Gender and the changing role of women

Men and women as equals

Along with her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792), Jane Austen disagreed with the prevailing attitude that women were inferior to men. She believed that women should be regarded as men's equals, receive a good education and be treated as rational people. Persuasion's sympathetic female characters reflect this opinion:

  • Anne is well-educated, well-read and has a lively mind. She puts forth articulate and well-reasoned arguments in her discussions with Captain Benwick and Captain Harville
  • Mrs. Croft asserts herself as a resilient and reasonable person. She challenges her brother when he objects to having women on board ship (Ch. 8). She is described as being as keen and as intelligent as the naval officers (Ch. 18 / Vol. 2, Ch. 6)
  • Captains Benwick, Harville, and Wentworth all display strong emotion, while Anne wrestles with her emotions but retains a ‘collected mind' , thus showing that strong feeling is common to both sexes
  • In Persuasion, a new kind of role-model emerges:
    • It is when Anne escapes the confines of her home and family that it is possible for her selfhood to be fully realised
    • Mrs. Croft keeps no permanent home. She is at her most healthy and fulfilled when travelling around the world with her husband (Ch. 8)

Conventional roles of women

While Jane Austen realised that societal changes were impacting the role of women, she did not advocate a complete restructuring of their role. Her primary concern was for the health of society, and most of her novels depict heroines in a domestic setting, bettering society through service to their families and neighbours. In Persuasion she depicts women whose lives are still restricted by social convention:

  • Much of Anne's time is taken up with serving others. She even says that ‘a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion:' ( Ch. 23 / Vol. 2, Ch. 11)
  • Anne's ability to communicate with Captain Wentworth is restricted by the social impropriety of an unmarried woman initiating interaction with a man.
  • In Persuasion, men and women are generally shown pursuing their interests in separate spheres:
    • The men hunt and keep up with the news
    • The women keep house, dance and exercise their accomplishments (Ch. 6)
  • Like Jane Austen's other novels, Persuasion is centred on the reality that women were in a vulnerable position, being still financially dependent on men:
    • It is Wentworth's fortune that gives Anne her financial security. If she had remained single, she would have continued to be financially dependent on her father
    • Mrs. Smith's financial situation is dire because her husband squandered and misused his money before his death.
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