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Michelle Griffin

Mr. Campbell

UWRT 1104

3 April 2017

EIP Rough Draft

Jane Austen: Feminist or Fiction?

As the topic of Feminism continues to grow in America, the examination of how

Feminism began and developed in various types of mediums is important to note. The Feminist

theory developed through the influences in disciplines such as Literature, Art, and Psychology. I

will be examining Feminism through the lenses of Literary criticism, focusing on Jane Austen

and her works. The question I will pose is, How have Austens heroines influenced the ideals of

early Feminism? In addition, I will also discuss the impact it has had on todays literature.

In order to successfully analyze Jane Austens works and the impact on modern literature,

its important to know the historical context of womens position in the 19th century as well as

having a background in the history of Feminism. The Feminist movement can be categorized in

waves; the first wave emerging in the early 19th and 20th century, the second wave in the

1960s and 1980s, and the third wave extending from the 1990s to present time. Within each

wave, advocates found a focus for which they fought for.

The first wave of Feminism originally focused on gaining equal property and contract

rights, it soon became about gaining political equality. Mary Wollstonecraft started the notion of

full equal rights in the first Feminist philosophical paper, A Vindication of the Rights of

Women back in 1792 (Shmoop, 2008). Her writings gave the groundwork for suffragists such as

John Mill and Harriet Mill who pushed petitions to Parliament in 1867. Women were granted the
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right to vote in municipal elections, but not parliament elections. While the outcome was small, it

was a step in the right direction, leading suffragists to gain equal voting rights in 1928 and

allowing women to sit in the House of Elections (The Editors of Encyclopdia Britannica,


As the second wave of Feminism rolled around in the UK, women started to focus on

issues such as reproductive rights and sexual liberation. The contraceptive pill was made

available for married women in 1961. Beatrix Campbell, an English writer and activist said the

pill was revolutionary but showed that sexual liberation did not necessarily mean womens

liberation overall. However, a stride in marriage equality was made, as women could inherit

property and have financial control. Women became more prominent in the political sphere as

politicians such as Margaret Thatcher made history by becoming Prime Minister. In doing so,

she was able to open doors for women in the political world (The British Library, 2014).

The third wave is a multifaceted movement, being inclusive of all races, ethnicities,

gender background, and socioeconomic background. While the first two waves excluded

marginalized groups, the third wave seeks to raise awareness to issues faced by other groups

such as discrepancies in wage. Intersectional Feminism intertwines issues such as racism and

sexism creating a larger group of feminists who advocate for broader changes within the political

sphere, representation, and workplace. However, third wave Feminism still deals with issues

dealt with in the earlier waves such as reproductive rights. Recently, the debate over abortion has

become a controversial topic, especially with the Trump administration in place (Desmond-

Harris, 2017).

Now that background information has been presented about Feminism, I will be

discussing Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Catherine Morland. In the course of my
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analysis, I will be presenting the actions of how these heroines have exemplified Feminist

qualities and then discuss how modern authors set up their heroines to display the same traits as

well as discussing the impact Austen has made.

In Jane Austens most notable piece, Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet stands out

as the outspoken and confident protagonist. Bennet is the main figure of Feminism in terms of

Austens heroines as she provides the most opposition to societal standards. In the historical

context of the novel, it was expected of women to find husbands who could sufficiently provide

for them. Mrs. Bennet serves as the embodiment of this expectation as she continuously pushes

all of her daughters to find a husband and move out of the house. The expectation of grooming

ones self to find a husband is pushed upon the Bennet sisters, especially in Kitty and Lydia.

However, Elizabeth does not succumb to these pressures. She refuses the engagement proposals

from both Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy, despite their good standing within society and ability to

provide. Elizabeth even goes as far to say I thank you again and again for the honour you have

done me in your proposals, but to accept them is absolutely impossible. [...] Do not consider me

now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth

from her heart.'' (Austen 94). If by being an elegant female, she must falsely reject his

proposals, then she could not fulfill the societal standard and would rather be regarded as a

rational creature. Notice the word choice, by rejecting the standards, Bennet regards herself as

a creature without the elegance of acting like a proper woman.

The formal education received by women in the 19th was one centered around the

classical arts and languages. Caroline Bingley states:

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A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the

modern languages.; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air

and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions(Ch. 8)

By abiding to these standards, a woman was more likely to attract a potential suitor, and if their

talents were superior, then it made them stand out even more. However, Elizabeth does not fall

under the description Caroline Bingley outlines. She states that she is not well versed in the

piano nor is she versed in singing. She does find dancing interesting but prefers to cultivate

herself in other manners otherwise not approved by society. While Elizabeths actions are

frowned upon, she finds comfort in herself and has the confidence to carry herself in society.

Another character that has confidence within herself is Emma Woodhouse. Emma

Woodhouse finds solace through her financial status. In a conversation Woodhouse has with

Harriet Smith, she finds her discussing how she does not feel the need to marry unlike most

women. For the time, having a woman be at peace without the title of marriage was an odd one,

and so Harriet notes later on in the conversation. Harriet is used as a foil character in order to

show how the women of the time should see marriage. Woodhouse, on the other hand, feels that

marriage should only come along if theres true love between the pair. She chooses to disregard

any notion of marriage and puts her efforts towards finding love for others. While Woodhouse

finds this to be a service to others, she comes off as arrogant and abrasive at times. However, her

headstrong personality gives her the opportunity to see her value as a person and as a woman.

This is seen through her interaction with Mr. Knightley. Throughout the novel, Mr.

Knightley and Woodhouse find themselves bantering. While Mr. Knightley cares for

Woodhouse, he poses as the typical man who demands the practice of normal social conventions.

He pushes for marriage despite knowing Woodhouse is opposed to it and belittles her without
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knowing it. In an argument they have, Mr. Knightley says Emma, your infatuation about that

girl [Harriet] blinds you (Austen 58). His choice of words echoes the opinion he holds about

Emma, her decisions, and her relationships. By choosing to say infatuation, he brings down

the relationship Emma has with Harriet to the level of a young child. He also chooses to say

blind, implying that her ability to make decisions is weak. Later on, its explained that

Woodhouse feels as if her womanhood gives her better judgement against his claims within the

argument. She continues to hold her ground against Mr. Knightley until she realizes its futile to

continue arguing with him. Despite her resignation at the end, Woodhouse shows some

confidence to argue against a man.

The third protagonist to challenge norms is Catherine Morland. Out of the three books,

Northanger Abbey is the novel most frequently compared to Mary Wollstonecrafts Vindication

of the Rights of Women. Catherine, like the other protagonists, rejects female conformity. Its

stated that She was fond of boys plays, and preferred crickets not merely to dolls (Austen

13). In the same realm of Elizabeth Bennet, Morland prefers to follow her own path. She also

shows good judgement by not giving in to John Thorpes advancements. As Thorpe comes off

very abrasive, Morland clearly states that she will not accept any form of interest from him and

will not marry him for monetary reasons. Like Bennet, she does not believe in marrying purely

for good standing. The rational thinking shown by Morland emphasizes the intellectual capacity

women have but wont typically show due to societal pressures.

(rough transition- still dont know how to properly shift the focus so please excuse the


Moving forward in my analysis, Id like to focus on how scholars compare Jane Austens

portrayal of her protagonists to Mary Wollstonecrafts ideas. Wollstonecraft said I do not wish
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women to have power over men; but over themselves, in accordance with that, Austens

protagonists seem to live by that very statement (Ascarelli, 2004). All three of the protagonists

choose to abide by their own rules, disregarding any criticism that may come their way. In the

face of men, they regard themselves with the same respect another man would demand in a

conversation. By doing this, theyre able to empower themselves.

(second transition-not sure)

Secondly, reviewing how Jane Austen was able to express these Feminist ideas without

significant backlash is important to note. At the time Wollstonecraft came out with A Vindication

of The Rights of Woman, any mention of equality was unprincipled. Sinad Murphy from the

Huffington Post, praises Austen for her ability to spread these messages of Feminism while

simultaneously receiving positive reviews for her work.

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Works Cited

Ascarelli, Miriam. A Feminist Connection: Jane Austen and Mary Wollstonecraft. Jane Austen

Society of North America, Vol. 25, NO.1, Winter 2004. Accessed March 6th, 2017.

Austen, Jane. Emma. New York, NY, Spark Pub., 2003.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. London, HarperPress, 2010.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London, Routledge, 1994.

The British Library. Timeline of the Women's Liberation Movement. The British Library, The British

Library, 6 May 2014, Accessed 15 Mar. 2017.

Desmond-Harris, Jene. To understand the Women's March on Washington, you need to

understand intersectional feminism. Vox, 21 Jan. 2017, Accessed 13 Mar. 2017.

The Editors of Encyclopdia Britannica. Woman Suffrage. Encyclopdia Britannica,

Encyclopdia Britannica, inc., 17 Mar. 2017, Accessed

30 Mar. 2017.

History and Theory of Feminism. History and Theory of Feminism Accessed 1 Apr. 2017.

Murphy, Sinad. Jane Austen: Feminist In Action. Huffington Post, October 14th, 2014, Accessed

March 6th, 2017.

Shmoop Editorial Team. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Shmoop, Shmoop University, 11

Nov. 2008, Accessed 28 Mar. 2017.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. S.l., ARCTURUS PUBLISHING LTD,