In our modern world, we do not see ourselves in the situation that some of Jane Austen’s characters have to face. But beware, these problems may still exist.
In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor discusses the fact that, due to their being born gentlewomen, they could not choose a profession and work to support themselves. Technically, they could have, for they could have become seamstresses, or work in a shop, but that was working in trade. That would be a degradation, far beneath a gentlewoman to think of unless she was forced into such a situation.
In Pride and Prejudice, we have the Bennet family, who have the threat of potential eviction from their home upon the father/husband’s death, as the females could not inherit the estate. This causes Mrs Bennet to be flighty and fretful. You also have Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who, in a way, has taken on the dominant male role of ruling over her estate. Most of the time, in JAFF, we see Lady Catherine as the evil witch, but I can also see a woman struggling to keep her place, without having to have a man take charge of her life. Perhaps the freedom from being under the thumb of, first her father, then her husband, leads her to behave as she does. Does this have impact on Lady Catherine’s desire to have her daughter married to Darcy? Is the reason behind her demands for the wedding to protect her daughter from having to endure how a cruel man might treat Anne, knowing Darcy would not be cruel to Anne?
So, instead of lowering themselves to working in trade, the Dashwood ladies live in a cottage owned by a cousin, and have to survive on a minimum financial settlement after the death of their husband/father. They only have the funds for the bare necessities. Women were left at the mercy of men, and if the men in their lives were heartless, as in the case of John Dashwood, the women were made to suffer. With the Bennets, Elizabeth teases that she could tend her sister’s children, being a governess. But we have all read that being a governess or nanny was a dangerous position, especially if the father was a rake. Such positions were usually taken by widows or young ladies who had lost their father and had no brother. This left them at the mercy of their employers.
Believe it or not, even in the United States, we still see this to some extent. My mother was a stay at home mom, not working a job which paid Social Security taxes. Most of the items, such as a house or car, was purchased in my father’s name, with his credit. When my father passed away nine years ago, there was a lot of work to make the world see her as just as important as my father. She had no credit, the Social Security was from my father’s employment. In her mid 60’s, she had to nearly be reborn as herself, not as Mrs Deryl Schertz, but as Diana Schertz.
We believe we, as women of the 21st century, are equal with men, but it is not true. We see the discrimination constantly, not nearly as bad in the U.S. as in other countries, but it still exists in the U.S. I know this, as I lived through it myself.
When I went to work as a crime lab/crime scene technician, in 1993, it was relatively a new thing. Women working at a man’s job? There were two of us to begin with. The other lady was older, married, with a ten year old son. I was a single mom with a 3 year old daughter. The bosses I had discriminated, not only between male and female, but also between me, as single mom, and the other lady, who was a married mother. We had a time each day (3am to 6am) that we were subject to call out, as there was no one on duty. The other lady was not expected to come out, as her husband worked graveyard shift, and she couldn’t leave her son home alone. Yet I had to find someone to watch my daughter if I got called in to take a case.
One of my bosses told me that he was not used to dealing with strong willed, independent women, especially a single mother, and that he had no respect for me for not having a husband. But, if I had been married, and a mild mannered lady, I would have been acceptable. That attitude continued until 2007, when that boss retired.
Fortunately, because of strong willed women, who refuse to be put in a stereotypical role in life, we are seeing the changes in many countries. But there are so many women and girls in the world who are still punished for not having a man take care of them and think for them. Jane Austen, your struggles helped make a difference, and will continue to show future generations that women can have a life they wish, man or no man to protect them. It is my hope that when we celebrate the 300 year anniversary of Jane Austen’s work, we can say that this issue is no longer a problem in the world.