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Michelle Griffin

Mr. Campbell

UWRT 1104

24 April 2017

Jane Austen: Feminist or Fiction?

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

Feminisms development in various types of mediums is important to note. The Feminist theory

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

paper will examine Feminism through the lenses of literary criticism, focusing on Jane Austen

and her works. This paper poses the question, How have Austens heroines influenced the ideals

of early Feminism? In addition, I will also discuss the impact Austen has had on todays


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

it is important to understand 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.

Initially, the first wave of Feminism focused on gaining equal property and contract

rights; but 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. Wollstonecraft

mentions in her writing that if women were granted equal rights, they could emulate the virtues

of man (Wollstonecraft, 1792). By openly stating these radical ideas, Wollstonecraft inspired

Mill to push for more rights. Eventually, women were granted the 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, 2017).

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.

In addition to sexual liberation, women became more prominent in the political sphere.

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).

Aspects of these different Feminism movements can be found in the characters Jane

AUsten creates in her novels. The actions of Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and

Catherine Morland exemplify Feminist qualities and in turn modern authors have set up their

heroines to display the same traits.

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

as the outspoken and confident protagonist. Bennets struggles relates directly to the first wave

of Feminism. She is looking for her voice in a time where marriage is dictated by the parents and

potential suitor. .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 In the

19th century, 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 societal standards, Bennet regards

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

Another standard women had to abide by was the curriculum in their education.The

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

arts and languages. Mr. Bingleys sister, Caroline Bingley states:

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 they stood 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,

Elizabeth 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,

which 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 Woodhouses opposition. He belittles her without

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 are weak. Later on, it is 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. Woodhouses confidence to argue shows she is not willing to

be docile unlike most wives. The women were property of the husband and showing contempt

was not allowed. Wives were often abused if they decided to argue or go against the wishes of

their husbands.

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. In
Northanger Abbey, it is 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


Scholars have frequently compare Jane Austens portrayal of her protagonists to Mary

Wollstonecrafts ideas. Wollstonecraft said I do not wish 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.

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. However, Austen was able

to discreetly put in her ideas of Feminism into her characters and their actions. By creating her

characters in such a manner, she could get away without criticism from writers in her time

period. Sinad Murphy from the Huffington Post, praises Austen for her ability to spread these

progressive messages of Feminism while simultaneously receiving positive reviews for her work.
Through Austens efforts, she was able to influence and pave the way for Feminism.

After Austen's literary success, she came to influence other aspiring women writers such as Mary

Anne Evans. Evans wrote similar novels to Austen, some of her famous works include Daniel

Deronda and Adam Bede. Her effort to be taken seriously stemmed out of the prejudice that

come along with being a female writer in the 19th century. Evans lover, George Henry Lewis,

went on in his essay "The Lady Novelist" discussing how Evan would not have been able to

create her stories without reading Austen's work. This shows that Austen's audacity to write and

publish her novel influenced later writers to have the confidence to pursue their dreams of


It is also important to note that Austen's work are still relevant in today's times. Her

influence in contemporary world is seen through the current adaptions such as the Lizzie Bennet

Diaries and the 1993/2005 films. As these adaptions are watched by the current generation, the

themes still speak loudly to the audience. As a result, it can still make an impression to the

audience. The audience can look towards the actions of Austen's heroines and decide to stand up

to the very same prejudices the characters must face within the story. The characters face

discrimination from men throughout the book, and with the current political situation,

discrimination against is becoming even more prevalent. The issue of silencing the voices of

women is one that is completely mirrored in the real life. We see that with the Bennet sisters,

Mrs. Bennet just wanted to go ahead and marry off the girls without consulting them first. While

Mrs. Bennets actions are not the norm now, the attitude is still present. One such example can

be seen in the real world with Trump's decision to defund Planned Parenthood. Trumps

decision to defund Planned Parenthood essentially tells Feminists that they have no control over
their body. Trump decided to defund Planned Parenthood without listening to the very

population it affects. In turn this meant for Feminism, that the opposition needs to become more

apparent. In the same manner, the situation Austens heroines find themselves parallels real life.

The modern adaptations give the current generation a better way to connect the feminist

ideas Austen was trying to convey. By doing this, her influence over Modern Feminism is still

ongoing. Austen's heroines can be seen as feminist role models women can look up to. Her

allusions to Mary Wollstonecraft's feminist ideas also play a large role in her ability to develop

her characters to become the feminist heroines. Without it, Austen wouldn't have been able to

influence the beginnings of Feminism and her current impact.

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,