to find a husband, she is above all of the in-fighting that takes place between the other women over competition for husbands.

Peggy Day

Peggy (Mrs. John Day), age twenty-five, is the youngest member of Mary's social circle. Peggy is a more sympathetic character than most of Mary's friends. Whereas the other women have a callous attitude toward each others' marital troubles, Peggy is genuinely sympathetic regarding the crises in her friends' marriages. When she learns that Mary's marital problems have been confided to a gossip columnist, she is genuinely upset. Likewise, Peggy cries when she learns that Sylvia's husband has kicked her out and wants a divorce.

Later, Peggy tells her friends that she and her husband are getting divorced. While in Reno processing her divorce, Peggy learns that she is pregnant by her husband. Her friends convince her to call John and reconcile with him, which she does. Peggy then packs to return to New York and reunite with her husband.

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The Countess De Lage

The Countess de Lage, a wealthy middle-aged woman, is a member of Mary's social circle. The countess has been divorced four times. Because she is so wealthy, she tends to attract younger men who want to marry her for her money. While in Reno, she considers marrying a cowboy by the name of Buck Winston.

After the countess marries Buck Winston, she helps him to become a movie star in Hollywood. Toward the end of the play, she confides to her friends that she suspects Buck is cheating on her. It is later revealed that Buck has been having an affair with Crystal Allen.

The countess seems to have a somewhat different attitude about marriage and divorce from the other women in Mary's social circle. She expresses a more light-hearted perspective on the series of marriages and divorces she has engaged in. She does not seem to be bothered much when one marriage fails and is ready to move on to the next marriage.

Sylvia Fowler

Sylvia (Mrs. Howard Fowler), aged thirty-four, is one of the married women in Mary's social circle. Sylvia causes the initial incident that sets off the central conflict of the play when, in the opening scene, she announces to her friends that Mary's husband is having an affair. Sylvia does not tell Mary this information directly but suggests that Mary get a manicure from a woman named Olga, who is sure to pass the gossip on to her. Sylvia recommends that Mary get her nails painted "Jungle Red," the same color she herself is wearing.

Sylvia once again sets off a major conflict in Mary's life when she convinces Mary to confront Crystal Allan in the dressing room of a clothing store. When this incident gets into the hands of a gossip columnist, Mary's marriage is severely affected by it.

Later, Sylvia's husband kicks her out because she has been having an affair with a young man who works for him. Sylvia's husband divorces her because he wants to marry another woman, with whom he has been having an affair. While Sylvia is in Reno to obtain her divorce, she learns that the woman her husband wishes to marry is her friend Miriam. Miriam happens to be in Reno as well, in the process of divorcing her husband so that she can marry Sylvia's newly ex-husband. When Sylvia receives this news, she and Miriam get into a physical fight.

In the final scene of the play, Sylvia unintentionally provides evidence that Crystal Allen is having an affair with Buck Winston. Whereas Sylvia's gossip in the beginning of the play works to sabotage Mary's marriage, her gossip in the final scene works to further Mary's goal of getting Stephen back.

Mary Haines

Mary (Mrs. Stephen Haines) is the central protagonist of The Women. She has been married for twelve years and has a son and daughter. Mary's attitude toward her marriage in the beginning of the play is very romanticized and based on traditional assumptions about love and fidelity. Her friends comment that she may be "living in a fool's paradise." By the end of the play, however, she has learned that, in order to hold onto her husband, she must adopt a more realistic, more modern attitude about marriage.

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The Women was adapted to the screen as a major motion picture in 1939. This film version was directed by George Cukor and starred Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell. It was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer from a screenplay written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin.

As the play opens, Mary is contentedly married to Stephen Haines. She considers herself to have a happy marriage with a husband who loves her and is faithful to her. Mary's whole world is turned upside down when she learns from a gossipy manicurist that her husband is having an affair with a shop-girl by the name of Crystal Allen. Mary asks the manicurist to stop gossiping about her husband. She then follows her mother's advice to say nothing to anyone about the affair and simply wait for it to end. Page 286  |  Top of Article Because of the scandal caused by the affair being published in a gossip column, however, Mary feels she has no choice but to divorce Stephen.

While Mary is in Reno obtaining her divorce, she learns that Stephen has married Crystal. Up to this point, Mary had been hanging onto the hope that Stephen might ask her to come back to him. With the news of his remarriage, however, Mary settles into the reality of being single. She moves into an apartment in New York, where she lives with her children.

Mary's resignation to having lost her husband to another woman is disrupted when she learns that Crystal is cheating on Stephen. Mary's response to this information is quite different from her response to earlier events regarding Stephen. Previously, Mary did not try to win Stephen back from Crystal, but she has learned by the end of the play to use whatever resources are available to her to compete with other women for Stephen—even if this includes the spreading of vicious gossip.

In the closing lines of The Women, Mary triumphantly announces that she has "sharpened her claws," an indication that she has learned to actively fight to keep her husband. Mary states that she has painted her nails "Jungle Red." "Jungle Red" comes to symbolize the ruthless laws of the jungle, according to which Mary and her friends must fight viciously to compete with other women in the struggle to capture and keep husbands.

Little Mary

Little Mary is the daughter of Mary and Stephen Haines. Mary is an intelligent and sharp-witted child who is insightful about the ways in which women's lives are limited by the constraints of social convention. She expresses dismay at the prospects of being female, and confides to her mother many negative feelings about what it means to be a woman.

In an early scene, Little Mary's governess reports to Mary that her daughter has punched her son. The governess advises Mary to start teaching Little Mary at an early age that men will always have more power and status than women. Little Mary's act of beating up her brother suggests both her anger toward the opposite sex and her superior strength to the male child, who is nonetheless given higher status in the family structure.

In a scene toward the end of the play, Little Mary walks into the bathroom of her father's house, where Crystal Allen, his new wife, is luxuriating in the bathtub. Little Mary inadvertently overhears Crystal's telephone conversation to a man with whom she is having an affair. Later that night, Little Mary, who is not aware of the implications of what she has heard, tells her mother about Crystal's conversation. This provides Mary with the information that she needs to expose Crystal's infidelity to Stephen and win him back for herself. Little Mary thus provides a link of communication that ultimately results in the reunion of her parents.


Lucy is a caretaker at the resort ranch in Reno where Mary and her friends stay while awaiting their divorces. Lucy provides a working-class woman's perspective on marriage and divorce, explaining to the wealthy society women that economic factors make it more difficult for poorer women to get divorced.

Mrs. Moorehead

Mrs. Moorehead, Mary's mother, is described as a bourgeois aristocrat of fifty-five. She presents Mary with brutal facts about marriage, informing her that all men cheat on their wives, even Mary's father. When Mary confides to her mother that Stephen is having an affair, Mrs. Moorehead's advice is for Mary to ignore it, and it will eventually end of its own accord. She also advises Mary not to discuss the matter with any of her friends. Instead, Mrs. Moorehead suggests that Mary deal with the affair by going on a long vacation, in hopes that Stephen will miss her in her absence and will be motivated to end the affair. Mrs. Moorehead takes Mary on a vacation in Bermuda for two months.

Later, when Mary is packing to go to Reno for her divorce, Mrs. Moorehead tries to talk her into reconciling with Stephen instead. Unlike Mary's friends, who tend to divorce and remarry, Mrs. Moorehead feels that it is best for women to stay married, even if their husbands are unfaithful to them.


Olga is the gossipy manicurist who first reveals to Sylvia that Stephen Haines, Mary's husband, is having an affair with Crystal Allen. Olga is a friend of Crystal's and used to work with her at the perfume counter of Saks Fifth Avenue. Sylvia later suggests to Mary that she get a manicure from Olga, knowing that Olga will inform Mary of her husband's affair. When Mary sits down to her manicure with Olga, the manicurist is not aware that she is the Page 287  |  Top of Article wife of Stephen Haines. Olga relates to Mary the gossip about Stephen's affair, as she would to any other customer. When Mary hears this, she immediately informs Olga that she is Mrs. Stephen Haines and demands that Olga stop spreading such gossip to others.

Edith Potter

Edith (Mrs. Phelps Potter) is a member of Mary's social circle who seems to be perpetually pregnant. Edith is instrumental in sabotaging Mary's marriage when she confides to a well-known gossip-columnist about Mary's husband's affair and about Mary's confrontation with Crystal Allen in the clothing store dressing room. Edith claims that she had forgotten while relating this gossip that the woman she was talking to was a columnist. However, the implication is that Edith knew all along to whom she was talking and maliciously spread this gossip about Mary's personal life.

Although Edith has many children already, she is either pregnant or has just given birth during every scene in which she appears. However, Edith dislikes being pregnant, dislikes caring for babies, and dislikes children. She complains about every stage in the process of being pregnant, giving birth, and raising children. With the character of Edith, Luce presents a very harsh, unromanticized view of the role of women as child-bearers and child-rearers.


The Modern Woman

In The Women, Mary Haines goes from being an idealistic woman, maintaining traditional beliefs about marriage, to being a modern woman with a realistic perspective on the harsh realities of marriage. Luce makes reference to the "Modern Woman" in The Women to emphasize the differences between the traditional, idealistic view Mary holds at the beginning of the play and a more modern, cynical understanding of marriage as a game of power, money, and competition. In the beginning of The Women, Mary is idealistic about her marriage, believing that her husband would never be unfaithful to her because he loves her and is happily married. Over the course of the play, she becomes disillusioned with marriage and eventually learns to accept that only by facing the harsh realities of the institution of marriage can she effectively fight to regain her husband. By the end of the play, she understands and is able to function successfully in a ruthless modern world where women must engage in fierce competition with each other for men. Toward the end of the play, Mary sums up what she has learned with the statement, "Modern life is complicated."

Marriage and Divorce

The Women is centrally focused on issues of marriage and divorce as they affect the lives of women. Luce portrays marriage as a societal institution defined by power, status, and money rather than being based on mutual love and fidelity between husband and wife.

The marriages portrayed in The Women are characterized by chronic infidelity. Luce portrays a social world in which all husbands cheat on their wives and many wives cheat on their husbands. When Mary confides in her mother that she has discovered Stephen's infidelity, her mother responds that all men cheat on their wives, and that the best way for a woman to deal with it is to ignore it. Because she is idealistic about marriage, however, Mary feels she has no choice but to divorce Stephen because of his infidelity. By the end of the play, Luce has delivered a rather cynical message that women are better off accepting the reality of male infidelity and learning to live with it than idealistically expecting their husbands to remain faithful to them.

Most of the marriages in The Women eventually result in divorce. Mrs. Moorehead laments that modern laws have made divorce easier to obtain and have thus destabilized the institution of marriage. Mary travels to Reno in order to obtain a divorce from Stephen and finds herself in a "reunion" with many of her friends from New York, who are also getting divorces—either because their husbands have cheated on them or they have cheated on their husbands or both. By the end of the play, however, Mary comes to the conclusion that it is more important to her to be married and tolerate her husband's infidelities than to divorce her husband and lose the benefits of being married.

Female Friendship

In The Women, Luce portrays female friendship as a set of interactions poisoned by malicious gossip, competition over men, backstabbing, and ruthless self-interest. Luce paints an extremely negative picture of women's friendships as characterized Page 288  |  Top of Article by cattiness. Most of Mary's "friends" do more damage than good in her life. It is a friend who encourages her to make an appointment with the manicurist who gossips about Stephen's affair. It is a friend who encourages her to confront Crystal in the clothing store. And it is a friend who carelessly tells a gossip columnist all about Mary's marital problems.

At the beginning of the play Mary is idealistic about her friendships, seeing everyone in the most positive light she can. By the end, however, Mary has learned not to trust her female friends. In the closing lines of the play, Sylvia says to Mary, "what a dirty female trick you played!" Mary has learned to utilize ruthless methods in order to fight other women and secure her own self-interests.

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  1. The Women was originally written, produced, and set during the era of the Great Depression. Learn more about the history of the depression and its impact on the everyday lives of Americans. In what ways were women and men affected differently by the hardships of the depression? How were women in different regions of the United States affected differently by the depression? To what extent did the depression affect the wealthier segments of society?
  2. The Women focuses on a wide variety of procedures women go through in their efforts to look attractive. Different cultures often have very different standards of beauty. Find out more about the beauty standards of a culture very different from your own. Write an essay comparing the beauty standards of your own culture with those of the culture you have researched. What insights does this provide into the role and significance of beauty standards to each culture?
  3. All of the characters in The Women who appear on stage are female, and the events of the play take place in locations that tend to be exclusively or predominantly female. Yet, these women spend most of their time discussing their relationships with men. Write a short play that describes a conversation between three or four of the characters of the same gender (all male or all female) in a setting were members of that gender tend to congregate. Focus on the particular ways in which these characters interact with one another when they are not in the presence of the opposite gender. With a group of other students, perform your short play for the rest of the class.
  4. The characters in The Women express a variety of attitudes about the role of love in marriage. Write an original essay, expressing your own ideas about the role of love in marriage. How important is love as a factor in the decision of two people to get married? Why? If two people who are married no longer love one another, should they get divorced? Why or why not? Should married people with children stay together for the sake of the children, even if they no longer love each other? Why or why not? Give examples to help explain your answers to these questions.
  5. In addition to being an author, Luce devoted much of her life to politics. Find biographical material on Luce that covers her political career and write a critical essay discussing the role of politics in her life. What political perspectives did Luce put forth over the course of her life? Did her political views change over time? In what ways was she most influential on the political scene?


Luce presents the world of society women in The Women as one in which gossip is rampant, ruthless, and potentially devastating. The friendships between women, and the various settings in which women gather together without men around, are characterized by gossip. Mary's friends gossip Page 289  |  Top of Article about her and each other whenever they get the chance, and even Mary's servants gossip about her marital problems.

Mary first learns of Stephen's infidelity from a gossipy manicurist who does not realize who she is. Mary's position is worsened when a friend of hers gossips to another woman about the affair, and this woman turns out to be a professional gossip columnist. When the story about Stephen's affair with Crystal is published in a tabloid newspaper, Mary feels she has no choice but to divorce him, because of the public scandal. Unlike her friends, however, Mary refrains from gossiping about others, preferring to mind her own business and stay above the fray. By the end of the play, however, Mary learns to use every means available to her in order to get Stephen back—including the spreading of malicious gossip about another woman.

Beauty Standards

The women in The Women spend most of their time on activities devoted to making them attractive to men. Much of the play is set in beauty salons or women's clothing stores, where women are shown putting themselves through a wide variety of uncomfortable, painful, or unpleasant processes in order to improve their looks. A hairdresser at Michael's beauty salon reminds her client, who is undergoing a painful hair treatment, "We must suffer to be beautiful."

The women's focus on trying to look good is portrayed as motivated by a desire to either attract men as potential husbands or to keep their husbands interested in them. These women fear the aging process, because they feel that they have to compete with younger women for their husbands' attentions. Mary at first believes that her husband is attracted to her because he loves her. Eventually, however, she has to admit that, as she has grown older, she is no longer physically attractive to him.

Luce conveys a harsh picture of the status of women in marriage as one that is inherently insecure; as the wives age, their husbands inevitably seek the attentions of younger, more attractive women. The extensive efforts made by the aging wives to be beautiful are shown to be futile, because their husbands will eventually lose interest in them and engage in extramarital affairs.

Women and Socio-Economic Class

Luce focuses on the different conditions of women's lives based on their socio-economic class. The high-society women, such as Mary and her friends, are married to wealthy men and enjoy the social status and economic privilege that comes with wealth. These women seem to have no idea of the suffering and economic hardship experienced by much of the population.

The working-class women in The Women lead harder lives than the high-society women. Luce portrays working women such as a nurse, a secretary, and a maid, who complain about the hard work, poverty, and difficult conditions of their lives. While Edith is in the hospital, having just delivered a baby, she complains of the difficulty of giving birth. Disgusted with Edith's lack of awareness of how privileged she is to be lying in a comfortable bed, having given birth in a hospital, the nurse angrily blurts out:

women like you don't know what a terrible time is. Try bearing a baby and scrubbing floors. Try having one in a cold filthy kitchen, without ether, without a change of linen, without decent food, without a cent to bring it up—

The difficulties single working women must face as they struggle for financial security are elaborated upon by Stephen's secretary, who relates:

I'm sick and tired of cooking my own breakfast, sloshing through the rain at 8 a.m., working like a dog. For what? Independence? A lot of independence you have on women's wages. I'd chuck it like that for a decent, or an indecent, home.

Luce thus emphasizes the economic factors women must consider in deciding whether to marry or divorce regardless of whether the marriage is a happy one.



The Women is set in both New York City and Reno, Nevada, in locations frequented primarily by women. The settings in New York include a beauty salon, the dressing rooms of a women's clothing store, Mary's bedroom, and Crystal's bathroom. A number of scenes are also set in the Park Avenue apartments of wealthy society women and their families. In these settings, Luce emphasizes the luxury and comfort enjoyed by these married women, who have servants to wait on them hand and foot. All of these settings also characterize the fact that most of the central characters in The Women do not Page 290  |  Top of Article have to work, and so they have a lot of free time to spend in shopping, getting manicures, and playing bridge.

Social Satire

At the time of its original production, The Women was a hugely popular success as a Broadway comedy. The play is considered a social satire, or comedy of manners, in that it ridicules the foibles of upper-class society, particularly in the realm of male-female relationships. Luce has said that the women she portrayed in The Women represented the type of women she met in high society, whom she despised. Many of the characters in the play have exaggerated traits of selfishness, shallowness, and self-centeredness that make them objects of ridicule in the eyes of the audience. Luce's stinging comedic dialogue further captures the atmosphere of competition and selfishness among the central female characters.

Cat Imagery

Throughout The Women, Luce's characters describe one another in terms of animal imagery. Animal imagery is a recurring motif, utilized to further express some of the central themes of the play. The predominant animal imagery in The Women is the comparison of women to cats. "Cattiness" is associated with competitive, malicious, vicious behavior in women's interactions with one another. The tussle between Sylvia and Miriam that takes place in Reno is regarded as a cat-fight. The cattiness of these characters is compared more to the behavior of a wild cat, such as a lion, tiger, or leopard, than a housecat, because of the fierceness with which the women compete with each other.

In the closing lines of the play, Crystal tells Mary, "you're just a cat like all the rest of us." Mary triumphantly replies that she has had two years to sharpen her claws, which are painted "Jungle Red." This statement is a culmination of the wild-cat imagery that recurrs in the play. Earlier on, Nancy had referred to "Jungle Red" nail polish, a popular color among this set, as "just the thing for clawing your friends apart." Luce's message is that the realm of competition between women to claim husbands operates according to the laws of the jungle—only the fiercest, most vicious, ruthless fighters win out in the end. Through the recurring motif of animal imagery, Luce portrays the realm of high society women as a primitive, animal-like struggle for money, men, and power.


The Great Depression

In the fall of 1929, the United States economy was devastated by a collapse of the stock market. Now known as the Stock Market Crash of 1929, these events plunged the United States, and eventually many nations throughout the world, into a devastating economic crisis that lasted until the beginning of World War II in 1939. This roughly ten-year period is known as the Great Depression. As a result of the collapse of the economy during the Great Depression, many people were out of work, lost their homes, and lived in abject poverty. Unemployment rates reached as high as 25–30 percent of the employable workforce. In the realm of international economy, the levels of world trade were reduced by more than half their previous volume.

Political measures to address the problems of the Great Depression in the United States were dominated by the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who began his first term in 1933. Roosevelt initiated a wide variety of government programs in an effort to relieve the burden of poverty, raise the employment rate, and stimulate the economy. Roosevelt's domestic program for addressing the Great Depression is known as the New Deal. The crucial first few months of Roosevelt's institution of the New Deal are known as the Hundred Days.

The Women was originally produced in 1936, during the heart of the Great Depression. In this play, Luce emphasizes the stark differences between the experiences of wealthy, privileged women and those of poor working women. Within the context of Great Depression–era America, Luce's critical perspective on the behavior of these society women is that much more pronounced.

In her play, Luce makes satiric reference to the New Deal in a bit of clever dialogue when one of Mary's friends refers to her ex-husband's new wife as his "New Deal."

The Reno Divorce

Act 2, scene 2 of The Women takes place in the hotel room of a resort ranch in Reno, Nevada. In order to understand why Mary and her friends travel to Reno, one must have some knowledge of the history of divorce laws and practices in the United Page 291  |  Top of Article States. During the period in which The Women takes place, divorces were much more difficult to obtain than they were in the early 2000s. Divorce was also considered to be scandalous and embarrassing for both parties, but especially for divorced women. Furthermore, divorce laws varied from state to state, making them easier to obtain in some states than in others.

Because Nevada had relatively liberal divorce laws, as well as very short-term requirements for state citizenship (only six weeks, at the time), many wealthy society women during the 1930s went to Reno in order to get divorced. Because these women needed to stay in the state for a period of weeks, in order to obtain state citizenship, an industry of resort ranches developed to accommodate them. For this reason, Mary and many of her New York society friends, like many high society women during that period, find themselves together in Reno while waiting for their divorces to go through.

Popular Culture References

Throughout The Women, various characters make references to public figures who were well known during the 1930s, but who may be unfamiliar to readers in the early 2000s. In order to appreciate some of Luce's humorous dialogue, and to make sense of what the characters are saying, it is helpful to have some idea of who these figures from popular culture were.

There are a number of references in The Women to popular Hollywood movie personalities of the era. Luce's characters mention movie stars such as Mae West and Joan Crawford, as well as the romantic lead actor Clark Gable, and the comic actor Harpo Marx. Other Hollywood personalities mentioned in The Women include well-known movie studio moguls such as Darryl F. Zanuck, co-founder of 20th-Century Fox, and Louis B. Mayer, vice president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) studios.

Sidebar: HideShow


  1. 1930s: The United States is in the midst of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis in the history of the nation. Unemployment is at an all-time high.

    Today: While the economy fluctuates greatly, many regulations work to ensure that an economic collapse such as that which caused the Great Depression is not repeated. While unemployment rates also fluctuate, they do not reach the devastating levels of the Great Depression era.

  2. 1930s: Divorce laws, which vary widely from state to state, result in the development of Reno, Nevada, as a locus where people from all over the country come to obtain divorces.

    Today: While divorce laws still vary from state to state, an overall liberalization of divorce laws makes it easier for couples to obtain divorces within their home states.

  3. 1930s: Women's opportunities for earning an independent living through professional endeavors are limited by a male-dominated work world. Because of limited job opportunities, most women are dependent on their husbands for economic support.

    Today: Women's professional opportunities are greatly increased, allowing women to pursue any profession a man can with reasonable hope for success. Many women earn enough to enjoy complete economic independence.

The mention of a "Mrs. Astor" by one character resonates with the themes of gossip and divorce in The Women. Mary Astor was a popular movie star of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Several scandalous aspects of Astor's personal life became a subject of widespread gossip in the popular press. Her three divorces, severe alcoholism, and attempted suicide were among the topics seized upon by gossip columnists. Page 292  |  Top of Article The biggest scandal of Astor's life hit the presses in 1936 (the same year in which The Women was first produced), when, in the process of Astor's second divorce, her personal diary was publicly presented in court, revealing clandestine affairs with many Hollywood personalities. This revelation became the subject matter of widespread gossip and intrigue.


From its initial production in 1936 to its revivals in the 1970s and 1990s, The Women has always received mixed, sometimes heated, reviews.

Luce's play has been most enthusiastically received when regarded as a hilarious social satire featuring outrageous caricatures of high society women who reel out witty, acerbic dialogue. During the 1930s, however, The Women was not without controversy. Scheduled productions in London and Providence, Rhode Island, were canceled by authorities on grounds of immorality. In her essay "Social Darwinism in the Powder Room," Mary Maddock characterized these efforts to censor The Women when she commented, "The play's unvarnished presentation of the female perspective on sex, birth, extramarital affairs, divorce, and dull husbands clearly offended a certain sector of its audience."

However, the most substantial critical debate about The Women concerns Luce's representation of women and female friendship. Anita Gates, in "What Is It About The Women ?" noted, "Whether Luce's play is dangerously misogynistic or subversively feminist has always been a matter of opinion."

During the 1930s, many critics of The Women were quick to disparage Luce's representation of women as selfish, shallow, scheming cats, lacking in depth or compassion. However, Luce has defended this view of her work by asserting that it was not her intention to suggest that the particular characters in this play represent all women. Rather, she put forth, her aim was to ridicule a very specific segment of high society women, whom she despised.

Since the 1970s, critical discussion of The Women pointedly addressed the question of whether it is a feminist or a misogynist text. A number of critics interpreted The Women as a societal critique addressing issues of both class and gender through an unromanticized representation of marriage as a socio-economic institution. As Maddock observed, "Boothe's women are corrupted by the materialistic and competitive values a moneyed and power-broking male world generates."

Reviewers of several different revival productions of The Women during the 1990s and early twenty-first century applauded the play's timeless treatment of women's issues, while acknowledging that it is in many ways dated. Steven Winn noted in a review entitled "The Women without their Men," that "Luce touches lightly but deftly on a range of what are now known as women's issues." Winn added,

Luce may not have written a play for the ages, but in refracting the spirit of her time with a satiric glint, The Women casts a reflected light on the very notion of "progress" in the relations between the sexes.

Winn opined, "At a time when feminism is encountering a fresh wave of backlash, this seemingly dated period piece picks up resonance without having to amplify it artificially."

Other reviewers of recent revivals of The Women commented on the play's representation of female friendship. Jayne Blanchard noted in "Conniving World of Women," "the idea of women being socialized from the cradle to gossip about and betray one another is painfully timeless." Elysa Gardner commented in "Women: Fresh, Funny, and Feline," that The Women still resonates in the 2000s because "feminist advances hardly have eliminated the territorial tensions and feline feuds that hamper our relationships with our fellow sisters." Gardner concluded that The Women ultimately provides a positive picture of female friendship, stating that it "ultimately celebrates female camaraderie even as it mocks our capacity for cattiness."

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, reviewers also praised The Women from a feminist perspective in observing that the story ultimately demonstrates Mary's "believable journey from generous and oblivious ignorance to wiser and more wicked self-awareness," as stated by Terry Byrne in "Stage on Screen: The Women." Gates echoes that statement, writing "in New Age terms, The Women is about Mary's journey to empowerment." Maddock likewise asserted, "The difference between Mary at the play's opening and at the play's conclusion is social and economic enlightenment."

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Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford in the 1939 film The Women, written by Clare Boothe Luce Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford in the 1939 film The Women, written by Clare Boothe Luce


Liz Brent

Brent holds a Ph.D. in American culture from the University of Michigan. In this essay, Brent discusses the theme of love in Luce's play.

At the beginning of The Women, Mary's attitudes about love are traditional and idealistic. She believes that her husband Stephen married her because he loves her and that he will always love her. She also believes that love between man and wife is the central element of a marriage and that a marriage without love is not worth maintaining. Over the course of the play, however, Mary comes to the conclusion that marriage is a matter of compromise and that love between husband and wife is not the most important factor in maintaining a marriage.

In an early scene of the play, Mary tells her friend Nancy that she now realizes Stephen loved her when she was younger because she was very pretty but that, as she has aged, the loss of physical attraction has decreased his love for her. Nancy responds with a quote from Shakespeare: "Love is Page 294  |  Top of Article not love which alters when it alteration finds." In other words, if a man stops loving a woman because she is no longer beautiful, then he never truly loved her in the first place. Nancy thus expresses the idea that true love is an ideal that goes deeper and endures longer than mere physical attraction.

Many of Mary's friends, however, express attitudes about love in marriage that are more cynical and less idealistic than those expressed by Nancy. These women regard marriage as a social and financial arrangement to which idealistic notions of love do not apply. Early in the play, they make fun of Peggy, who is a young wife, because she is still in love with her husband; they assure her that, once she is married long enough to develop a realistic opinion of her husband, she will no longer love him. When Sylvia finds out that Miriam is going to marry Sylvia's ex-husband, Sylvia is furious. Mary, however, points out, "But, Sylvia, why do you care? You don't love Howard," to which Sylvia responds, "Love has nothing to do with it." According to these women, love is not the object of marriage.

Several of the women in The Women express the opinion that marriage is not a matter of love between husband and wife, but of raising children and maintaining a household. Mrs. Moorehead asserts that Mary should not get divorced because parents should stay together for the sake of the children. Mary retorts that there is no value in raising children in a home without love. After Mary's maid and her cook overhear her argument with Stephen about the affair, they discuss their own attitudes about the role of love in marriage. Maggie, the cook, comments, "Marriage is a business of taking care of a man and raising his children," adding, "What's the difference if he doesn't love her?"

Sidebar: HideShow


  1. Kiss the Boys Goodbye (1938) was one of Luce's most successful plays. This farcical comedy concerns the antics of a Hollywood producer in the process of recruiting a star for his upcoming movie.
  2. Margin for Error (1939), another of Luce's most successful plays, is a satirical detective story about a German consul who is suspected of murder.
  3. Europe in the Spring (1940) is a personal memoir of Luce's experiences as a journalist in the early years of World War II.
  4. Luce's plays have been compared to those of the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Wasserstein's comedy Uncommon Women and Others (1977) concerns five women who meet for lunch and reminisce about events from their college years.
  5. Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Boothe Luce (1997), by Sylvia Jukes Morris, provides a critical biography of Luce, focusing on her ambitious personality and her various professional and political successes.
  6. Clare Boothe Luce: A Research and Production Sourcebook (1995), by Mark Fearnow, provides an overview of Luce's life and career, a detailed plot summary of her major works and their critical reception, and an annotated bibliography.

Mary's daughter, Little Mary, also expresses a cynical attitude about love in marriage. Early in the play, Little Mary espouses the idea that women's lives are not very enjoyable, because, once they fall in love, they lose all of their personal ambitions. Little Mary tells her mother that once women "get the lovey-dovies," they stop doing interesting things, such as pursuing careers in aviation, politics, or business. Mary assures her daughter that a woman's life is fulfilled after marriage by having children, but Little Mary does not seem convinced by this.

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The attitude of the Countess de Lage about love in marriage is in strong contrast to the attitudes of Mary's friends. Although she has been married four times, the countess never loses her faith in love. Despite her multiple divorces, she remains cheerful and optimistic about her prospects for love and continues to believe that idealistic love is a worthwhile pursuit in marriage. From her perspective, love is the only motivation for getting married. Unlike Mary, however, the countess is never disillusioned when her marriages fail; she simply cuts her losses and looks forward to the next adventure in love. The countess often sighs cheerfully and utters the phrase, "Ah! L'amour !" which is French for, "Ah! Love!" The countess says of the more cynical women in Mary's social circle, "They've lost their equilibrium because they've lost their faith in love."

After Mary finds out that Stephen is cheating on her, she talks to her mother, Mrs. Moorehead, about her marriage. When she tells her mother, "I love him so much," her mother assures her, "he loves you too, baby." Mrs. Moorehead's concept of marital love, however, is very different from Mary's. Mrs. Moorehead explains to Mary that the most important thing about marriage is to stay together in the long run. She tells her that a husband's infidelities are not a matter of love. Rather, Mrs. Moorehead explains, as men begin to age, they feel a need to have affairs with younger women so that they can feel young again. She asserts that these affairs are meaningless to the men, in the sense that they are not about love. Therefore, Mrs. Moorehead says, a wife should understand that her husband still loves her, even though he is cheating on her. Thus, she assures Mary, Stephen's extramarital affair with Crystal Allen is not an indication that he no longer loves her.

At first, Mary tries to take her mother's advice, reassuring herself that Stephen is not in love with Crystal Allen. But when Mary confronts Crystal in the dressing room of the clothing store, she is presented with a very different set of ideas about love, marriage, and infidelity. Mary tells Crystal, "Stephen doesn't love you.… He couldn't love a girl like you." Crystal, however, uses the word "love" in the physical sense and indicates that she and Stephen have been engaged in a sexual relationship for the past six months. Crystal points out to Mary that, although Stephen has been "loving" her (Crystal) in the physical sense, Mary still enjoys all of the social and economic privileges of marriage. Crystal asserts, "You've got everything that matters. The name, the position, the money."

When Mary argues with Stephen over the affair with Crystal, she brings up the question of love in their marriage. When she tells him, "But you don't love me!" Stephen's response is to assure her that he is very "fond" of her. Mary is terribly hurt by Stephen's use of the word "fond" as a substitute for love. In the course of their argument, she tells him, "You've killed my love for you."

As Mary is preparing to leave for Reno to obtain a divorce, her mother tries to talk her into patching up her marriage instead. Her mother tells her that, although Stephen may no longer love her, he is "fond" of her. Mary is once again upset at being told that her husband is "fond" of her, when she really wants him to love her. At this point, Mary still believes that "deep down, Stephen does love me." She believes that by threatening him with divorce, she will motivate him to realize that he still loves her, and he will try to win her back.

Before she leaves for Reno, Mary tries to explain to her daughter (Little Mary) why she and Stephen are getting divorced. Mary makes a distinction between love between adults and love between adults and their children. She tells Little Mary that adults sometimes fall out of love with each other. Little Mary, distraught, asks if that means she herself will stop loving her parents when she becomes an adult. Mary tries to assure Little Mary that that is a different matter, but she leaves her daughter confused and upset about the idea that people who once loved each other can stop loving each other.

By the end of The Women, Mary has developed a more practical, more cynical attitude about the role of love in marriage. Admitting to herself that she still loves Stephen, even if he no longer loves her, she comes to the conclusion that getting him Page 296  |  Top of Article back as her husband is more important to her than being loved by him. She further realizes that she could not have maintained the youthful passion that once characterized her marriage.

Mary also comes to the conclusion that love and marriage are a matter of compromise, and settling for what you can get, rather than being a matter of ideals and pride. While in Reno, she tells her friends, "Love has pride in nothing—but its own humility." In other words, Mary has decided that she would rather swallow her pride and try to get Stephen back, than stick by her principles and divorce him because he has humiliated her by having an affair. Mary tells Sylvia that pride is "a luxury a woman in love can't afford."

Mary now feels that what matters to her is for Stephen to need her as his wife, even if he no longer feels love or passion for her. Toward the end of the play, she tells her friends that unrequited love ("lopsided amour") is better than no love at all. She tells the countess to hang onto her new husband, even though he is cheating on her, advising, "let him make a fool of you. Let him do anything he wants, as long as he stays."

By the end of The Women, Mary has come to the conclusion that it is worth it to her to compromise her ideals, swallow her pride, and fight to get back the man she loves, even knowing that her love is "lopsided." Just before going out to the Casino Roof for the final battle with Crystal, Mary reads aloud from a book about love: "When love beckons to you, follow him, though his ways are hard and steep.… Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the North Wind lays waste the garden."

Mary is willing to suffer losing her pride and having her ideals shattered about love in order to hang on to the husband she still loves, even if he no longer loves her.


Liz Brent, Critical Essay on The Women, in Drama for Students, Gale, 2004.

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Susan L. Carlson

In the following essay, Carlson examines two female-dominated plays—Boothe's The Women and Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others —and explores the roles of the female characters in each.

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Playbill cover from the 1973 production of The Women, performed at the 46th Street Theatre Playbill cover from the 1973 production of The Women, performed at the 46th Street Theatre

Although comedy's Lysistratas and Rosalinds have prompted general critical agreement that comedy promotes sexual equality, the women in two twentieth-century comedies by women suggest how easily such conclusions may be called into question. As they create all-female comic worlds, both Clare Boothe in The Women and Wendy Wasserstein in Uncommon Women and Others magnify some of the special dissonances which accompany the appearance of any woman in comedy. Neither Boothe's nor Wasserstein's is a major achievement, but as solid, successful plays, both tell us a great deal about the conventions and assumptions we depend on and respond to in all comedies. Specifically, the two plays disclose the kinds of female characters and communities comedy encourages or discourages.

While Boothe's 1937 comedy The Women is a play full of women, it is not a woman's play. As a comedy it is troubled and troubling. Like a comedy, it is propelled by the humorous unmasking of human frailties and double standards. Like a comedy, it is neatly knotted at the end by marriage and an attitude of compromise that bravely point both characters and audience toward the future. Like many comedies, it is also laced with satire and irony that transmit double messages: its scintillating wit is both freedom and escape, its stage full of women at once a potential women's community and a backhanded endorsement of a male world. But the results of the satire and irony in Boothe's comedy are unusually disruptive. While many have held Boothe accountable for the disconcerting effect of her female enclave, comedy itself is the cause of the disturbance in her play.

Displayed in a succession of exclusively female domains—a powder room, an exercise salon, a beauty shop, a kitchen, and others—the five central women in Boothe's play victimize themselves and one another in winner-take-all games of marriage, adultery, and divorce. Boothe maintains that she wrote the play to satirize only a "small group of ladies native to the Park Avenues of America," but nevertheless she fills her world with characters and encounters which make this play a much broader study of women's roles. The cast list alone underlines her concentration on women in roles and as roles. While Boothe's main characters have names (although even they dwindle into the roles "single" or "married" when Nancy is subtitled "Miss Blake," Sylvia "Mrs. Howard Fowler," etc.), a majority of the forty-four cast members are listed only as types or roles. There are hairdressers, pedicurists, salesgirls, models, a nurse, a cook, an instructress, a cutie, a society woman, a dowager, a debutante, and a girl in distress. These social, professional, and personal roles supply a busy backdrop for the playwright's central study of the roles most vital for her women: roles as wives, mothers, daughters, and friends. Comedy has always been fertile ground for the study of social roles, masks, and the often indistinguishable line between the two. Boothe adopts this comic concern with a vengeance.

First and foremost "the women" are wives. But as wives, the central character Mary and her four closest friends Sylvia, Nancy, Edith, and Peggy do not enact for us their half of a simple battle between the sexes. That basic comic battle has been superseded by a vicious battle within one sex over the other. Dubbed "odious harpies," "werewolves," "sluts," "barbaric savages," and "brazen hussies" by 1937 reviewers, Boothe's women engage themselves in an endless and incestuous series of bruising encounters: for example, Mary loses Stephen to Crystal, who deserts him for Buck, who abandons the Countess, who has been married four previous times. Every time a community of women forms, it is splintered by the women's battles over their men, their battles to be wives.

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The bold but unbecoming behavior of "the women" as wives works as flashy camouflage to cover the much more destructive self-hatred which grows out of the women's roles as mothers, daughters, and friends. The play's harsh attitude toward mothering is defined most specifically in Mary's role as mother to Little Mary. On her mother's arrival home from the beauty shop, Little Mary announces that she does not "want to be a dear little girl" anymore, not only because girls are "silly," but because they never stop being so. Little Mary "hates" little girls, in part because she refuses to accept the yoke of a double standard that means "Daddy has more fun than you." Mary, just returning home from the discovery of her husband Stephen's philandering, is perhaps uncharacteristically unprepared for this metaphysical crisis with which Little Mary greets her. But that circumstance alone cannot account for the mechanical emptiness of this mother's responses. In short, Mary has no soothing answer to Little Mary's questions because she lacks the self-consciousness such answers would demand. Throughout the play, the rebellion and self-hatred that Little Mary voices so unambiguously show themselves again and again in the twisted and perverted shapes they must take on in the mothers who have buried such emotions. Sylvia's explosive but fragile ego and Mary's battered one are but two results of such interment. Blindly accepting what they are told is their inferiority, the women fail as mothers.

As a daughter herself, Mary is but a passive receptor of the self-hatred her mother passes on. Mrs. Morehead instructs her daughter Mary to lie in order to win back her husband, and to divorce herself from other women—"Don't confide in your girl friends!" Mary follows her advice. The battling that "the women" engage in as wives seems to have mined any possible strength or contentment in their roles as mothers and daughters who nurture and teach one another. What remains of these potentially powerful roles is only a residue of slushy sentiment.

These women's fierceness as wives and their failures as mothers and daughters contribute, finally, to their inability to be friends. Although the play's successive episodes study the permutations in one community of women, in every case the community is one in which sharing and concern give way to battles and rifts. The chatty bridge luncheon of the opening scene is subverted by Sylvia's vigilance for any new gossip, and succeeding exchanges follow suit. Even the camaraderie we glimpse at times in the service communities—the hairdressers, the models, the ladies'-room attendants—is undermined by infighting and back-biting. The sturdy, inward female communities Nina Auerbach tells us are common in all-female environs are completely absent.

Like Mrs. Morehead, these women believe that women are the last to be trusted—with anything. Mary, Nancy, Peggy, and even Edith (it would be stretching matters to include Sylvia) do make sincere overtures of friendship. Their tunes fall on deaf ears, however, since "the women," to survive, have also had to assume that female friendships are foolish luxuries. Of course, they all fail to see the schizophrenia of both soliciting and rejecting friendship. When Mary defends her "friend" Sylvia to Nancy, protesting "she's a good friend underneath," she exposes the clandestine form caring must take for these women. Nancy's latest novel about "Women I dislike" more brazenly displays the embattled nature of female friendships. Mary's main lesson in the play is that Mrs. Morehead is correct in her assessment of friendship: Mary learns that the only clear road back to her marriage with Stephen is a lonely one on which she will shed not only her pride and graciousness, but also her friends. In her extremely cynical portrait of a female community, Boothe forges what seems to be an unnatural connection between comedy and a friendless female world.

But if we reconsider our most treasured, liberated comic heroines, we realize how the witty, conniving, sly, underhanded, two-faced women who appear so vile in the isolation of The Women are only slight exaggerations of the comic rule rather than exceptions to it. If we imagine Shakespeare's Rosalind and Beatrice, Shaw's Candida, and Aristophanes' Lysistrata collected around Mary's bridge table, we recognize how these women too—though much more vibrant than Boothe's—gain Page 306  |  Top of Article their power only in reaction to what the governess Miss Fordyce has surmised is a "man's world." When such women are left alone together—as they are in Lysistrata, or as Helena and Hermia are in A Midsummer Night's Dream—they are likely to engage in vicious battles, almost always, as in The Women, battles over men.

Whereas Boothe seems only vaguely aware of a connection between her ugly portraits of women and the double standards of the "man's world" in which they must maneuver, Desmond MacCarthy sees Boothe's vile women as products of an unfair world: "they [the women] are in a highly precarious position because they have to be carried by men to whom they are not necessary. …" Most comedy exposes, with varying degrees of boldness, sexual double standards. Comedy's central role reversals are, in fact, based on the stereotypes that result from double standards: i.e., women gain control and men lose it because these are laughable inversions of normal roles. Such inversion endows most comic heroines with their memorable, freewheeling power to criticize and belittle an unfair world. This liberating criticism does not evolve in Boothe's play, however, even though The Women is full of women ruling in their worlds. Moreover, the liberating criticism does not evolve because The Women is full of women ruling in their worlds. For the women's sovereignty extends only over their own turfs—the beauty salons, the kitchens, the powder rooms. Instead of gaining freedom and power in comedy, Boothe's women are more than ever victims in their proscribed world. Trapped in a women's world which exists only because it is necessary to the men's, the women cannot choose to be other than they are. Boothe's play shows that the refreshing freedom of the sole comic heroine is not necessarily multiplied by the presence of multiple heroines, and that, actually, just the opposite may be true. The comic ending, supposedly comedy's final gesture in the conferral of social joy, becomes only the final severing of women's bonds to one another to ensure a happy, fully heterosexual ending.

As is typical in comedy, the "happy ending" is marriage, more precisely the remarriage of Mary and Stephen. As she claws her way to this personal happiness through the nasty social jungle in which, "the women" must operate, Mary clearly demonstrates that success in Boothe's world is measured by one's ability to keep a man by fighting off other women. The irony is heavy, but as in most comedies, the heroine, Mary, ends by accepting the social games she had earlier scorned; her acknowledgment reinforces the social rules of this world and counsels acceptance of them for others. Yet the sinking feeling one has at the end of the play is a reaction Boothe has programmed the play to command. Boothe wants to expose these women who are "vulgar and dirtyminded, and alien to grace," and her ending is a conscious emphasizing of their hopelessness as redeemable human beings. The best Boothe can offer is Mary's unsatisfying final compromise because it is the best she wants to offer.

There is a second cause for the dissonance of this ending; Boothe was probably far less conscious of it, but it doubles the effect of what she does consciously provide in Mary's sad compromise. In exposing the double standards under which her women function (as she could not avoid doing in comedy), Boothe allows us to witness their vulnerability. Yet Boothe, whose life patterned for others one way out of such a confining miasma of stereotyped roles, persists in denying a connection between a double standard and her empty women. Because of this blind spot, she also persists in misreading the effects of "comedy" in her play. Boothe's text is full of the social criticism comedy encourages, but its object—"the women" themselves—confuses that criticism. Boothe forgets that she is criticizing the double standard that has made these women mean-spirited as well as criticizing the women. The effect is that her lampooning of the women seems cruel because it is practiced upon characters who are already the victims of comic and social convention. Thus, when the play ends with Mary's ambiguous triumph, and Sylvia and Crystal's hand-to-hair combat, we respond with as much pity as scorn.

Boothe's foreword to The Women is final evidence of the perplexing collision between dramatic form and authorial intent in this play. Although Boothe at times echoes the self-effacement of her women in this foreword by apologizing for certain aspects of the play, the fierce spirit of her defense shows that she senses, rightly, her innovation in the play. So the loose plot for which she takes "blame" is one of the play's greatest strengths, allowing for the development of the contexts and textures Boothe needs to develop her characters. The creation of such textures is a futile exercise in Boothe's "man's world," yet the persistence of the characters in building them—in spite of certain collapse—is the source of the small hope Boothe's play inspires. The heavily ironic ending is another attempt by Boothe to alter comic boundaries; and its failure is but another sign of her inability to free her comedy from Page 307  |  Top of Article the dramatic forms whose effect she never fully perceived. While Boothe labors in her foreword to allay charges that The Women is misogynous, the misogyny she did not intend persists, embedded in her adoption of traditional comic attitudes to sexual double standards and social roles.

Wendy Wasserstein's 1977 comedy Uncommon Women and Others mirrors Boothe's in its all-female world and picaresque plot; and it borrows the earlier play's superstructure of five main characters playing out social roles against a backdrop of clearly typed characters. But the crucial difference is that Wasserstein shows how a comedy full of women no longer needs to be a bitter dead end.

As her subtitle documents, Wasserstein's text is "A Play About Five Women Graduates of a Seven Sisters College Six Years Later." While it begins and ends "Six Years Later" with the five women gathered at a restaurant for lunch, most of the action is a replay of scenes during the characters' senior year at Mount Holyoke. There is no plot. Instead of events and suspense, Wasserstein gives her characters time and peer audiences. As they drift in and out of the play's seventeen episodes, the five main characters set their own paces and create a dramatic forum in which they can leisurely, continually mold, test, and retest their lives and those of their friends. Wasserstein may have discarded the comic plotting that confined Boothe, even in her loosely plotted play, but the later dramatist has not discarded comedy. In a new mode, she presents the same comic search for a resolution, for the comfort of a happy ending.

Sometimes boldly, sometimes fearfully, the five Mount Holyoke seniors relentlessly confront their futures. Kate, a Phi Beta Kappa who loves trashy novels, collects men, and is headed for law school, is the other women's image of success, their Katherine Hepburn. Although she is well on her way to becoming the successful career woman already typed by her friends, Kate has doubts about the "role" she has chosen for herself. She fears becoming "a cold efficient lady in a grey business suit" and laments, "I don't want my life to simply fall into place." "Six Years Later," Kate is still fighting against the constraints of her role as the career woman; she realizes that she has sacrificed as much as she has gained, but she remains admirable in her constant, honest battle within and against a role that isolates her.

Kate's bold insecurity is matched by Rita's willful perverseness. A mouthy, playfully radical feminist preoccupied with tasting her menstrual blood and lecturing her friends on the dangers of a society "based on cocks," Rita refreshes the spirits of the others while restlessly searching for the experiences and feelings that will make her feel whole. Her constant, soon haunting refrain is to proclaim how amazing this group of women will be at ages twenty-five or thirty or forty-five—or somewhere down the road. Pressing achievement conveniently always just out of reach in the future, Rita squares her hope with her disappointments. With her unabating hatred of roles, Rita has not let society pigeonhole her, but she has not yet found a way to fashion a world without the old pigeonholes.

Muffet and Holly's searches for their futures are less frenetic than either Kate or Rita's. They wander in and out of Wasserstein's scenes, trying—in their more subdued ways—to fashion their lives somehow out of the old roles that remain the only ones they know and the undefined new ones no one else can describe for them. Wishing for the direction of a Kate or a Rita, Holly slips and slides between the despair and elation of growing up. Her long-distance telephone conversation "to" a man she has only casually met in a museum is touching evidence of her need for a man and her confusion over the preference for the comforting presence of Rita or Kate. Muffet confesses a similar need for men, and like Holly fears planning for the future as much as meeting it.

Holly and Muffet are openly insecure about a future they cannot seem to pattern for themselves; Kate and Rita are much less secure than they know they seem. Yet all four consciously confront a world in which women's role have become ambiguous and confusing. Unlike theirs, Samantha's position recalls Boothe's simpler, albeit harsher female world. Like Boothe's women, Sam opts for a very traditional marriage, one in which she can dedicate herself to her husband, Robert. She feels no shame about giving herself to her husband and, in fact, radiates self-confidence and contentment that the others all envy. Sam chooses life akin to the values and conditions Boothe traced in The Women, but hers promises happiness that life in The Women could not. Because she consciously chooses a traditional marriage as one of many options open to her, Sam has the potential of being happy as a satellite in Robert's world. The others envy her not because she can so easily choose an established role, but because she can fit into it: they could not. Wasserstein does not make the mistake of preaching that "new" types like Rita and Kate are any more acceptable Page 308  |  Top of Article than "old" types like Sam; she simply provides a context where all such roles coexist and can be studied, challenged, accepted, altered, or dropped.

Wasserstein's expansive plot, her concentration on characters and roles, and her weaving of texture are not unique. Any number of comic playwrights (and many great ones) have preceded her with such mixtures, yet usually without her success in transforming comedy's women. Although in time Wasserstein's transformations will come to seem a matter of degree and not radical alterations, the still significant difference between Wasserstein and predecessors like Boothe is consciousness. Wasserstein is aware that comedy's built-in easy answers to women's problems are deceptive and dangerous; she is aware that comic conventions in and of themselves pressure characters into a limited number of roles. And for now, her ability to translate this awareness to a comic practice that focuses on characters (not roles) and allows these characters to create unified female communities must be viewed as significant. For in creating her community, Wasserstein diffuses comic prejudice against female friendship. Sifting through her treasure chest of Mount Holyoke scenes and characters, Wasserstein allows real female friendships to develop, friendships that have been rare in comedy. Freed from the requirement that they bond only with men (and produce the traditional happy ending), Wasserstein's women can choose to bond with each other.

In the final scene of act 1, Rita—coordinating the others as usual—asks them which one woman they would marry if they could, if women married women. A joyous communal dance grows out of the touching, honest exchange that follows and is our cue that act 1 is over. While there are many other direct comments on female friendships in this play, none surpasses this marriage scene in its creation of believable, lasting relationships. Its direct substitution of female-female marriage for the traditional male-female kind must be read as a challenge to a world and comedy that expect otherwise. It is almost as if Wasserstein knew her play could not end this way, so she indulged her dreams and her characters' dreams of togetherness in this wishfulfilling pseudo-ending. She provides enough evidence elsewhere that her female community is no utopia, for this group of women has its tensions and defections along with its Bacchic idylls.

Wasserstein deals directly with the fragility of such happy communes by creating two very distinct communities in the play. We focus on the five women who will meet again six years later in the restaurant frame of the play—Kate, Rita, Holly, Muffet, and Sam. Yet in our peripheral vision other students remain—Susie Friend, Carter, and Leilah—who are set off not only by their absence from the reunion, but also by the one-dimensional nature of their roles in the Mount Holyoke community. These misshapen shadows of outsiders and failed friendships keep Wasserstein's play from deteriorating into a facile celebration of sorority. Like the hair-dressers, the cooks, and the attendants in The Women, who offered a background chorus of roles, these three outsiders put a damper on the soaring aspirations of the "uncommon women" by stubbornly reminding them of a world that is still not all that different from Boothe's.

The closing of Uncommon Women and Others is Wasserstein's final statement about these women's roles, as well as her final transformation of comedy. Because the playwright wants it this way, there is no end, only a stopping point. The indeterminateness of her ending is indicated both by the age of Wasserstein's matured women—still only twenty-seven—and by the constant transition they have learned, for better or worse, to accept in their lives. The stopping point of the end is marked as a pause also by Sam's announcement that "Robert and I are having a baby." Sam's announcement is not intended as a parody of the traditional ending of comedy with marriage and the implicit future promise of babies; her solid, lovable character ensures that we respond to her news as warmly as the other women do. Moreover, in Sam's announcement, Wasserstein does not simply embrace the comfortable comic ending which returns the world to an established social order. By making Sam's future as a mother only one part of an otherwise diffuse ending, Wasserstein extracts the joy and assurance of the traditional comic ending without the encumbrance of comedy's predictable return to the status quo. In other words, Wasserstein protects the reactionary power of the traditional comic ending by setting Sam's future in the context of four other, much less defined futures. All five women, like Wasserstein, know that the happy endings promised in comedy are illusive, but that comedy's joy is not. In this they are uncommon.

Forming her characters as a social unit in a comedy of textures, Wasserstein demonstrates how the delicate relations of women to social roles may be best studied, may be only studied, in an altered comic form. Boothe's comedy about women generated Page 309  |  Top of Article bitterness, complaints, and brittle laughter; Wasserstein's comedy about women nurtures faith, concern, and warm, easy laughter. Community.

Two plays by women, about women, full of women. They are not unique, of course: Boothe had her companions in creating female worlds in the 1930s, just as Wasserstein has her companions now. Yet the two plays represent not only their ages, but a shift in our attitudes and consequently our comedy. I have been trying to show how Boothe's play exposes some of the limitations comedy imposes on its female characters; how comic conventions in themselves account for the types of women Boothe creates in her play; how Boothe would have found it difficult to model a female world much different from the one she produced. I have also attempted to demonstrate how Wasserstein, with her play's openness of form and retaliation against some of comedy's sexist assumptions, has avoided some of the limitations that cornered Boothe. With her dramatic textures, Wasserstein creates a comic world where women can work within a female community to challenge social roles. I would like to conclude, but cannot, that Wasserstein may have found a way to translate comedy from its inherent social conservatism without destroying comedy itself. Like Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems, Beth Henley, and other women now writing comedy, Wasserstein will have to keep experimenting before any such change becomes reality. Yet in this community of writers we may place our hope for comedy free of sexism. Boothe's play suggests why feminist comedies have been all too rare; Wasserstein's suggests that they no longer have to be.


Susan L. Carlson, "Comic Textures and Female Communities 1937 and 1977: Clare Booth and Wendy Wasserstein," in Modern Drama, Vol. 27, December 1984, pp. 564–73.


Blanchard, Jayne, "Conniving World of Women," in Washington Times, February 7, 1999, p. D3.

Boothe, Clare, "Foreword," in The Women, Random House, 1937, pp. vii-xiv.

———, "The Women": Newly Revised by the Author, Dramatists Play Service, 1966.

Byrne, Terry, "Stage on Screen: The Women," in Boston Herald, June 22, 2002, p. 17.

Gardner, Elysa, "Women: Fresh, Funny, and Feline," in USA Today, November 9, 2001, p. 3E.

Gates, Anita, "What Is It about The Women ?" in New York Times, June 16, 2002, Sect. 13, p. 4.

Maddock, Mary, "Social Darwinism in the Powder Room: Clare Boothe's The Women," in Journal of American Drama and Theatre, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1990, pp. 81–97.

Winn, Steven, "The Women without Their Men," in the San Francisco Chronicle, September 25, 1992, p. C5.


Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Stephen Burwood, eds., Women and Minorities during the Great Depression, Garland, 1990.

Dubofsky and Burwood have compiled a collection of essays by various authors discussing the impact of the Great Depression on women as well as on African Americans and other minorities.

Gimlin, Debra L., Body Work: Beauty and Self-image in American Culture, University of California Press, 2001.

Gimlin offers a critical discussion of cultural and social aspects of beauty standards in the United States.

Himmelberg, Robert F., The Great Depression and the New Deal, Greenwood Press, 2001.

Himmelberg provides a concise history of the Great Depression years and the impact of New Deal policies in the United States.

Martin, Ralph G., Henry and Clare: An Intimate Portrait of the Luces, Putnam's Sons, 1991.

Martin offers a biographical study of Luce's relationship with her second husband, Henry Luce, a widely influential publishing magnate.

Peiss, Kathy Lee, Hope in a Jar: The Making of American Beauty Culture, Metropolitan Books, 1998.

Peiss offers a critical historical perspective on the development of beauty standards and the cosmetics industry in the United States during the twentieth century.

Watkins, T. H., The Great Depression: America in the 1930s, Little, Brown, 1993.

Watkins provides a history of the impact of the Great Depression and New Deal policies on American culture and society.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420300025