J.B Priestley discusses several different issues in his play An Inspector Calls one of which is gender. He presents women in several different ways from a high-class elitist mother, a logical daughter to a low-class worker
Eva Smith represented the low working class. Through her, we see the inequality between classes. On one hand, Mr.Birling regards Eva Smith as “one of several hundred young women”. To him they’re just workers of no worth or value. She is nameless and is seen as cheap labour. On the other hand, Mrs.Birling dehumanizes Eva saying “She was claiming fine elaborate feelings, & scruples that were simply absurd in a girl in her position.” This especially surprises the audience that women can still be as cruel, as Mrs.Birling. When Gerald talks about Daisy Renton he describes her as “ young, fresh & charming” this gives us the sense that he viewed her as someone to entertain himself with until he’s bored or decides that she is no longer interesting. Eric had taken advantage of Eva when he was drunk saying ” but afterwards she told me she didn’t want to go in but that – well, I was in that state when a chap easily turns nasty- I threatened to make a row” Eric all but exploits & forces her to sleep with him & yet his parents pay no attention to this & instead complain about him stealing their money. Priestly represents Eva as a strong leader, we see this when she realizes that she & her co-workers aren’t getting paid enough she starts an uprising & becomes the ‘ringleader’. As a realistic mature woman, when she went with Gerald she knew that it wouldn’t last, & when he broke it off she was “very gallant – about it.” She even managed to uphold her moral values when she refused to take Eric’s money knowing that it was stolen.
Sheila Birling represents a younger generation of women who are more empathetic and mature, a generation that would stand up against what’s wrong. Mr.Birling infantilises Sheila saying “settle it sensibly for you [Sheila]” which he doesn’t offer to Gerald or Eric. Sheila was portrayed as vulnerable “I protest against the way in which my daughter a young unmarried girl is being dragged into this.” although we clearly see that she was outspoken and confident in her beliefs. She is portrayed as being passive & submissive which is shown when she says “Is it the one you wanted me to have?” Gerald continually insinuates that Sheila is going crazy to get her to stop talking; this is shown when Sheila summarizes what he said: “He means that I’m getting hysterical.”
Despite being the most mature & taking responsibility for what happened, she’s continually called hysterical and berated for her outspoken nature, when in reality she had shown the most growth and development. At the beginning of the play she uses childish and colloquial language such as “Daddy” and “squiffy” and is solely concentrated on herself and her wedding, she also had a very playful and aloof tone but by the end of the play her lexical choices were mature “I am not a child” and centred toward taking responsibility of her actions “to know the rest of our crimes.” and her tone became serious and morose but it’s this transition into adulthood that makes Sheila the least hated character in the book, on the other hand, Eric is an alcoholic with a short temper but is never once called hysterical. Sheila is used as a moral judge for the younger generation that it’s possible for future generations to change by Priestly. She’s an example of people who exploit their high status to put others down but are mouldable, able to differentiate between right and wrong and how men are always ready to try & protect young women, even when it’s not needed portraying them as inherently weak depicting them as delicate. Sheila is the embodiment of social responsibility.
Through Mrs.Sybil Birling Priestly represents the upper class old fashioned stubborn women who believed that class & status were everything. Mrs.Birling sees herself as a superior to Mr.Birling scolding him saying” Arthur, you’re not supposed to say such thing”. Class is very important for her, therefore, she sees anyone whose new money (Mr.Birling) as inferior to her even if they’re high class. At the beginning of the play, Mrs.Birling sees Gerald as an equal with similar status but after Act 2, which focused a lot on Gerald & Mrs.Birling, that respect for Gerald was lost after finding out about the affair calling it “disgusting”. Mrs.Birling is very patronizing to her children saying phrases like “what an expression Sheila! Really the things you girls pick up these days!” She is very aware of the differences between social classes, she tries to enforce this by infantilising her son & daughter ” Now stop it you two” this shows that she works hard to keep her high status by letting them know that she can easily control them. Throughout the play Mrs.Birling doesn’t change instead, she has to deal with the reality she’s been denying, those being: her alcoholic son, her daughter who will no longer be marrying a good social ‘catch’ & her reputation being sullied.
Through the characters we sees Priestley’s hopes and fears for society. We see his through the younger generation, Eric and Sheila. Through Sheila we see the lines between high and low class blurring where the lower class are treated like humans and the high class are taking personal accountability for their abuse of their power and status, where they show genuine remorse and are able to change for the better rather stubbornly sticking to their wrong ways. In Eric we see how he refuses to forget about what he’s done and admits that he has done something wrong unlike Mr and Mrs.Birling who refuse to even accept that these events happened “Eric: You’re beginning to pretend now that nothings really happened.”
This leads us to Priestley’s fears which we see through the older generations, Mr and Mrs.Birling and Gerald. Through Mr and Mrs.Birling we see how the higher class treat the lost life of someone in the lower class more as “a downright public scandal” than a human life gone, they’re more concerned about their family’s part to play in Eva’s death to get out publicly and that they didn’t “give in to him [ Inspector]” . Through Gerald we see the stubbornness of the upper class that even though at first he felt some remorse but by the end he had convinced himself that they had done nothing saying “But is it [helping to kill Eva] a fact?” representing the capability of change but the refusal to do so.
In conclusion, Priestley presents different types of women, working-class women who exposed how they were taken advantage of, placed in vulnerable situations, held with no value & objectified. Afterwards, he coveys that young high-class women could be frivolous at times but were still able to mature & could change due to their developing mind, yet regardless of that, they were still patronized and generalized. Then Priestly coveys how old high-class women were aware of social Class & respected throughout their community but they were also very old fashioned and would go at great lengths to keep their status even if it meant throwing their family under the bus.