In “A Jury of Her Peers”, a short story written in 1917 by Susan Glaspell, two female characters are able to solve a mystery that the male characters cannot. Loosely based on the 1900 murder of John Hossack which Glaspell covered while working as a journalist for the Des Moines Daily, it is seen as an example of early feminist literature.
The story begins on a cold, windy day in fictional Dickson County with Martha Hale being abruptly called to ride to a crime scene.
They arrive at the home of Wrights where John Wright was murdered.
Mrs Hale immediately feels guilty for not visiting her friend Minnie Foster since she married John twenty years prior.
Once inside the house, as Mr Hale delivers a long-winded account of what he had witnessed the day before the murder, Martha and the sheriff’s wife Mrs. Peters piecing together the minute details of his statement find evidence of a provocation and motives for the suspect
Anyone who’s ever studied in an American high school would have read this story as a part of the American short stories unit on the curriculum, as I did, aged 14.
The two women’s understanding of their ‘peer’ in question extends beyond mere psychology but a deep resonance with the challenges they all face as “midwestern rural women” and the empathy they draw from such resonance.
Seeing Serena Williams’s passionate plea to the umpire last week and the media frenzy that followed, I suddenly remembered this story I hadn’t given much thought since high school.
After all, “What has a 1917 story about rural midwestern women have got to do with Serena Williams?”, I can almost hear you ask.
Bear with me.
Whether we are in the forecourt, or in a rural home in the back of the beyond, or the glitzy skyscrapers of Manhattan, the grey and often drizzly Square Mile of London, or in the fast paced, fast-growing cosmopolitans around Africa from Lagos to Nairobi to Luanda, we are forever in court.
Only a week prior, Serena Williams featured in Nike’s controversial 30th anniversary alongside former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The art work featured a young Serena playing tennis says, for example: “Girls from Compton don’t play tennis. They own it.”
Last week’s controversial decision which saw Serena penalized by chair umpire Carlos Ramos for a coaching violation and resulted in a deduction of points, the loss of a game and a fine of $17,000 for the player after she smashed her racquet, called Ramos a “thief” explaining she doesn’t “cheat to win.
I’d rather lose,” in addition to having an on-court argument with tournament director Brian Earley is just another in a long series of decisions against Serena.
Over the course of a stellar career, the legend has been mocked, harassed, demonised over and over again.
The behaviour often overlooked as ‘passion for the game’ when displayed by men was inexcusable acts of aggression coming from a young, black woman from Compton – even when she owned the game, the set, the match.
In a post-match interview, Serena spoke openly about the barriers she faced in this match and over the course of her career:
“I’m going to continue to fight for women and to fight for us to have equal [rights].
I just feel like the fact that I have to go through this is just an example for the next person that has emotions and that want to express themselves, and they want to be a strong woman, and they’re going to be allowed to do that because of today.”
After the upset, tennis legend Billie Jean King came to Serena’s defense, writing, “Women are treated differently in most arenas of life.
This is especially true for women of colour. And what played out on the court yesterday happens far too often.
It happens in sports, in the office and in public service. Ultimately, a woman was penalized for standing up for herself.”
The truth is, Serena, Venus, and now Naomi – in a court of men, we are most times even more unfortunate than Minnie Foster.
At least she got a fair trial by her peers.