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Jane Austen's and Mary Wollstonecraft's Proto-feminist Beliefs

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To what extent might we use the term ‘Feminist’ to describe women’s writing of the 18th Century? How might we define the term ‘feminist’? It is an idea that is constantly developing, even today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines feminism as the “Advocacy for equality of the sexes and the establishment of the political, social and economic rights of the female sex”. Seeing as the term was not cited until 1897 by The Daily News, is it appropriate to call women’s writing of the 18th century feminist literature? The writings of Mary Wollstonecraft undoubtedly still resonate with our modern idea of feminism today and yet her novel ​'The Wrongs of Woman' ​and her other works can be read as problematic and so do not fit with the modern day definition. The same can be said for Jane Austen, another prolific woman writer of the period. Whilst there is not the same advocacy for women’s rights that can be seen with Wollstonecraft, there is the use of subversive satire and humour that evokes her own kind of rebellion. Neither of these writers can be held to the same standard of feminism as we know it today and it is for this reason that I shall adapt the term ‘Proto-feminism’ when dealing with their literature. I will acknowledge both of the writers’ contribution to modern feminism but I shall also argue that there are places in which their literature remains problematic.

Mary Wollstonecraft is inarguably one of the founding mothers of modern day feminism. Her advocacy for women is made apparent in her work ‘​A Vindication for the Rights of Woman’. ​She states in the introduction, “I wish to show that elegance is inferior to virtue, that the first object of laudable ambition is to obtain a character as a human being, regardless of the distinction of sex”. This statement in and of itself almost fits our modern definition of feminism perfectly. “Regardless of sex”, she wishes women to be treated as human beings and not just children focussed entirely on ideas of elegance and frivolity. However, the rest of this work is highly problematic in regards to modern feminism. In the same introduction, she states repeatedly that by the very laws of nature, women are inferior to men. The introduction alone carries an underlying idea that it is the fault of her fellow woman that they are oppressed. She states, “My own sex will forgive me, I hope, if I treat them like rational creatures instead of flattering their ​fascinating ​graces” (10). The biting sarcasm of this remark is particularly condescending and does not conform to the idea of “sisterhood” that has become a staple of modern day feminism. This highlights the rather toxic trait of this work, that only some women are deserving of equality, but not ones who put stock in their appearance or have frivolous tendencies. However, Wollstonecraft does discuss many important issues pertaining to her period that are very relevant to a proto-feminist cause. She discusses education for women, “the tyranny of man” and the institution of marriage. All of which have their place in her unfinished novel, ‘Maria: Or, The Wrongs of Woman’​. By looking at the heroine of the story, Maria, we can see the views that Wollstonecraft puts forward in ​'A Vindication for the Rights of Woman'​. She is, at the beginning of the novel, wallowing in her emotions, distraught because of her imprisonment and the loss of her daughter. Here, Wollstonecraft is presenting Maria as a victim of her own emotions. Wollstonecraft encouraged women to exercise their minds and bodies, to be enlightened and sensible in the face of a society obsessed with sensibility (Kelly, 11). Gary Kelly states that Wollstonecraft felt that the ideas of sensibility encouraged women to feel excessive emotions, ultimately leading them to fall victim to “romantic fantasies” and have them dependant on men. I believe that it is this fashion that Wollstonecraft presents Maria at the beginning of the novel.

Maria is described as feeling, “Surprise, astonishment, that bordered on distraction seemed to have suspended her faculties… anguish, a whirlwind of rage and indignation” (69). All of the emotions listed are very powerful, so much so that they have “suspended” Maria’s mind. She is presented as almost in a deranged like state, portraying just how far Wollstonecraft believed that the female weakness to sensibility was the cause of their oppression. What should be emphasised also is the is the descriptions used for Maria’s fellow inmates in the asylum. Phrases such as “Melancholy and imbecility marked their features” and “relentless passions” demonstrate once again Wollstonecraft’s opposal to extreme sensibility in women (76-77). It is no coincidence then, that once Maria receives the books from Jemima as a means for distraction does her character become more proactive. This reflects again Wollstonecraft’s narrative. She herself decided from a young age that she would achieve her own independence from men by reading, writing and educating herself. In this way she allowed herself to think on her situation and the situation of her fellow women more critically (Kelly 10). She gave herself the tools to speak out against oppression. This is reflected in Maria’s readings of the books she is given. Her narrative becomes less reflective and wallowing and even when she catches herself imagining the character of Darnford from his marginalia, she “snapt the chain of the theory to read Dryden’s Guiscard and Sigismunda” (79). This story mentioned tells the story of a daughter defying her father and is ardently for the rights of women. This is significant as it is a story that pulls Maria away, indeed, physically snaps her away from the idea of fantasy and romance, suggesting once again that it is a woman’s duty to educate herself in order to find independence from men. This demonstrates Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist stance as she recognises the wrongs done to her heroine, she demonstrates her own beliefs that self education and self enlightenment is key to independence and an escape from so called weakness. However, it cannot be considered a feminist stance. Wollstonecraft completely disregards labouring class women of the period. Jennifer Batt states in her article that education for the labouring class “was often brought to an abrupt end at a young age.” Women were trained for the world of work and would not often have access to books or have time for reflective and critical thinking. It demonstrates an ignorance to their plight by focussing solely on the middling class.

There are contradictions with regards to the narrator’s empathy for labouring class women in “Maria: Or, ​The Wrongs of Women. ​Jemima’s narrative is matter of fact and clear and the story is dealt with sensitvely. The use of first person narrative with Jemima is key in evoking sympathy from readers as there is no second hand judgement from the narrator. She emphasises the wrongs done to her by stating, “a pauper by nature, hunted from family to family, I belonged to no one” (95). This sentence is extremely poignant and in the age of sensibility, readers would have felt very sympathetic to Jemima’s plight. The first contradiction, however, is the telling of how Jemima began to read in order “to beguile the tediousness of solitude and to gratify an inquisitive mind” (99). This statement puts her on a power with Maria who also began to read and educate herself as a means of distraction. It emphasises once again Wollstonecraft’s insistence on the importance of self-education. There is an underlying tone of respect for Jemima, a lowly ex-prostitute. She is made human and evokes sympathy through the telling of her story, therefore demonstrating Wollstonecraft’s strong Proto-feminist stance and even venturing into the idea of “sisterhood” between Maria who is of the middling class and Jemima‒ labouring class.

This can also be seen in Maria and Darnford’s reaction to Jemima’s story. Darnford reflects that “poverty most often excludes it (happiness), by shutting up all avenues of improvement” (103). This along with Maria lamenting the “Oppressed state of women” (107) demonstrates how Wollstonecraft wishes to evoke sympathy and compassion for Jemima and perhaps other women similar to her. This is admirable and a strongly Proto-feminist view, however it is savagely undercut by remarks about prostitution in chapter twelve. Maria states in her letter to her daughter, whilst evoking images of prostitutes, to have felt “mortified at being compelled to consider them as my fellow creatures, as if an ape had claimed kindred with me” (149). This being said after Jemima has relayed her heartbreaking story is extremely problematic. It highlights Maria’s snobbery and disdain for lower class women. It could be forgiven as ignorance if she had not previously empathised strongly with Jemima’s situation. The fact that she states she felt “compelled” to consider prostitutes as human demonstrates a begrudging attitude to their equality and ultimately a hypocrisy. She completely dehumanises a whole class of women after giving Jemima such a human story. Perhaps this is merely a flaw in the narrative and had Wollstonecraft been alive to finish the novel, she might have corrected it.

That being said, there is a lot in this novel that advocates strongly for the emancipation of women. For example, how Wollstonecraft deals with the institution of marriage is very radical for her period and allows her the title of Proto-feminist. She discusses the idea of sex within a loveless marriage stating, “for personal intimacy without affection seemed to me the most degrading, as well as most painful state a woman… could be placed” (129). She puts forward the notion that that this is something that many women must endure in their marriage. Discussing these idea in her literature makes her very proto-feminist in that she continues by saying, “who made women the property of their husbands?” (130). Here, the language of slavery is invoked, taking on the sexist laws of marriage that were in place to ensure that women remained just that; the property of their husbands (Kelly, 28). This reinforces the oppressive reality that women of the period faced and undoubtedly highlights her feminist standpoint.

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However, what once again limits Wollstonecraft as Proto-feminist is her mistreatment of the lower class women mentioned in her story. Once again she comments, “his favourites were wantons of the lowest class, who could by their vulgar, indecent mirth… rouse his sluggish spirits” (130). This again shows the narrator’s lack of empathy for lower class women, in particularly sex workers whom she dismisses as “profligate women”(130). She objectifies these women, they are nothing more than Venables’ “favourites”, things to be used in order to create a source of revulsion. By comparing them to “decent women” whom her husband ignores, further in the paragraph, she isolates them from her feminism, suggesting that it is only these “decent women” deserving of rights. The overall tone of ​'The Wrongs of Women' ​is positive in regards to advocating for female emancipation, however there are some insidious elements, as I have mentioned, that cannot be ignored. It is why I believe it is important to label Wollstonecraft Proto-feminist, not feminist.

Jane Austen is another woman writer, a little later in the period, and is one whom I would call a Proto-feminist. Austen’s work has been “universally understood” to mainly encompass themes of love and marriage (Brown, 321). More often than not, her novels end with a happy and hopeful marriage, for example in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and also in ‘Sense and Sensibility’. How then, in comparison to Wollstonecraft’s outspoken contempt for marriage and its oppressive nature, might we consider Austen a Proto-feminist? I argue that the answer lies in the satire that always runs under the surface of her stories. The Oxford English Dictionary defines satire as a poem, novel or other piece of art “which uses humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize prevailing immorality or foolishness.” The Satire in Austen’s work allows us to classify her as a Proto-feminist as humour and laughter during the period were not typically the domains of women.

Audrey Bilger in her book ​Laughing Feminism ​states that “once laughter constituted an indefinable threat to the social order, female laughter came to be seen as a menace to society’s very foundations” (16). She further points out that the subversive comedy of Austen’s work served as her own form of rebellion against the social order that governed her. Conduct books of the time dismissed the idea of humour being used publically among women. They mentioned only a few “appropriate” points of female laughter, the limited selection being “Extravagant vanity and affection” (Bilger, 35).

There are multiple victims of Austen’s satire in her novel ​'Persuasion', ​the most immediately recognisable being Sir Walter Elliot. The novel opens with Sir Walter reading the Baronetage. The narrator comments, “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement never took up any book but the Baronetage” (9). This First sentence of the book immediately sets up Sir Walter for ridicule. It presents him as ill read, having never taken up another book other than the Baronetage of his own family name. This also presents him to the reader as vain and pompous, as the insinuation is that the Baronetage cannot hold any other interest for Sir Walter other than the fact that it is a display of his family’s high station. Here, Austen is taking on a man, a high ranking one at that and reducing him to a mere figure of fun. This is a double barrelled rebellion against the social order in that not only is she creating comedy, but that comedy is taking on male superiority and ridiculing it.

What further highlights the satire of Austen’s work is the depth and thoughtfulness of the Heroine, Anne, in comparison to the “two dimensional caricatures” (Harris, 184) of Sir Walter and others in ​Persuasion.​ Anne takes a more liberal, thoughtful and modern view of the flexibility class that the navy allows when discussing it, stating, “The Navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which any home can give” (21). Comparing this to her father’s following statement works to highlight his stupidity and stubbornness. He states that the navy serves “as being the means of of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction… It cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly” (22). Here Sir Walter displays the only two aspects of his character, his vanity and his obsessions with rank and hierarchy. Austen invites the reader to laugh at his faults creating here own form of rebellion by laughing at the foolish men who believe themselves superior. We can consider Austen a Proto-feminist because of this rebellion, as subtle as it is.

Marriage is a key theme in Austen’s work. In ‘​Persuasion’ ​Anne marries Captain Wentworth after previously ending an engagement with him because of his lower class, persuaded against the idea by her father and Lady Russell even though she loved him. He then climbs the ranks of the navy and Anne marries him at the end of the novel. It has been argued that Austen’s novels serve as reinforcement to patriarchal standards by having the heroine of her stories always marry however this is grossly ignoring the situation of women in the 18th century (Brown, 305). Marriage served as a means of survival for women, but also a mean of bettering their station, just as men in the navy who were of “obscure birth” bettered theirs. The more sympathetic stance that Anne takes on the flexibility of class mirrors Austen’s stance on the idea of women using marriage to climb the social ranks and live a more comfortable life (Bannet, 143). Austen’s stance on marriage was that of Matriarchal feminism, a branch of enlightenment feminism that emerged later in the 18th century (Bannet, 142). They believed that women were not equal to men, no, they were superior. They also believed that by honing their “Skill and good sense in the domestic and familial arena” that they would marry well and thus, gain control in the domestic sphere which had been previously dominated by men (Bannet, 3). This emphasis on women having a foothold in the domestic sphere can be seen in ‘Persuasion’, when Mary wishes to go with Charles to meet Captain Wentworth. “Nursing does not belong to a man, it is not his province. A sick child is always the mother’s property, her own feelings generally make it so” (50). Here, Anne reinforces the idea that it should be a woman’s job to care for her children, men have no part in it. This was the idea of matriarchal feminists, they “imagined a family in which the patriarchal governor of the domestic hierarchy had been surreptitiously supplanted by a wife” (Bannet, 3). This can be seen as feminist in Austen’s context as wives before were seen as nothing more than glorified servants, and gaining the upper hand over men in any context was a step in the right direction. However, by today’s sensibilities it is a highly problematic ideal. It reinforces the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Austen does not offer any other solutions to overcoming the patriarchy other than marrying into it, there is not the emphasis on independence from men that there is in Wollstonecraft.

In conclusion, both Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen must be viewed as Proto-feminist writers due to their problematic discrepancies in their forms of feminism. However, they paved the way for future generations of women writers and for that we owe them a debt of gratitude. Though their feminism is flawed to us today, the fact that they were discussing women’s issues at all is admirable. Wollstonecraft’s radical feminist beliefs are the foundations on which we build ours, her novels reflect that belief. Austen’s novels have been adored by millions all over the world. They have been adapted into films because they still resonate with us. Whilst neither Mary Wollstonecraft or Jane Austen are the “perfect feminists”, there is no denying the lasting effect they have had not only in women’s literature, but literature as a whole.

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Jane Austen’s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Proto-feminist Beliefs. (2022, August 25). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 26, 2024, from
“Jane Austen’s and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Proto-feminist Beliefs.” Edubirdie, 25 Aug. 2022,
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