Jane Austen and Feminism
by Regina Jeffers
In 1968, the Women’s Liberation Movement staged a demonstration at the annual Miss America Beauty pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey. They protested the idea that the most important thing about a woman is how she looks. Women’s liberation attacked “male chauvinism, commercialization of beauty, racism and oppression symbolized by the Pageant.”(JoFreeman.com) I am a product of that particular generation. I was a teen in the 1960s and a young woman in 1970s. Generally, I was raised in the Southern states, and I thoroughly understand the “good ole boys” system. Recently, at my retirement recognition gathering at the high school where I taught for many years, instead of praising me for my dedication to my academic area or to my students, my principal stood up and said, “If you have ever served on a committee with Regina, you know that she has no problem in speaking her mind.” Well, that is something, but, obviously, not how one would like to be remembered after 40 years in the classroom. In other words, I had “ruffled his feathers” on more than one occasion by not always conforming to how he thought a woman should act. I have never been subservient to a male. That was my mother. I am a daughter of the women’s movement. So, like Jane Austen, while I write about romance and tradition and virtue, I still place my female characters in roles where they “defy” the never ending patriarchal society in which they live.
In 18th Century England, certain educated women began to question why men did not see women as rational creatures. Among those were Mary Astell and Catherine Macaulay, who discussed such issues as the lack of a female educational system and the absolute authority of males in the family unit. One must wonder if these ideas influenced a young Jane Austen. In each of Austen’s six main novels, the concept of marriage is told from a female perspective. Is Jane telling us that the male view is obsolete?
It would be difficult to call Austen a feminist because her point of view is very subtle. Yet, her message has been read by millions of women around the world, and I openly admit that it influenced me. But who influenced Jane? We shall never know for sure, but it is likely that one of those could have been Mary Wollstonecraft. In 1792 (when Jane was but an impressionable 16-year-old), Wollstonecraft released A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. As an English teacher, this was one of my favorite pieces to bring to my students for it has strong parallels to modern times. Wollstonecraft openly stated that both men and women have the potential to conduct themselves as reasonable and rational human beings. One sex did not have dominance over the other. Wollstonecraft also attacked earlier writers, especially John Milton and Rosseau, for advocating the subordinate position of women in a man’s life. The author’s idea that the 18th Century English educated their women only in how to attract (or “trap”) a man into marriage, but did nothing to equip them with the skills to be good wives and mothers was quite controversial. With Vindication’s release, new doors opened for women writers.
However, Wollstonecraft soon lost her life to childbirth. (BTW, her daughter was Mary Godwin, who eventually became the wife of Percy Shelley and the author of Frankenstein.) Afterwards, Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, wrote a sometimes embellished Memoir of his wife’s life. He told the world of the love affair that produced an illegitimate child and of her suicide attempts and of her rejection of Christianity. Wollstonecraft was labeled an atheist and a “whore.” Critics held a new weapon in discrediting her work, and indirectly, the writings of all women.
Unfortunately, Mary’s downfall brought close scrutiny on those who followed. A female writer could not be seen as advocating the overthrow of marriage rituals. In 1798, the Reverend Richard Polwhele published an anti-feminist satirical poem entitled “The Unsex’d Females.” In it, Polwhele argued that the “sparkle of confident intelligence” was proof that female writers were immodest and that it was a sign of the “corrupt” times that anyone would go so far to consider a woman’s work on the same level as a man’s. Please remember that it was that same year (1798) when the publisher Cadell refused Rev. Austen’s offer of his daughter Jane’s First Impressions manuscript.
Jane Austen does one thing better than any other female writer. She writes dominate female characters with spotless reputations. In each novel, one finds the seduced-and-abandoned plot embedded in the main story line, but Austen’s subject is not courtship. Kathryn B. Stockton of the University of Utah says, “Austen’s works are about ‘marriageship: the cautious investigation of a field of eligible males, the delicate maneuvering to meet them, the refined outpacing of rivals, the subtle circumventing of parental power and the careful management, which turns the idle flirtation into a firm offer of marriage with a good settlement for life. All this must be carried on in a way that the heroine maintains her self-respect, her moral dignity, and her character as daughter, sister, friend, and neighbor.’” For myself, I am more inclined to agree with G. K. Chesterton, who said, “Jane Austen could do one thing neither Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot could do: She could cooly and sensibly describe a man.”
In Persuasion, Austen wrote, “But let me observe that all histories are against you, all stories, prose and verse. If I had such a memory as Benwick, I could bring you fifty quotations in a moment on my side the argument, and I do not think I ever opened a book in my life, which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”
“…Men have had every advantage of us in telling their story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove any thing.”
After Wollstonecraft’s “downfall,” women writers, even those who did not express views of “female philosophers,” had difficulty finding a market for their writing and gaining respect for their talents in a male-dominated occupation. They had to stress the virtue of ladylike qualities and respectable lives. Rights for women could not be their focus.