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Thursday, 30 January 2014

Was Jane Austen a feminist?

1st of all, the question is: What is feminism? This 1 word means different things to different people. I don't know if I can be called a feminist, for instance. In some ways I am- when Stephenie Meyer creates a female character whose life revolves around her boyfriend and who cares about nothing else; when Charlotte Bronte makes her Jane Eyre return to a grumpy, irritable, deceitful, manipulative man; when Giacomo Puccini lets his Cio Cio San suffer blindly for a white man and kill herself pointlessly after she realises she has been deceived; when August Strindberg torments and mocks his Miss Julie; when "Indiana Jones and the temple of doom" uses a dumb blond woman as a foil for Indiana Jones; when a woman suffers and makes a fool of herself in the name of love; when a woman subserviently clings to a man who has no respect for her or who even abuses her physically or mentally because she can't live alone or because she has the silly hope that he will change; when a man talks of his lovers or his conquests as a way of boasting about his attractiveness and manliness; when a man, opposing abortion without exception, makes disrespectful comment on rapes and rape victims; when a rapist says their victims "ask for it"; when male singers objectify women in their music videos, etc.
But in some other ways I'm not. To me men and women are equal and should be given equal opportunities, yet it doesn't mean men and women are the same. I do not equate feminism with abolishing all differences between men and women; nor with having women do everything men do (and vice versa); nor with making women manly; nor with removing everything seen as men's gallantry (such as offering a seat or offering to help with heavy stuff); nor with standing by women in all cases, seeing women always as victims and men always as perpetrators... I do not equate feminism with sexual liberation in the sense that if men can get half naked from the waist up in public then women also can; if men can feign masturbation in live shows and music videos then women can; basically the idea that women can do whatever men can even if it appears vulgar, unfeminine, ugly. Nor do I support the women who, by standing up for themselves and living for their sexuality or freedom, neglect and leave their children (such as in "Nymphomaniac" or "A doll's house"), just because men often do so, for I see the bond between a mother and a child as different from that between a father and a child, a mother's role as unlike a father's role- don't misunderstand, I do not mean that I support the fathers in such cases, but when a mother does so, I find it more unacceptable, more condemnable.
Besides, I'm not 1 of those feminists who always want to have a certain rate of successful women in a field and, when not satisfied, unthinkingly put all the blame on men and society and gender inequality. That may or may not be true, but I do not have the same tendency, the same certainty and conviction. 
In short, that is my attitude. 

Concerning Jane Austen, for some reasons many people don't consider her a feminist and it continues to be debatable. In 1 sense it should not matter- it doesn't does a bit harm to her reputation as a great writer nor her place on the UK banknote. On the other hand, even when it's not particularly important, I find it rather naive, rather black-and-white when some people dismiss her feminism altogether or even see her as anti-feminist only because all of heroines get married at the end of her 6 novels and she does not explicitly, like Charlotte Bronte or Mary Wollstonecraft, say that women are to be equal to men.
To me, feminism means different things and has lots of different shades and aspects, and in my opinion, Jane Austen's a feminist in many ways: 

- dealing with, and criticising, the injustice of primogeniture and the entail 
- depicting the hard circumstances of poor women and their immobility as they have no transport 
- examining women's powerlessness in her time
- seeing women as rational creatures 
-  favouring sense over sensibility and attacking the idea of women as emotional, delicate creatures, especially in "Sense and sensibility" 
- creating strong-minded, independent heroines such as Elinor Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot... 
- comparing the governess trade to the slave trade, as in "Emma" 
- through Jane Fairfax, showing the 2 options of a distinguished, beautiful but poor woman (to get married or to become a governess) and marking the contrast between Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse
- letting Charlotte Lucas marry the horrendous Mr Collins as a way of rescuing herself 
- shattering the bad boy ideal through the depiction of Henry Crawford and the decision of Fanny in "Mansfield park" 
- creating some female characters who have to be mercenary or even scheming because of their circumstances such as Lucy Steele, Isabella Thorpe...
- ridiculing the men who don't expect a no, as in "Pride and prejudice", "Mansfield park" and "Emma" 
- having the readers understand that without Captain Wentworth, Anne Elliot could still live well
- advocating marriage for love instead of money but at the same time, not without stressing duty, prudence, understanding... 
- critiquing the way the literary world is dominated by men and their stories and their perspectives, as expressed in "Northanger abbey" and "Persuasion" 
etc. 
- above all, turning down an offer of marriage, choosing to be an author, and calling her works children; and as an author, staying true to herself, rejecting the themes and topics regarded by men as important 

I would even go as far as saying that Jane Austen's more like a feminist than Charlotte Bronte. I value her works, as a reader, as a human being, and as a woman.
But who knows? Many people would not even consider me a feminist.

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