Sisters in ‘Downton Abbey’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and the Slow March Toward Equality

'Downton Abbey'Fiddler on the Roof

This guest post written by Adina Bernstein appears as part of our theme week on Sisterhood. | Spoilers ahead.


Progression, especially for women, is often a slow march toward equality. It’s easy for this generation of women to take for granted some of the rights we have: K-12 education, the opportunities for a fulfilling career, and — for cis straight people — the right to marry or not marry and choose a spouse. Although we still have a long way to go as we still contend with barriers to justice, such as abortion restrictions, wage inequality, police brutality, lack of healthcare for trans people, and only last year did the government pass nationwide marriage equality for same-sex couples.

While many modern women don’t think twice about some of these rights, there was a time in history, not too long ago, when these questions coming from women were unthinkable. Women were supposed to marry by a certain age, bring children (and by children, I mean boys) into the world, take care of the home, and ensure that their husband was happy; that was the extent of a woman’s life (except for poor women and women of color who worked outside the home).

Modern feminism often refers to the term “glass ceiling,” which represents the barriers and boundaries that have prohibited women (as well as people of color, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities) from advancing in their careers the same as men have. It’s sometimes easier to see the larger cracks in the glass ceiling (represented by Hillary Clinton accepting the Democratic nomination for President, for example). But while we cheer on the larger victories, we must also pay attention to the smaller achievements as well.

In the early 20th century, some women may have been content to live out the lives pre-planned for them, fulfilling the traditional roles of marriage and motherhood. But some women did question if it was right or fair that a woman was forced to live a life with rigid parameters while her husband or brother was given freedoms that seemed out of reach.

'Downton Abbey''Fiddler on the Roof'

The storylines and themes in the television series Downton Abbey and the musical film Fiddler on the Roof are about change and more specifically, how the daughters within both families represent the small, but important contributions that these characters make to modern feminist narratives.

Downton Abbey starts in 1912 in an aristocratic estate in Yorkshire, England. Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham and his American-born wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), the Countess of Grantham, have three daughters: Mary, Edith, and Sybil. As they have no son, this poses a problem as the title and Robert’s fortune will not pass to his daughters. An unbreakable entail was set up years ago. Without a son, the title of the Earl of Grantham and the money tied to the estate must go to the closest male relative. Robert’s cousin and heir is dead, he is among those who did not survive the sinking of the Titanic. The closest living male relative is a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a middle-class lawyer who is shocked to find out that he will one day be a member of the aristocracy.

Adapted from the Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof is set in 1905 during the Russian Empire. Tevye (Chaim Topol), a poor Jewish milkman and his wife, Golde (Norma Crane), have five daughters — three of whom push the narrative forward: Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava — and no sons. In that community at that time, young people did not choose their spouse. A match was arranged by the town matchmaker and if the marriage was agreeable to the parents (and the father, specifically), then the couple would wed. Tevye agreed to betroth his eldest daughter, Tzeitel (Rosalind Harris) to the town butcher, Lazar Wolf (Paul Mann). But there is a major hitch to the plan: Tzeitel wants to marry her childhood sweetheart, Motel (Leonard Frey), the tailor.

In both Downton Abbey and Fiddler on the Roof, each trio of sisters takes a step in determining her own fate. While the decisions these girls make may seem innocuous, these steps represent the larger cultural and societal fate that will impact future generations of women.

'Downton Abbey' Mary'Fiddler on the Roof' Tzeitel

Mary/Tzeitel: At the outset of both stories, the eldest of the sisters know what their lives will look like: marry, have children, and generally live out the same lives that their mothers and grandmothers lived. Mary (Michelle Dockery) understands her status and value as an earl’s daughter, but as she’s stubborn and opinionated, she will not take the first man that comes her way. Mary initially rejects Matthew as an interloper when he is announced as her father’s new heir; it’s not the greatest start to what would become one of the great TV relationships of this era. But over time, Mary Crawley will prove herself to be much more capable than just being an earl’s daughter, as she eventually becomes a widow, a single mother, and a savvy agent of the estate.

Tzeitel is very much her mother’s daughter. Strong, outspoken, and very smart, she makes the world-shattering decision to ask her father for permission to marry Motel; not an easy feat in that community and time period. Her father balks, knowing that not only does her request break with tradition, but also fractures the verbal contract he already made with the much older butcher. Tevye finally agrees, putting his daughter’s happiness above the accepted practice of allowing the matchmaker to present a future spouse to the young person’s parents. Not only do Tzeitel’s actions pave the way for her sister’s choices, but they also encourage her future husband to achieve his goals.

'Downton Abbey' Edith'Fiddler on the Roof' Hodel

Edith/Hodel: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is the classic middle child and creator Julian Fellowes’ answer to Jan Brady. Caught in between her beautiful elder sister and her independent younger sister, Edith starts out the series as a mean spirited, angry young woman, especially towards Mary as the two share a rivalry. She begins to find her purpose at the beginning of season two during the changes that World War I brings. After Edith is dumped at the alter by her fiancé, she finds her purpose in life in unconventional ways that would have been unthinkable for the daughter of the aristocracy a generation before. She becomes a journalist and a magazine editor. She starts a romantic relationship with her editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), becoming pregnant. After finding out that Michael is dead and after many emotional hurdles, she eventually makes the decision to openly raise her child. Edith finally finds marital happiness with Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton), the newly titled Marquess of Hexham. Surprising everyone, including herself, Edith now ranks above her father and her entire family in terms of aristocratic rank and social standing.

While Hodel (Michele Marsh) is not writer Sholem Aleichem’s answer to Jan Brady, Hodel experiences a similarly unconventional story arc to Edith. Like her older sister, Hodel knows that she must marry. Her choice of husband in the beginning of the film, if she had one, is the rabbi’s son. But like any society, there is a social hierarchy. The daughter of a poor milkman is unlikely to marry the rabbi’s son. Hodel will marry Perchik (Michael Glaser), a traveling teacher with radical ideas that do not sit well with the denizens of Anatevka. When Perchik is arrested in Kiev at a protest and sent to Siberia, Hodel makes the unconventional decision to follow her fiancé to Sibera. Traveling alone to meet up with her fiancé, Hodel makes the brave choice to leave her family and everything she knows behind, not knowing when she will see them again.

'Downton Abbey' Sybil'Fiddler on the Roof' Chava

Sybil/Chava: If one were to look the definition of rebellious in the dictionary, one might see a picture of Lady Sybil Crawley (Jessica Brown Findlay). The youngest of Robert and Cora’s three daughters, Sybil not only gets along with her two older sisters due to her kind spirit, but she’s also unafraid to step away from a traditional life. Whether she attends dinner wearing blue harem pants or her passionate political activism, she charts her own course. While attending a political rally, Sybil is knocked unconscious during a riot. Finally, she shocks her family with her marriage to Irish socialist chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Sybil dies in season three, leaving a grieving husband, a newborn daughter who would never know her mother, and a devastated family. In the end, Sybil’s legacy of love, independence, and acceptance that change was a good thing would forever leave a mark on her family.

If Tzeitel and Hodel made small steps outside of a traditional life, Chava (Neva Small) jumped across the boundary of tradition. Her marriage to Fyedka (Raymond Lovelock), a Christian boy, breaks all the rules. By marrying out of her faith and converting to her husband’s religion, she does not even think twice about asking for permission the way her elder sisters had; she just goes for it by eloping. Her parents and her father especially, are extremely upset and Tevye disowns her. In the end, Chava and Fyedka receive a reluctant blessing from Tevye as the Jewish denizens of Anatevka are forced out of their homes.

Looking back, the cracks in the glass ceiling that these women made may seem small and insignificant, but in the long run, the cracks are substantial. This generation, the great-granddaughters of the young women who lived in that era, owe a huge debt to our great-grandmothers who lived in the early 1900s. Without the bold and unconventional choices they made, we would not have the rights and opportunities that many of us take for granted today.


Adina Bernstein is a Brooklyn-born and raised writer who finds pleasure and release in writing. You can find her on Twitter @Writergurlny and on her blog at writergurlny.wordpress.com

One Comment

  • Posted September 12, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    You might be interested in Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century” which uses the daughters in “Tevye the Dairyman” as metaphors for the Jewish diaspora. Although I guess it should be acknowledged that since he’s talking about the group as a whole he doesn’t get too far into feminism.