Women Today Compared With Women Of The 18th Century Essay …

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How did the social role of women change from 18th century to 19th century?I need to talk about the changes that occurred with in the women in Britain.

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With regard to women in the 18th and 19th centuries in England, significant changes took place with the advent of the Industrial Revolution . At this time, people living in the country moved to the cities where work would be more readily available.

In terms of women, prior to the Industrial Revolution, all women were subservient to men.

In the middle classes, women were not educated outside of the home—along with reading and writing, they were…

With regard to women in the 18th and 19th centuries in England, significant changes took place with the advent of the Industrial Revolution . At this time, people living in the country moved to the cities where work would be more readily available.

In terms of women, prior to the Industrial Revolution, all women were subservient to men.

In the middle classes, women were not educated outside of the home—along with reading and writing, they were expected to learn things such as managing a household, raising children, embroidery, music, art, and perhaps languages. Young men were educated in more “significant” areas such as history, literature, etc. A woman owned nothing: her possessions upon marriage became her husband’s. Women really had no rights . They were seen as chattel—possessions.

For the working class woman, life was very hard until the day she died— working tirelessly at home and/or in factories.

There were a few exceptional women who transcended social restrictions: Mary Wollstonecraft (mother to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein) published a book in the 18th Century entitled A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which created quite an uproar, and offered women a glimpse of what life would be like if they had rights.

Many years before, with the end of feudalism, the poor had begun carving out a better life—one significant way was in raising sheep (for example); wool from England was in much more demand (as it was cheaper) than imported wool. This saw the beginning of an emerging middle class. Though frowned upon by “blue bloods” (those of aristocratic blood), the emerging middle class changed the face of Britain forever—climbing the social ladder with substantial wealth that even some members of the aristocracy did not enjoy. With this economic change, women started to realize greater freedoms. Some women became novelists. Women of the lower classes (with this new emerging class) were able to find decent work as maids and governesses, serving the new middle class.

The  status of  women in the Victoria Era is often seen as an illustration of the striking discrepancy between the nation’s power and richness and what many, then and now, consider its appalling social conditions.

Working class women and women of the upper classes were now being educated more widely.

In the early and mid 19th century the churches provided some schools. After 1870 the state provided them.

Then, women were allowed to attend universities (specifically Oxford) in the late 19th Century, but degrees were not granted until the early 1920s.

There were many famous women in the 19th century. … Florence Nightingale and  Mary Seacole …reformed nursing.

Elizabeth Fry was deeply involved in prison reform.

The invention of typewriters and phones in the 19th Century would provide more work for poor but educated women.

In 1882, women were finally able to possess their own wealth and property. Divorce was legalized in 1857, though it was rare. Women were allowed to leave the home to support charitable endeavors: something approved by society-at-large.

The late 19th saw the first female doctors (the first, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was also the first female mayor); Lillian Murray was the first dentist.

In 1869 John Stuart Mill published his book The Subjection of Women, which demanded equal rights for women.

The Feminist movement in Britain began in the 19th Century. It is still active there today.

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Persuasions
#10, 1988  
                                                                                                         Pages
76-82

 

�Woman�s Place� in Jane Austen�s England

1770-1820

 

BARBARA W. SWORDS

Elmhurst, Illinois

 

What was �woman�s place� in the actual world in which Jane Austen set
her novels � the world of southern agricultural England of this period, the
world centred on the country village and the lives of small landowning and
professional families?

Some social historians have depicted �woman�s place�
as very low, indeed: with few legal and economic rights or even receiving
little respect, women can be seen as oppressed victims of a patriarchal
society, subordinate first to their fathers and, then, to their husbands who
had, of course, been selected by their fathers; some late eighteenth century
authors of advice to girls and young women regarded women�s minds as limited in
reason and not to be overtaxed with serious, intellectual education.Dr. John Gregory, writing in 1774, said:
�Men have a larger share of reason bestowed on them.�And, David Monaghan, writing in our time, says, �Women can rarely
have been held in lower esteem than they were at the end of the 18th century.�

As readers, we see that woman�s role, her
�place,� is a central subject in the Austen novels; as David Spring asserts,
�Jane Austen�s major preoccupation was the fate of women in the society of her
time.�In her novels, the pictures of
women and their lives are very different from the pictures painted of women as
suppressed, passive victims of their society.
Jane Austen�s heroines are intelligent; they exercise reason; they are
held in high esteem by the men whom they love, who love them, and whom they
marry.

We wonder then, if Jane Austen represents �woman�s
place� idealistically or realistically; we wonder if her attitude toward
�woman�s place� is conservative � seeking to slow the social changes of this
revolutionary period � or radically feminist �seeking to revolutionize the
status of women � or romantic � seeking to idealize love and marriage.

To find answers to our queries, we must look in such
places as letters, conduct books, novels, comments quoted in biographies,
historical documents, and the like � for traditional histories of this period
tell little about the lives of women.
As David Spring points out, what women did and thought has generally
been left for men to record, and Anne Elliot similarly observes, �The pen has
been in their hands.�We hope that a
systematic history of women in eighteenth century England will soon be
forthcoming.

In this essay I would like to present some of what
it is possible to discover about the actual status of women during Jane
Austen�s time and to consider how these data correspond to Jane Austen�s
representation of �woman�s place.�

What do we know about woman�s legal place?Certainly it was limited, for, of course, a
woman could not hold public office or vote.
Prior to marriage, a woman�s legal protection and status were vested in
her father, but after marriage, her legal status �disappeared�; the Law of
Coverture at this time made it clear that �the very being or legal existence of
a woman is suspended during marriage � or at least incorporated and
consolidated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection and cover
she performs everything.�Her children,
her residence, her way of life were completely under her husband�s legal
control.If she were widowed, she had
no control over her children unless her husband had named her as guardian; if
she were separated from her husband, she was disgraced in the public eye and
her husband had legal possession of the children.It was not until 1839 that a new law allowed a separated or
divorced woman to sue for custody of her children under seven years of age and
for visiting rights to her older children.

A 1770 statute passed by Parliament reveals some of
the attitudes toward women at this time:

 

All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree,
whether virgin maid or widow, that shall from and after such Act impose upon,
seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty�s subjects by means of
scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool,
ironstays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty
of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanors, and that the
marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.

 

A widely held opinion about women�s legal rights was expressed by Dr.
Samuel Johnson, renowned man of letters and much admired by Jane Austen as
well; he said: �Nature has given women so much power that the law has wisely
given them little.�

English common law left a woman very little economic
freedom, for it ruled that whatever property a woman owned before marriage or
might receive thereafter automatically became her husband�s.Thus, daughters of wealthy fathers
frequently became prey of fortune-seeking men, and daughters of fathers of
limited fortunes often had difficulty finding husbands at all.The laws of inheritance further limited
women�s economic freedom for they often excluded settlement of property on
women.The entail of Mr. Bennet�s estate
and the economic plight of the Dashwoods are instances in the Austen novels of
the operation of these laws of inheritance.

A woman�s economic independence was further
restricted because of the stigma attached to a woman who earned money through
working.For instance, Dr. Johnson
thought that portrait painting by women was �indelicate.�An unmarried woman could become a governess,
but this was a position beneath the social rank and status of middle and upper
class young women and was thus regarded as humiliating.Jane Fairfax suffers over the possibility
that she must become a governess.Some
unmarried women conducted girls� schools, but most women lacked sufficient
education to fill this or other professions.
By the late eighteenth century even occupations which had been filled by
lower middle class women were disappearing � fewer women took part in their
husbands� businesses or conducted small businesses of their own, such as
stationers, print and book shops, dressmaking and millinery establishments.Even the profession of midwife was being
supplanted by that of the male obstetrician.
Katherine Rogers, in her book, Feminism in Eighteenth Century England,
points out that women were not only deprived of their fair share of inherited
wealth and disabled from supporting themselves because occupations and
professions open to them were very limited, but also in England there was no
possible life in a convent for a woman who wished to choose a religious life
instead of marriage, as did many women in continental countries.

However, writing as a profession for women developed
steadily during the eighteenth century.
Some women wrote scholarly works and translations, but overwhelmingly,
women writers wrote novels.As the
reading public enlarged and novels increased in popularity, some women writers
made independent livings, and in some cases, earned substantial amounts of
money.For Jane Austen, as the daughter
of clergyman, there would have been no possibility of her owning a small
business � or being a midwife � but it was possible for her to become a
professional writer of fiction � and, respectably, from this work to earn
money, albeit, a very small amount.

For most women, marriage was the only real choice in
order to have economic security and a respectable, fulfilling life; her place
as a woman was determined by her status as a wife, legally and economically
subservient to her husband.In Jane
Austen�s novels, as well, we find that marriage is the only real choice to
insure a woman�s place, her happiness, and her successful future.

What were the views of marriage in Jane Austen�s
England?What were the essential
concerns involved in choosing a spouse?
What was considered the proper basis for marriage itself?And to what extent do the patterns of happy
marriages in the novels correspond to the actual practices and attitudes of
this period?

Traditionally, marriage had been regarded as an
alliance between families, as a pairing on the basis of wealth or birth, or as
an arrangement made by parents without regard to the personal preferences of
the young woman and the young man � especially without regard to the feelings
of the young woman.However, in the
latter part of the eighteenth century � certainly in Jane Austen�s England �
radical changes in attitudes toward marriage were occurring.Marriage was coming to be regarded as a
lifetime, intimate, happy companionship based upon love, esteem, and
compatibility, and both woman and man were to have voice in choosing the
spouse.As positive as this new attitude
seems, however, the woman was still subordinate to her husband legally and
economically, and now as Rogers emphasizes, the woman was further bound to her
husband by love as well.

The happy marriages with which Jane Austen�s novels
conclude correspond, indeed, to these new models of proper marriage: Catherine
and Henry; Marianne and Colonel Brandon, Elinor and Edward; Elizabeth and
Darcy; Fanny and Edmund; Emma and Mr. Knightley; and Anne and Captain
Wentworth.In each marriage, love,
esteem, compatibility and mutuality, capability and respect � and equality �
are essentials to be discovered during courtship and strengthened throughout
life.Though some readers of the Austen
novels have felt that these happy marriages give the novels romantic and
unsatisfying Cinderella endings and thus weaken Austen�s realistic mode of
story telling, rather, we now understand that these marriages represent the
views of her society � its new and advanced ideas about marriage.

The kind of education that girls and young women
needed to carry out successfully the role of wife was a controversial topic in
Jane Austen�s England.Much was written
on all sides of the question; from conduct books setting forth the
accomplishments and graces the perfect young lady must possess in order to
capture a future husband to the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, who argued
forcefully for improved education as one of the rights of woman.

Most writers held that girls of the middle and upper
classes had intellectual abilities that were not only different from but also
greatly inferior to those of boys and men.
It was believed that women were incapable of serious study, that the
study of philosophy, science, mathematics, and classical languages would overtax
the limited female intellect.Also, for
young women to become Learned Ladies of any kind � metaphysicians, historians,
speculative philosophers � would cause them �to lose in softness what they gain
in force.�Frequently, these writers
asserted that �women�s minds do not much generalize ideas.�

If girls and women did not have educable
intellects, what qualities were they to develop to be perfect young ladies and
thus good wives?Dr. Gregory, in his Letters
to His Daughters
, wrote: �One of the chief beauties in a female character
is a modest reserve, that retiring delicacy which avoids the public eye and is
disconcerted even at the gaze of admiration.�
He and Dr. Thomas Gisborne held that women can thus �soften men�s hearts
and improve their manners� and �diffuse throughout the family circle the
enlivening smile of cheerfulness.�

However, other writers of this period of the
Enlightenment of the eighteenth century took different views of the proper
education for girls and young women.
They asserted that men and women were equally endowed by Providence with
reason and moral nature and capacity.
Thus, girls and women must be taught to exercise their reason � must be
taught to think � and must be educated to make sound moral judgements.

How was a proper education to be achieved?Almost all thinkers on the questions of
women�s nature and roles wished women to acquire some solid education, and they
were critical of the shallow education girls were commonly offered.The usual pattern of education was that first
the girl was taught at home by her mother � in Northanger Abbey, we see
Catherine Morland�s mother so engaged � then, the girl either attended a
boarding school, as Jane and Cassandra Austen did, or were taught at home by a
governess, as was Emma Woodhouse.In
either case, a limited course of studies, conducted mainly by rote learning,
was offered: drawing, dancing, piano playing, penmanship, grammar, spelling,
elementary arithmetic, sometimes French.
These studies were thought to be sufficient to provide a girl with the
accomplishments necessary to attract a suitable husband.Even these shallow studies were frequently
weakened by the spread of theories of permissive education in the late
eighteenth century.Some girls brought
up permissively by their nurses and governesses were not taught to control
their tempers and tongues � let alone how to use their minds; the Bertram
daughters in Mansfield Park reveal the results of such poor education.

How was a girl at this time to acquire a more
substantial education?Primarily
through continuous, serious reading.If
a girl had a learned father or brother � and consequently, a good library in
the home � a wide range of significant books and conversation about them were
available to her.A few girls even
learned Greek and Latin at home from their fathers and brothers.By the late eighteenth century, women�s
social life was broadening and was, also, thus, educational as women
participated in dinner parties, assemblies, and the like where it was possible
to converse with better educated men on an equal basis.But there were for girls no public schools,
like Winchester or Eton, or universities, like Oxford and Cambridge, as there
were for boys.Therefore, each girl and
young woman had to seek and carry out her own education.In Pride and Prejudice, when Lady
Catherine expresses horror that Elizabeth and her sisters did not have a
governess to educate them at home � �without a governess you must have been
neglected� � Elizabeth replies, �Compared with some families, I believe we
were; but such of us as wished to learn, never wanted the means.We were always encouraged to read, and had
all the masters that were necessary.
Those who chose to be idle certainly might.�

A �proper� education, although variously defined,
was necessary for a young woman in Jane Austen�s England so that she could
assume her role in the society.
Opportunities for self-assertion � for an independent life � were
severely restricted, but within the home and within the social community, a woman
exerted considerable influence, not only in educating her small children and
older daughters and in improving the manners and sensitivity of her husband,
but also in refining and conserving the morality of the community.The writer Hannah More said, �To women moral
excellence is the grand object of education; and of moral excellence, domestic
life is to a woman the appropriate sphere.�

Which of these aspects of a �woman�s place�
seems to be important in Jane Austen�s novels?
Matters of woman�s legal status, her political rights, and opportunities
for professional careers play little, if any, part in Austen�s stories.But, issues about economic security confront
most of her heroines � Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters, the Dashwoods, and
Fanny Price in particular.Further, a
good marriage, which offers not only this economic security and social
position, but also love, respect, compatibility, equality, and happiness, is
presented as the satisfying conclusion to each novel.The choice, the discovery, of the good husband forms the main
line of the action of each novel: how each heroine and her future husband learn
to love and esteem each other and thus choose each other.Jane Austen�s views of a proper marriage
would at first seem to be at odds with the main stream of the thought of her
contemporaries, but, as I have tried to clarify, her views of marriage as a
wedding of a woman and a man who are equally rational and moral does correspond
to the new attitudes toward marriage which were occurring at this time.

What seems to be the most important of the late
eighteenth century issues about �woman�s place� for Jane Austen�s novels is
education � the development of the mind and character of the young woman � upon
which the issues of marriage and economic security depend.The novels show that Jane Austen disagreed
with many of her society�s stereotypes about women�s nature, characters, minds,
and roles.The image of the perfect
young lady as passive is ridiculed in Mansfield Park in the
representation of Lady Bertram, who is so passive that she can rarely rise from
the sofa, let alone have an idea of her own.
Even Jane Bennet, lovely as she is, is shown to have erred by concealing
her feelings in the name of modesty.The
image of the young woman as entertaining, even frivolous, in order to capture a
man, is satirized repeatedly in the novels � in the representation of Lydia
Bennet, Mary Crawford, Isabella Thorpe, among many others.Austen�s representation of her heroines
shows that she believed that women possessed both intelligence and moral capacity
and that it was important to develop both of these faculties through proper
education.Most of her heroines are
deficient in traditional accomplishments (Elizabeth and Emma do not practice
the piano and Anne plays only moderately); in fact, the traditional
accomplishments such as �netting a purse� are ridiculed.But, in each story, the improvement of the
mind and character of the heroine is an essential part of the main line of the
action.

How does this education, this improvement, come
about in the Austen novels?In the
main, the heroine educates herself � by observing, listening, travelling from
place to place, participating in the life of her society, and by thinking
about, reflecting upon these experiences and her own actions and
responses.The stories imply that
self-awareness, rationality, and moral excellence are the result of observation
and experience plus thoughtful reflection.
Significant passages in each novel tell of the heroine withdrawing from other
people and activities to think about what has happened, what has been said,
what she has seen, how she has behaved, and to arrive at new and improved
understanding of herself, of others, and of the world around her.In the world of the novels the responsibility
for the heroine�s education is her own.

The novels all imply that this educated young woman
not only can achieve a happy marriage based on equality rather than
subservience, on love rather than submission, but she also can play a crucial
role in insuring the moral health of her society, for she can effect order and
harmony to manage her household, to promote the happiness of her husband, to
provide moral leadership to her family, and to strengthen the life of her
community.

In Jane Austen�s novels, these issues of �woman�s
place� � economic security, proper marriage, and sound education of girls and
young women � are represented realistically � sometimes with sympathy and
approval, sometimes with wit, satire, or harsh criticism, but never with
didacticism, for Jane Austen�s intellect and artistic genius effectively
blended these topics both thematically and aesthetically so that each novel
tells the distinctive story of an individual young woman who achieves rational
self-awareness, who learns to make sound moral choices, and who chooses a
husband whom she loves and esteems and with whom she will live a happy,
intimate, compatible, and economically secure life which enriches their society
as well.All these values are among the
noblest ideals of Jane Austen�s England.

 

 

Selected Works Consulted

 

Brown, Julia Prewitt.Jane Austen�s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979.

 

Hund, Linda, �A Woman�s Portion: Jane Austen
and the Female Character.�Fetter�d
orFree
, ed. Schofield and
Macheski.Columbus: Ohio University
Press,1986.8-28.

 

Monaghan, David, ed.Jane Austen in a Social Context.Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1981.

 

____.Jane
Austen: Structure and Social Vision
.
London: Macmillan, 1980.

 

Poovey, Mary.
The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

 

Rogers, Katherine.Feminism in Eighteenth Century England.Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982.

 

Smith, LeRoy.
Jane Austen and the Drama of Women.New York: St. Martin�s Press, 1983.

 

Todd, Jannet, ed.Jane Austen: New Perspectives.Women and Literature New
Series, Vol. 3.Holmes and Meier
Publishers, 1983.


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