What were the traditional views of women?
What did the women say?
So did Austen read these women?
But what does she say in her writings?
For as far as we care to go back we have the question:
What is the nature of women?
This is never agreed upon -- not even today!
According to the accepted tradition in Austen's England, women belonged
in the private sector. They were wives, mothers, housekeepers, domestic
servants and maiden aunts.
According to most of Austen's contemporaries, men and women were naturally different in capacity.
Women were, by nature:
Hence, Miss Taylor is gone and we have only Mrs. Weston and throughout
the works we hear references to "Mrs. John" and "Mrs. Charles."
This attitude was wonderfully summed up by Sir George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, in his Advice To A Daughter (1688):
This is far before Austen, but according to Lawrence Stone in his THE FAMILY, SEX AND MARRIAGE IN ENGLAND 1500-1800, Lord Halifax's Advice to a Daughter...
But if in this it lieth under any disadvantage, you are more than recompensed by having the honour of families in your keeping...this power the world hath lodged in you can hardly fail to restrain the severity of an ill husband and to improve the kindness and esteem of a good one. This being so, remember that next to the danger of committing the fault yourself the greatest is that of seeing it in your husband. Do not seem to look or hear that way: if he is a man of sense he will reclaim himself, the folly of it is of itself sufficient to cure him; if he is not so, he will be provoked but not reformed. To expostulate in these cases looketh like declaring war, and preparing reprisals, which to a thinking husband would be a dangerous reflection. Besides...such an indecent complaint makes a wife more ridiculous than the injury that provoketh her to it
You must first lay it down for a foundation in general, that there is inequality in the sexes, and that for the better economy of the world the men, who were to be the lawgivers, had the larger share of reason bestowed upon them; by which means your sex is the better prepared for the compliance that is necessary for the better performance of those duties which seem to be most properly assigned to it. This looks a little uncourtly at the first appearance, but upon examination it will be found that Nature is so far from being unjust to you that she is partial on your side...You have more strength in your looks than we have in our laws, and more power by your tears than we have by our arguments.
There was no formal, organized feminist movement at this period, but there were "voices in the wilderness."¨. I've some names to look at: Aphra Behn and Delariviere Manley, also Catherine Trotter, and Elisabeth Elsob (a linguist). But here I want to point out
Two major voices in opposition
Mary Astell¡Xabout 100 years earlier than Austen
An influential writer who argued for allowing women to join "colleges" that were separated from men (more like a Roman Catholic convent but Anglican in nature) in order for them to be educated in the same materials as men.
Although she's much earlier than Austen, her ideas hadn't gone away.
Her The Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) complemented as well as challenged Paine¡¦s Vindication of the Rights of Men (1791). She wanted women to be free to have careers (hence be educated) and wanted to do away with marriage, which she saw as legalized prostitution. She saw women as whole beings, uniting the qualities society saw as polarized: rationality and feeling, career and motherhood.
Austen herself was very well read, but we don't have any proof she read
these to writers. But going through a list of the allusions to other authors
sprinkled throughout her own writings¡Xletters and poetry included¡Xone
is struck with the volume of her reading. She appeared well-versed in the
novelists of her time (and slightly beforehand) including Richardson, Defoe,
Inchbald, Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth as well as the more popular poets
Cowper, Byron, Scott. There are a number of plays included, mostly from
the Restoration period and the 18th century, but of course Shakespeare
(whom, she says, is "a part of an Englishman's constitution" in Mansfield
Park.) She has a good sprinkling of contemporary history as well. Not
surprising, there are a number of references to Samuel Johnson. One can
see his rational writing appealing to Austen.
Who are the good women in Austen?
Emma Woodhouse (she grows to it with the help of those around her)
women in Austen?
Who are basically useless?
Fanny Dashwood (Mrs. John)
(younger women who are able to go under the guidance of an elder sister/husband)
Mary and Catherine Bennett
Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove
At first glance:
There is no answer!
Austen was of course, a woman of her time, who definitely saw women
as living in a different sphere from men. We see Anne Elliot agreeing that
there is a difference between men and women. But she wanted to see women
develop themselves to their fullest ability, and not become the silly creatures
that Wollstonecraft describes in her writings.
Persuasion is a unique book in many ways. But it is her last
book, and I think her most vocal statement on the nature of women. Maybe
because Anne Elliot is older than most Austen heroines (she's 27).
We see a rejection of male values:
In a pivotal scene in Persuasion we see Anne Elliot and Captain
Harding discussing the nature of women and men, and Harding offers to bring
in authors from the past as authorities, and he notes, before she can,
"perhaps you will say, these were all written by men."
In Persuasion we see an admirable woman who openly states the
case that women are strong rational creatures. This is Mrs. Croft, who
has spent much of her married life living aboard ships with her husband.
When her brother, Capt. Wentworth, makes some idle remarks about women
being too genteel for on board ship, she roundly argues with him in front
of company. First she tells him that he's talking idly then she goes on
While with her husband, she feared nothing and the only time she fancied
herself unwell was when she was left on shore with her husband far
Austen doesn't say much about women's formal education, but women exhibit intellectual persuits.
The "good" women are well read and accomplished, and their accomplishments are the external manifestation of internal development:
In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy makes the remark that besides the accomplishments, a woman "must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading".
And Austen makes fun of the opposite opinion in Northanger Abbey
with her mock-editorial comment (on Catherine Morland during the walk from
Bath to Beechen Cliff) that:
The advantages of folly in a beautiful girl have already been set forth
by the capital pen of a sister author [Fanny Burney in Camilla]; -- and
to her treatment of the subject I will only add in justice to men, that
though to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females
is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of
them too reasonable and too well-informed themselves to desire anything
more in woman than ignorance."