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The social and economic position of women
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, English social structure afforded few rights and no independence to women. They did not have the vote, had no career options and any property they inherited became the possession of their husband on marriage. Marrying well was generally a woman's sole hope of financial and legal security:
- A single woman legally belonged to her father and was financially dependent on him
- When married, a woman's dependence transferred to her husband
- A married woman needed her husband's consent to do anything officially, such as purchasing property or writing a will
- If a woman was wealthy, her husband had to be selected (usually by her father) with caution as her money would become his after the marriage.
Jane Austen lived during (and was well aware of) the burgeoning Women's Rights movement. Through the clever use of plot and character, Jane Austen's novels subtly expose the plight of women with their limited rights and lack of autonomy. In Emma and Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen shows the vulnerable position that financially dependent women of her time were in. Mrs. and Miss Bates and Miss Smith descend into relative poverty due to the deaths of the men who support them.
Despite the relatively egalitarian sentiments expressed in John Locke's influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), the education of women was undervalued. Girls were usually taught at home by their mother as generally it was only boys who went to school. There was an emphasis on girls' accomplishments in music, language and the arts, with the goal of making young women more marriageable. Also, the wide reading of conduct books such as:
- John Gregory's A Father's Legacy to his Daughters (1774)
- Thomas Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex (1797)
- Jane West's, Letters to a Young Lady (1806)
was encouraged, to make young women aware of their duties, obligations and conduct.
Jane Austen clearly challenges the views of these conduct book writers with the creation of her energetic, active, intelligent heroines. She undermines their injunctions to girls to be physically inactive, emotionally passive and to display their physical charms rather than their intelligence.
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