Austen’s Vindication of the Rights of her Women
Is it possible for Jane Austen’s novels to be considered inherently feminist? They are filled with love stories, marriages, carriage rides and balls, transporting her readers from their everyday lives into a world of eighteenth-century romance. Indeed, many of Austen’s plots and details are of the classic Regency life, but we can still find subtle arguments for the respect and elevation of women in educational, intellectual, and perhaps, even political ways in her work. Surprisingly, these latent feminist messages are not represented through Austen’s female characters, but her male characters. Although her writing is grounded within the romantic life of the Regency era, Austen tips her hat, or rather her pen, to the great feminists of her time through the attitudes and behaviors of her men. This essay does not mean to suggest that Austen’s women are incapable of empowering themselves, but rather illustrates how her “heroes” fall on a continuum of feminism, driving them to either deny women of their social and personal privileges or uplift them as equal characters in marriage and life.
In eighteenth-century Britain, men and women were thought to naturally possess distinctive characteristics with assertiveness, intelligence and self-confidence being classified as purely male . As outspoken and independent women, Mary Crawford, Emma Woodhouse and even the dreadful Mrs. Elton, are today’s literary figures of feminism. However, we cannot use Austen’s women as projections of feminism because the temporal characterizations of a female– passive, modest and ruled by her emotions– do not align with our contemporary feminist understandings. In order to concentrate on the men as Austen’s feminist figures, we must explain further how some of her women are not explicitly linked with the feminist movement. For instance, Emma’s Mrs. Elton intrudes upon the novel with her bold and outspoken nature: “I always stand up for women,” (E, v.II, ch.18) she asserts, while also insisting to “do something… [to] bring [Jane Fairfax] forward” in life (E, v.II, ch.15). Similarly, Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford is candid and assertive: she believes that “a large income is the best recipe for happiness” and does not sway from her argument even in light of the other character’s contrary opinions (MP, v.II, ch.9). Although these instances demonstrate support for female empowerment, we must ask whether or not their defenses of women’s rights are more selfish rather than feminist. Mrs. Elton views Jane as her project and coerces her out of her comfort zone, which illustrates a more extreme version of Emma’s and Harriet’s relationship; and Mary cares only about herself. Therefore, we question their “empowerment” because they do not align with my definition of feminism: addressing gender equality by intellectually and emotionally elevating both men and women of all levels from their perceived generalizations.
Austen thus establishes this definition through her male characters in order to subtly convey her own feminist inclinations to the readers. Scholars believe that Austen would have been familiar with Mary Wollstonecraft’s writing on how women are deserving of the same fundamental rights as men in terms of education and roles outside their marriages. However, because women such as Wollstonecraft were not supposed to act in this outspoken way, Austen uses her men to showcase a feminist spectrum of both oppressive and uplifting sentiments. In fact, Wollstonecraft was ridiculed for her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman  highlighting how a bold woman’s opinion is not taken as seriously nor regarded as valuable as a man’s. Yet, in his 1796 novel Man As He is Not, Robert Bage asserts that women have “too little liberty of mind,” and he acknowledged that Wollstonecraft’s work is written in vain . This is one case of a well-respected man who recognizes the detrimental impacts of a patriarchal society on women, and the example Austen follows to effectively and delicately manifest an eighteenth-century feminist movement in her male characters.
Austen asserts a difference between broadening and changing a women’s intellectual and emotional perspectives through Mr. Knightley’s and Edmund Bertram’s respective interactions. Mr. Knightley innately knows that Emma has kind and compassionate qualities, which have not necessarily blossomed because her mother is gone, and her father failed at developing them. Yet, instead of confronting Emma in a belittling manner, Mr. Knightley, observant and laudable, allows her to come into her own self by providing Emma with insights about herself. For example, when Emma reflects about why she does not like Jane Fairfax, Mr. Knightley’s comment that Emma sees in Jane “the really accomplished young woman, which she want[s] to be thought herself” becomes interwoven in her consciousness (E, v.II, ch.2). This self-reflection demonstrates a distinct difference in character from when we first meet Emma: her shallow personality is emphasized when Mr. Knightley disapproves of how Harriet Smith will add to Emma’s vanity with “hourly flattery” (E, v.I, ch.5). To counter this flattery and praise, which the other characters also give her, Mr. Knightley frequently engages in debates with Emma. Regarding Harriet, Mr. Knightley provides multiple examples about class, rank and birthright to create a case about how Emma is ruining Harriet’s chance at a respectable marriage with Mr. Martin by convincing Harriet to pursue Mr. Elton. He urges Emma to simply “think” more deeply about Harriet’s position, resulting in one of her first instances of not feeling “entirely convinced that her opinions were right” (E, v.I, ch.8). This portrays how Mr. Knightley sees Emma– as he does with all women in the novel– as being on the same level as him in terms of intellectual capabilities. Mr. Knightley pays attention to Jane Fairfax, speaking with her on an equal level and this “interest he takes in her” is admired by Mrs. Weston (E, v.II, ch.8). Thus, if we view his conversations with Emma as an equal platform to challenge her viewpoints, as opposed to undermining them, Mr. Knightley tries to bring about sympathy in her character. In Adam Smith’s words, to wholly develop empathy for people, we must first “place ourselves in [their] situation[s]” in order to imagine their feelings and properly judge their character . In the moment when Mr. Knightley confesses his love for Emma, she does not turn her thoughts to her own happiness, but rather to how Harriet will feel after she learns Emma led her “astray” (E, v.III, ch.13). Overall, Mr. Knightley’s influence upon Emma embodies sympathy because he has succeeded in beginning to broaden her point of view of a world outside Hartfield.
On the other hand, Edmund Bertram attempts to change Mary Crawford’s points of view in order for him to accept her as a wife. Unlike Mr. Knightley, who understands Emma’s upbringing and gently introduces her to sympathetic ideas, Edmund does not try to place himself in Mary’s situation, not does he try to develop and better her morals. For example, the two argue over the importance of the church: Mary opposes such strict dogma, while Edmund, pious and sensible, prepares to become a clergyman. Edmund’s side of the debate is riddled with indirect comments about women. He blames Mary’s “irrational” thoughts about the church on her “lively mind,” proposing that her opinions cannot be taken seriously because, as a woman, her ideas are merely amusing (MP. v.I, ch.9). Edmund’s dichotomous point of view exemplifies eighteenth-century perceptions of what makes up a man and woman: he believes that women should act within the lines of femininity. When Mary becomes outspoken about her uncle, Edmund can only justify this as a slight deterrence from her “feminine” qualities, implying that Mary is masculine for being so free-spoken (MP, v.I, ch.7). Thus, Edmund prolongs this pattern of thought that only when he can “convince Miss Crawford” of adopting his attitudes towards the church among other things, will she be suitable for him to marry (MP, v.I, ch.9). Despite not being able to change Mary’s disposition, Edmund cannot even comprehend a marriage with a woman who does not wholly align with his opinions. The narrator evokes this notion through the question: “Did [Mary] love [Edmund] well enough to forego what had used to be essential points”– her “decided preference of London life” and liberated thoughts (MP, v.II, ch.8). The assumption that the man will retain his independence and choices within marriage is what leads Edmund to marry Fanny Price over Mary Crawford. In fact, Fanny fits effortlessly in Edmund’s definition of the “perfect model of a woman” (MP, v.III, ch.4) because she herself believes women “should adopt the opinions of the man she love[s] and respect[s] as her own” (MP, v.III, ch.6). Austen weaves similar prejudiced ideas into Fanny’s mind to showcase how Edmund’s opinions and societal norms of how a woman should act might have influenced Fanny from a young age. Edmund might believe he is uplifting Mary from her “lively” mind into a more appropriate lifestyle for a woman; however, he is actually debasing her perspective as a woman, while also influencing the smitten Fanny to accept his viewpoints.
Although readers may celebrate Edmund and Fanny’s union, Austen hints that their marriage success is due to them being so alike, restricting both their abilities to grow as individuals and develop new ideas. Edmund persuades himself that Fanny’s “warm and sisterly regard for him [will] be foundation enough for wedded love” (MP, v.III, ch.17), but just as a young sister copies her older brother in admiration, Fanny will agree with anything Edmund says. Thus, Austen highlights the importance of stimulating conversation and multiple, often opposing, ideas to develop a woman’s educational capabilities. The exemplar Mr. Knightley even attests to this by remarking that Jane Fairfax has “not the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife” (E, v.II, ch.15). The most successful relationships are between those individuals who are not only open with others, but also transparent about themselves, their faults and their areas of growth. In Northanger Abbey, John Thorpe is utterly self-centered, with a closed temper that affects Catherine Morland’s own perception of the world. Naïve and impressionable, Catherine is influenced by Thorpe’s restrictive opinions about novels, and applies his attitudes to the general population of men. Thorpe believes novels are “all so full of nonsense” and attempts to block their conversation about reading by belittling Catherine’s personal thoughts about Udolpho and discouraging her to read Camilla based on his ill-informed thoughts (NA, v.I, ch.7). Additionally, the only way Thorpe tries to emotionally engage with Catherine is through his sister. Isabella Thorpe is the mode to inform Catherine that Thorpe regards her as the “most charming girl in the world” (NA, v.I, ch.7), which does not resonate with her as much as a conversation about novels might. Unfortunately, Catherine transfers Thorpe’s opinions to those of hero Henry Tilney: she assuredly assumes that Henry does not read novels because they are not “clever enough” for a gentleman like himself, signifying how Thorpe has caused her to dampen her own intellect as a woman. However, Henry replies that any gentleman or lady who has not read a good novel “must be intolerably stupid,” (NA, v.I, ch.14) reverting the stereotype of men Catherine came to assume of him. One can also imagine Austen playfully writing this line as a subtle jab at Thorpe, and all the other people during her lifetime who did not respect how women benefit from reading and education. Henry banters with Catherine over her use of the word “nice,” suggesting his playful yet educational intentions to develop Catherine’s intellect through her language (NA, v.I, ch.14). Thus, Austen develops the characters of Henry and Thorpe as competing foils for each other to show the lasting impacts they have on the education of women. In frustration over Thorpe’s arrogance, Austen’s readers turn to Henry as the man to guide young Catherine through life. Henry succeeds when he gently scolds Catherine’s ignorance, and she finally learns to open “her eyes to the extravagance of her latest fantasies” herself (NA, v.I, ch.10).
Austen also uses Henry Tilney to revert stereotypes about the perceived characteristics of men and women and advocate for those women, such as Wollstonecraft, who do not align within the distinct female categorizations. For example, from his very first interaction with Catherine, Henry is not afraid to engage with typically “female” things. He acknowledges that writing letters is “peculiarly female,” this ironic adjective first hinting at Austen’s own thoughts on the gendered matter, while also showing Henry’s respect for the educational skills some women already possess (NA, v.I, ch.3). Henry also admits an eye for fashion by always buying his “own cravats” and assisting his sister with her “choice of a gown” (NA, v.I, ch.3). Just as Mrs. Weston appreciates Mr. Knightley’s mutual respect of Jane Fairfax in Emma, here, Mrs. Allen appreciates Henry’s taste and concern for women’s fashion, emphasizing how Austen’s women can feel empowered by a man’s words or care. The readers see how this interaction actually alters Catherine’s point of view about men and fashion: she almost labels Henry as “strange,” which shows how anti-feminist beliefs can also intrude upon women’s thoughts. Instead, Catherine learns that is acceptable to sway from traditional gender roles, reinforcing Henry’s indirect and elevating impact upon her.
Mr. Knightley also demonstrates his ability to deviate from male stereotypes of the time, which presents him to Austen’s readers as a gallant man for respecting Emma. Upon deciding what will happen to Mr. Woodhouse, Emma insists that she will never “quit… her dear father,” implying she will not move to Donwell Abbey to be with Mr. Knightley (E, v.III, ch.15). Austen records Mr. Knightley’s thought process upon hearing this, leading the readers from his assessment of the possible options– taking Mr. Woodhouse from Hartfield ought not to even be attempted!– to simply deciding to compromise and move in with Emma and her father. The importance of compromise is consequently illustrated as an aspect of feminism because it shows how both men and women can benefit from mutual respect and consideration: Mr. Knightley is able to marry Emma without her constantly worrying about her father, and Emma is able to be with both the man who raised her and the man with whom she is in love. In contrast, one interpretation of this example frames Mr. Woodhouse in an anti-feminist light. Although Emma chooses to be with her father herself, Mr. Woodhouse holds traditional patriarchal opinions throughout the novel, which may have influenced some of Emma’s thinking. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Mr. Woodhouse had still not “reconciled to his own daughter’s marrying” even though Isabella Woodhouse married John Knightley years ago and now has her own family (E, v.I, ch.1). Moreover, Mr. Woodhouse cannot let go of his perception of Mrs. Weston as “Miss Taylor,” even when she gets married and moves away from Hartfield. With patriarchal norms engrained in his mindset, Mr. Woodhouse continues to consider Miss Taylor as one of the females living under his coverture: a legal and social norm where the man “covers” and protects the women, children and servants living under his household. Mr. Woodhouse affirms this male stereotype, and even the narrator comments upon how he has never been able to “suppose that other people could feel differently from himself” (E, v.I, ch.1). Emma’s own blindness of the world may have indeed stemmed from her father’s mild selfishness; however, she tries to persuade Mr. Woodhouse to see the marriage opportunity through Miss Taylor’s eyes. This suggests that Emma’s attitudes are not necessarily grounded in her father’s beliefs, and she takes it upon herself to try and uplift some of her father’s outdated perspectives.
Despite having demonstrated how Austen’s heroines cannot be our figures of literary feminism, this example with Emma and Mr. Woodhouse shows how, at times, the female characters can conjure effective and appropriate forms of feminism that still align with my definition. Emma uplifts Harriet through friendship and an education regarding society, while concurrently helping Mr. Knightley to see Harriet as something more than just a silly little girl with no known parentage. When Harriet is snubbed by Mr. Elton at the ball– “Miss Smith!” “My dancing days are over” (E, v.III, ch.2) – Mr. Knightley nobly steps up to be her partner. In a complete reversal of attitude, Mr. Knightley’s gesture demonstrates how he has grown from simply viewing Harriet through a lens of status as Mr. Elton does, because Emma, too, sees Harriet as something more. Emma also helps Mr. Knightley to mature emotionally. Despite her blunder in believing Mr. Knightley to be in love with Harriet, Emma encourages Mr. Knightley to share his feelings with her, and she will “tell him exactly what [she] thinks” (E, v.III, ch.13). In this instance, Emma puts Mr. Knightley’s feelings ahead of her own, simultaneously signifying how he has made her into a more sympathetic person and she is trying to develop his emotions. Another heroine who personifies my definition of feminism is Persuasion’s Anne Elliot. In such a quiet manner, Anne helps her family, while also staying true to herself: during her eight-year separation with Captain Frederick Wentworth, Anne rejected a proposal from Charles Musgrove (P, v.I, ch.10), and strayed free from any more “persuasion” that could have been to her detriment. Anne looks towards Mrs. Croft as an inspirational source of independence and happiness, and scholars often believe that Austen sets up the Croft’s marriage as the possible future of Anne and Captain Wentworth, and the ideal relationship for all her characters to follow.
Admiral Croft and Mrs. Croft share a special marriage that is not simply about intimacy and companionship, but one that makes them both better people. Through their mutually introspective, conversational and emotional connections, Austen’s final published novel leaves her readers with an optimistic and hopeful view of marriage. Austen uses a carriage riding metaphor to reveal how the Crofts are equal beings in marriage: Admiral Croft drives the carriage, but in moments when he does not notice a “post,” or a danger ahead, Mrs. Croft “coolly gives the reins a better direction herself” (P, v.I, ch.10). This symbol for a healthy relationship epitomizes feminism because both the husband and the wife are supporting one another by learning about how they can align their strengths and weaknesses to uplift the other partner. Additionally, despite his roles as both an admiral and the head of his household, Admiral Croft allows Mrs. Croft to make her own choices about her life. For example, Mrs. Croft chooses to go to sea with her husband because they both wanted to be with each other. As she describes her “fifteen years” (P, v.I, ch.8) crossing the Atlantic Ocean and seeing the world from a ship, Austen’s readers imagine a pioneering woman, practically fighting in battle alongside her husband, rather than hiding in a cabin sipping tea and reading. Yet, we only glimpse this perception of Mrs. Croft because she is so open and animated; no man has subdued her from becoming her true self. Readers dive deeper into their tender relationship upon learning that Admiral Croft calls Mrs. Croft by her Christian name, “Sophia,” and sometimes even “Sophy,” in public (P, v.I, ch.8, ch.10). The Admiral’s endearing emotional support avows him as a feminist because he truly sees Mrs. Croft as an equal in marriage and a counterpart in life. Although this essay focuses on Austen’s males, the Crofts, as a collective unit, also represent feminism because both parties are continually learning from and bettering each other.
Alongside this Croft example, Austen gives her readers further glimpses into how Anne’s and Captain Wentworth’s marriage may function in the future. Similar to how Mr. Knightley nonchalantly helps Emma grow, the Captain quietly makes Anne’s life better through his kind observations and actions. For instance, when no one else assists Anne with the mischievous Musgrove children, Captain Wentworth steps in and simply helps her. Anne is overwhelmed by this small gesture and Austen narrates the moment to gently reveal Anne’s appreciation of his silent manner and overall kindness (P, v.I, ch.9). During an outing, Captain Wentworth notices that Anne is tired and “without saying a word… quietly oblige[s] her to be assisted into the carriage” (P, v.I, ch.10). Without hesitation, nor a great fuss, Captain Wentworth is perceptive of Anne’s needs, allowing her to be uplifted without making Anne feel like she is indebted to him for his help. Although readers can only speculate about their future relationship, we can be certain it is one of loving trust and shared admiration. Just as the carriage ride represents the Croft’s marriage, “one, quick conscious look” symbolizes Anne’s and Wentworth’s relationship because the use sight to be perceptive and responsive of each other (P, v.II, ch.11).
Although we have distinguished between the selfish women, such as Mary Crawford and Mrs. Elton, and the admirable feminists, such as Mrs. Croft and Anne Elliot, Austen respectively aligns the women with men who do not view them as equal, and men who want to uplift them. The readers may wonder if Austen is telling us that only woman who demonstrate the preferred feminist qualities of the eighteenth-century, or appropriate feminism, are valued as equals. We question if these women only become empowered because they are supported and encouraged by the men surrounding them. I believe that Austen truly respected women, such as Wollstonecraft, for their activism and outspokenness; however, in order to be respected as a writer herself and still convey her feminist leanings to Britain, Austen had to be strategic. Thus, by framing certain men as irritating and stubborn, and others as astute and caring, she is able to persuade her readers, especially her male audiences, to engage in actions similar to her true heroes.
Essentially, whether it be from an intellectual, educational or emotional foundation, Austen’s male characters, who do choose to uplift women, create long-lasting and empowering relationships, which extend across time and far beyond the pages in which they are written. Scholars and Austen fanatics alike have celebrated her female creations in light of contemporary feminism, but by now illustrating how her men come forward as feminists, Austen provides more insight into her personal inclinations, and those of men, during the Regency era. As well as striving to be as independent as Mary Crawford, or as self-assured as Emma Woodhouse, all readers should aim to instill Mr. Knightley’s compassion, Henry Tilney’s intellect, Admiral Croft’s support and Captain Wentworth’s observation, into all of their interactions with men and women from different backgrounds. Austen realized the importance of the presence of men in the feminist movement, and by rejecting the failures of Edmund Bertram, Mr. Woodhouse, John Thorpe and many other men, we, too, can learn how to earnestly raise and consider women as equals.
Essay written by Mimi Thompson in Fall 2018 for coursework as part of "Jane Austen's Britain"
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Smith, Adam. The Theory of Modern Sentiments. 1759.
Tomaselli, Sylvana. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 19th August 2016. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/wollstonecraft/#Rep.