Mildred Pierce was written in 1941, right around the time of WWII, and possibly the greatest period of feminism ever. So it makes sense that gender roles would be a theme in this novel. However, it’s interesting to look at how Cain addresses this and how the female characters in his novel exemplify female power, especially since it’s not all straight forward. There are many examples of feminism in Mildred Pierce, especially when it comes to working. Mildred herself is portrayed as a “working girl” who maintains a household as well as holds a job. Bert is the character portrayed as lazy and useless; from the very beginning he’s dealing more with the yard than supporting the family. Despite Mildred’s strong sense of pride (mostly stemming from Veda’s constant disapproval, but that’s another issue altogether), she does obtain a job, as well as her personal pie baking which she sells for profit. Veda is a prime example of women using their wiles to get what they want; she knows exactly how to manipulate people into doing what she wants. Her character lends itself to a femme fatal type of role, which is practically the epitome of female power. The male characters also give support to the strong feminism vibe; Wally is bending over backwards to help Mildred find a place to set up her restaurant, and Monty’s entire lifestyle is based on the money that Mildred gives him.
These characters are obviously strong, but there’s something else underneath the surface. Mildred is a “working woman” but as we mentioned in class, there is another connotation to the term; a prostitute. What does a prostitute do to survive? Sell themselves. One can’t help wonder if Mildred is indeed selling herself to these men, as well as Veda in order to maintain the lifestyle that she has created. She may be making all the money that holds Monty in place, but what good does she get out of it? She’s constantly working, so she rarely gets to enjoy the spoils of her effort. She is doing all this work for the other people in her life. On top of all that, in the end she ends up going back to Bert and just accepting to live a life that Veda found unappealing. Was she really satisfied with what she had accomplished? Or did she find that the “selling your soul” method of power was not as feminist as she (and we) had hoped.