It is timely with the passing of International Women’s Day for another year that we consider Jane and the f word: can we use feminism in regard to Austen? As a woman who grew up in the seventies and seemed to inhale feminist values, I never thought of Jane Austen as someone who help feminist values. Emily or Charlotte Bronte – yes. Mary Wollstonecraft -yes. Her daughter Mary Shelley– yes. But Austen no. Can we use the f word when we are talking about the Austen Six? Previously I had assumed that my search for feminism would be fruitless; that somehow Austen is about old fashioned values and archaic ways that are an anathema to modern women and feminism. It must have been the fairytale weddings at the end of the books that made me hesitant. And for very good reason; women today want to be more than just the woman who gets married at the end of the novel; they want to be more than someone’s mother, wife or daughter. But when I obsessively re-read and search for the feminism in Austen to my surprise I do find it. What is good news for Austen fans is that if you look deeply into the Austen Six there is ample evidence that Austen wanted women to be equal; she was disdainful about the sexist double standards in her society and that the heroines that she created were indeed feisty and independent women.
What sort of women do we want our girls to become? Do we want them to grow up taking their social mores from a popular culture that sexualises them and defines them in terms of beauty? Or do we want them to make the most of the education and employment opportunities that past generations of women have fought for and decide for themselves. Jane Austen believed in women acting rationally and for the good of others. But she also makes it very clear that women must decide for themselves. Recall how Flawed-But-Fabulous-Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice must choose for herself who her life’s partner will be. When Elizabeth Bennet is confronted by Lady de Bourgh, she says, “I am not to be intimidated”. She will not kowtow to the Mistress of the Status Quo, the Countess of Control, Lady de Bourgh. She will not be bullied by superior society’s gatekeeper. She is her own person and she will make her own decisions. She is radical. When she chats to the newly reformed Darcy she finds out what made Darcy fall in love with her. It was “the liveliness of your mind”. Jane Austen would not want girls to be brought up as submissive and dependent. She wants girls to think for themselves, make mistakes and learn from them and to develop fully as human beings.