Jane Austen and Feminism

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 Is Jane telling us that the male view is obsolete?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.

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
This entry was posted in British history, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Jane Austen and Feminism

  1. Gerri Bowen says:

    This was a wonderful post, Regina! Thank you.

    • Thank you for stopping by, Gerri. I am pleased you liked the post. I’m off to a book festival in NC so if you do not hear from me for a couple days, you’ll know what happened.

  2. Janet T says:

    Your post was very interesting and informative, Regina. I enjoyed reading it. It cleared up a few misunderstandings that I had about Mary Wollstonecraft. I knew she had fallen from grace, so to speak by her affair and child born out of wedlock. I thought I had read somewhere that she was the one involved with Shelley and had written ‘Frankenstein’, instead of her daughter. I did remember that she died in childbirth but had a lot of the rest mixed up. That was a big error on my part so glad to get it cleared up. Thanks.

    I am sorry that you had such a principal. It seems that there have been many of us with similar situations. I had a superintendent ask me to change the final grade for a senior football player. I was a college preparatory math teacher and I had tried everything in the world to help this young man. I had given him chance after chance which he flat our refused. Finally with my last effort, I told him there were no more chances and he would fail unless he did the work I suggested to help him bring up his grade of ’40’. He still refused. He had been offered a football scholarship at a small college and his grade in my class was going to hurt him. I hated that but it was his own choosing. The superintendent actually threatened me if I did not change the grade. He expected me to fold under the threat of telling lies about me but he was wrong. I ‘rose to the challenge’. I feel sure my eyes turned to steel, I was so angry. He did not carry through with those awful lies but I am sure that he got the transcript and changed the grade himself. I heard several years later that he had gotten into some trouble at his new school.

    Sorry to write my own post here! 🙂 Thanks again good information today. I always enjoy your posts, just don’t always get to comment.

    • Janet, I have so many horror stories regarding school administrators, I could write a book. Oops! That is what I do, but not non-fiction. LOL!!! In 40 years in the classroom, I experienced the good, the bad, and the ugly – 17 different principals. That’s one every couple of years. I got tired of breaking them in. LOL!!
      Thank you for adding your story today. It is was great to remember what I DON’T miss about teaching.

  3. carolcork says:

    Thank you for another interesting post, Regina!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Carol. I am out on the road promoting the new book, but I wanted to tell you when I attempt to sign on your site from the emails, I am often kicked out the program. I have to actually type in the URL to reach the site. I thought you should know.
      Regina

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