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Rubyfruit Jungle | Context


The decades spanned by Rubyfruit Jungle―the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s—were tumultuous years in the United States during which fundamental attitudes and ways of life were questioned and challenged. Freedom became the mantra for many groups who felt oppressed, including women, minority ethnic groups, and homosexuals. Brown frankly exposes the real experiences of people in these groups and tells unflinchingly of the difficulties they experienced in trying to be true to themselves.

The Sexual Revolution

The sexual revolution in the United States is loosely designated as occurring from the 1960s through the 1980s, although some believe it began underground as early as the 1940s. However, ethnologists, historians, and social scientists all emphasize one event as a turning point in the loosening of strict and traditional sexual mores in the United States: the development of the birth control pill. Referred to as the pill, it first became available to American women in 1960. As author Nancy L. Cohen states, the pill represented a woman's ability to have "sole and exclusive power over her fertility." Women seized the opportunity to control their lives in this way. By 1965 six million women were taking the pill, many of them young, single women determined to fight back against the double standard their mothers had endured. This double standard worked in the following way. Americans generally agreed, at least superficially, with the ideas of chastity before marriage and marital fidelity, which came from the English Puritans who founded the nation. However, men could be sexually active before marriage and have extramarital affairs without much risk because they couldn't become pregnant. In a man's world, these acts were readily excused. Women, on the other hand, were ever at risk should they step outside the confines of social mores. Pregnancy was a distinct possibility, and public condemnation of so-called promiscuous behavior was common.

Statistics indicate premarital sex, in particular, became more widespread as the 1900s progressed. In the 1920s, a decade known as socially wilder than any before it, only 10 percent of women participated. But in the 1940s, a decade viewed as the pinnacle of traditionalism, the number of women having premarital sex rose to 40 percent. Still, with the advent of the pill women were far less likely to become pregnant, and by the 1980s only two out of ten women would be virgins when they married.

In Rubyfruit Jungle Molly Bolt is born in 1944 to an unmarried woman whom society views as a slut for engaging in sex outside of marriage. True to the double standard, her partner is a married man who is able to simply walk away from her and the baby. In the 1950s, when Molly and her high school friends are having sex, they know pregnancy is a risk. It is up to them to protect themselves, and they talk about how to get diaphragms and other contraceptive devices. In 1962 when Molly goes to college, her roommate becomes pregnant. Although the pill is available, it is not yet readily accessible to unmarried women. Faye chooses to have an abortion because she can afford to pay for the procedure, but the illegal and dangerous abortion carries the risk of serious health repercussions, such as the inability to have a baby in the future or bleeding to death. The sexual experiences Molly sees in New York City in the 1960s are typical of the experimentation going on during the sexual revolution. Men and women have open affairs and act out their sexual fantasies, creating for readers a snapshot of what is going on during this time.

Characters in the novel are shocked by Molly's announcement she never wants to get married. As Cohen explains, "In 1957, nine out of ten Americans thought any person who chose not to marry was either 'sick,' 'neurotic,' or 'immoral.'" This is a sentiment echoed by Carrie when she exhorts her daughter to conform.

Evolution of Open Sexuality

The sexual revolution wasn't merely about liberating women to take charge of their own fertility. It also opened the door for acceptance of sexual orientation outside traditional heterosexuality. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual (LGBTQIA) orientation are still far from receiving universal, unprejudiced acceptance, but these movements have their roots in the sexual revolution. Although much progress had been made for sexual freedom within the heterosexual community by the mid-1960s, it was just beginning in other areas.

In the 1960s, when Molly Bolt begins attending college in Rubyfruit Jungle, gay men and lesbians were regularly placed in psychiatric lockup—as she was at the University of Florida—because officials were still defining homosexual love as "sick, criminal, or immoral." It was not until 1965 that the first gay rights demonstrations took place—in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Then in 1969 a pivotal event occurred in New York City: the Stonewall riots. On June 28 patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, fought back against police raiding the bar. The raid led to several days of active protests, after which gay pride parades began springing up all over the country. By the 1970s open sexuality was no longer hidden completely from the mainstream population.

Racial Prejudice in Florida in the 1950s and 1960s

When Molly Bolt moves to Florida in the mid-1950s, she is startled by the blatant racial prejudice she encounters, perhaps best represented by segregated bathrooms. Florida was among the most notoriously racist of the southern states in this area. During the first half of the 1900s, more lynchings occurred in the state per capita than in any other. Ku Klux Klan (KKK) rallies were still held regularly throughout Florida in the 1950s, and people suspected of working to protect civil rights were threatened and might have their cars or houses bombed.

By the 1960s when Molly goes to the University of Florida (the same year the first African American students were admitted), protests throughout the state were common, but gains toward equality began to be made. Still Molly understands prejudice still exists. She speaks courageously when she says, "I ain't staying away from people because they look different."


Although Brown stops short of calling Rubyfruit Jungle autobiographical, she has commented that she accepts its categorization as the genre known as Bildungsroman. This type of novel follows the growth of the main character from youth to adulthood, with close attention paid to the character's psychological and moral development. Often in a Bildungsroman, the main character experiences difficulty because he or she feels a great deal of conflict with society's morals and values at the time. The conflict causes the protagonist to experience suffering, which the character works through painfully until coming to terms in his or her own way with the reality faced.

By agreeing that Rubyfruit Jungle is a Bildungsroman, Brown is pointing out the political commentary she makes throughout the novel through the telling of Molly's struggles and fierce stances on right versus wrong. She identifies clearly the negative climate of the years in which Molly—and she herself—came of age, with the racial, gender, and sexual barriers of the era described in clear and sometimes excruciating detail.
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