Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

Regina Jeffers

This is a repeat of a recent post on my blog “Every Woman Dreams.”

 

(Editors Note: Voice of the Women's Liberation Movement was the first national women's liberation newsletter. The first issue appeared in March of 1968 and the final issue in June of 1969. Several future CWLU members worked on it during its 7 issue lifetime. Edited by Jo Freeman aka "Joreen", out of Chicago, Illinois, it provided a way for many small groups across the country to communicate.) https://www.uic.edu/orgs/ cwluherstory/CWLUArchive/ voice.html
(Editors Note: Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement was the first national women’s liberation newsletter. The first issue appeared in March of 1968 and the final issue in June of 1969. Several future CWLU members worked on it during its 7 issue lifetime. Edited by Jo Freeman aka “Joreen”, out of Chicago, Illinois, it provided a way for many small groups across the country to communicate.)
https://www.uic.edu/orgs/
cwluherstory/CWLUArchive/
voice.html

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.

If all Men are born free, how is it that all Women are born Slaves?

– Mary Astell, Some Reflections upon Marriage

In 18th Century England, certain educated women began to question why men did not see women as rational creatures. Among those were Mary Astell (whose advocacy for equal educational opportunities for women earned her the title “the first English feminist”) 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 or perhaps it was the forward thinking males within her family. 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?

Title page from the third edition of A Serious Proposal Mary Astell - http://ots.utoronto.ca/users/kirsch/Mastell.jpg Author has been dead for over 70 years Public Domain Uploaded by Awadewit Title page from the third edition of A Serious Proposal Mary Astell - http://ots.utoronto.ca/users/kirsch/Mastell.jpg Author has been dead for over 70 years Public Domain Uploaded by Awadewit
Title page from the third edition of A Serious Proposal Mary Astell – http://ots.utoronto.ca/users/kirsch/Mastell.jpg Author has been dead for over 70 years Public Domain Uploaded by Awadewit
Title page from the third edition of A Serious Proposal
Mary Astell – http://ots.utoronto.ca/users/kirsch/Mastell.jpg
Author has been dead for over 70 years
Public Domain
Uploaded by Awadewit

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 certain, 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.

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797) John Opie - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1237 ~ Public Domain Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797) John Opie - National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1237 ~ Public Domain
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797) John Opie – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1237 ~ Public Domain
Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie (c. 1797)
John Opie – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 1237 ~ Public Domain

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 (later to be retitled Pride and Prejudice) 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.

 

21 Responses to Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

  1. Belatedly catching up with this post. Wonderful piece! You really made me think about Jane Austen’s stories and characters–and since I write P&P books about Darcy and Lizzy post-marriage, I have been doing my best to imagine how their marriage might have proceeded. I am definitely in the feminist camp, which to me has nothing to do with hating men, and everything to do with believing that women are full human beings.

    It’s interesting to consider how Austen would react to our contemporary notions of a woman’s role. Clearly she recognized and valued a woman’s ability to think and engage with men on a level not typically encountered during her time. The fact that her books are still read around the world is testament to their continued relevance.

    Thanks for sharing your research! I’ll have to go read Wollstonecraft’s book now…

  2. Regina, Thank you for this very enlightening post. I feel as if my entrance into the world of JAFF has expanded my already overly curious mind. I learn something new each time I read another Jane Austen inspired bit of history or an anecdote.

  3. I keep writing a super long comment and erasing it! I will try again.

    I really enjoyed this piece and it’s a subject I love to talk about and consider. There were women before Wollstonecraft that advocated for equality between the sexes, but they also seemed to take away all emotion from the matter. Given Wollstonecraft’s tarnished reputation and that Austen remained unmarried I think it’s actually very brave of her to bring feelings of affection and even of a passionate nature (Darcy’s proposal, as an example, is very strongly worded for the era) into her works and combine it with proof that women are rational creatures and have sensible arguments. Nor does she present us with flawless women. They make mistakes but they are grounded in things most men would succumb to and often times are at the hands of deceitful men. I see each book as a journey of self-discovery. In the preceding eras men were always the focus and while the hero of the piece they often times made grievous mistakes, even if their heart’s intent was always good. Consider Odysseus succumbing to sirens and nymphs for years while the patient and virtuous Penelope fends off suitors and is steadfast in her love for him. While other men wanted to marry her to become the king, the issue of who is actually running the kingdom,or how Penelope feels during all these events etc. are never brought up. Consider Tom Jones who lusts after every woman he meets and continually has sex (or nearly so) with others all the while proclaiming his love for the constant, but fragile and helpless, Sophia Western. In Austen’s novels- which are by a woman, about women and for women- she does not return her favor and paint her heroes in such a silly light. She allows the men to be men still. The cost of showing women as sensible and rational creatures does not come at the cost of painting all men as ridiculous or hateful. We see silly women, we see silly men. She really, finally, presented literature with a balance of the sexes.

    Sigh. And my comment is still too long!

    • No not fret about long comments, Rose. I still struggle with the 140 characters on Twitter. As a former English teacher, I certainly enjoyed your look back at literature’s portrayal of males and females.

  4. I lost my first set of comments but do so agree that the conversation in Persuasion says much about who was in charge of the viewpoints about women in that day and age. Men didn’t like to hear any woman state an opinion unless it had to do with decor or dress, etc. – but Darcy did like Elizabeth’s pert opinions. One JAFF author has Darcy teaching Elizabeth and Georgianna estate management. I graduated college in 1968 so Women’s Lib was in its infancy. Women still have a ways to go for full equality. But that is another conversation. Yes, Jane may not have had that label (feminist) but she did many things in a way that proclaimed her independence and intelligence.

    • The comments in “Persuasion,” Sheila, are even more poignant when we consider P&P as one of Austen’s first novels and Persuasion as one of the last. One hears a more mature voice in Persuasion than one does in P&P.

  5. “Feminist” is one of those words that are difficult to define any more. Certainly the modern definition, which invariably includes a hefty degree of man-hate, is one I completely reject. Embracing one’s femininity and unique womanly qualities IS feminist to me. Being “equal” with a man, IMO, does not mean I have to physically compete or usurp his place in every instance.

    In that respect I see Jane Austen as a “feminist”. She never married, why we can’t be sure, but for each of her heroines she gave them the correct partner to suit them, yet without a hint of them needing to emasculate the hero or revoke their female association! I never felt that Austen advanced the idea that, for instance, just because Lizzy and Darcy were “equals” meant Lizzy was going to start wearing trousers, hunting with the menfolk, and take over partial management of Pemberley!

    True feminism as I see it is knowing who you are, what you are capable of, and standing strong. It is also accepting that we all have a role to play, including men, thus a woman should appreciate and support THEM knowing who they are, what they are capable of, and standing strong.

    Great post Regina! I missed it before, so am very glad you posted here. 🙂

  6. I’ve been mentally processing this post for a few hours. I personally don’t consider myself a “feminist” in the modern-day sense of the word, but if Jane’s kinder, gentler form of feminism were to make a comeback, I am on board! She was certainly very bold in exposing the injustice to women in a world where they were often little more than property, and in a way that helps us feel her heroines are not entirely powerless in that world. Whether their power came from position, an indomitable spirit, depth of character, wit or some other combination of admirable qualities, they universally wielded it well – at the bidding of Jane’s pen. I cannot help but credit her and others like her for casting light onto the unfairness of the laws to of women in that age. Her pen was not so subtle that the message failed to come through! Thanks for this!

    • I was asked a similar question by a group of AP students today. They had read “Pride and Prejudice,” but the significance of the time still befuddles some. Austen’s works appear so unassuming, but she sneaks up on the reader and slays him/her flat! I love that about our dearest Jane.

  7. I also really enjoyed this article, and appreciate your insight into the forces under which Jane had to write in order to be published. Very interesting about her first attempt at publication being rejected at the very time of such negative reaction to women writers following the negative memoir of Mary W. written by her husband. I agree with Jennifer that I would love to have been your student… though you and I were students at the same time, so it wouldn’t have been possible… though in truth, I can still learn from those so wise as you! Loved this piece!

  8. Regina, thanks for reprinting this article here. I loved reading about Mary W. and J.A. Why do I have the feeling that I would have liked to have been a student in your class? Jen Red

  9. What an informative view. I know we all fantasize about the regency period and Mr Darcy or Capt. Wentworth but if one really takes a look at what Jane and all women had to adhere to during that period it really makes you take a step back. Wonderful information Regina!

Your thoughts are precious!