Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism: Women Writers As Agents of Change

If you hear the name “Jane Austen,” several images likely pop into your head: ballroom dancing, long Regency-era dresses, and unflinchingly polite manners. You might associate her with modern day conservatism or think of her as the foremother of romantic comedies. Such ideas are not, in a sense, incorrect. In fact, you have over 100 years of cultural depictions on your side. For example, Austen’s nephew, J.E. Austen-Leigh, wrote her first biography, A Memoir of Jane Austen (1869), in which he portrays the author as a kindly, chaste woman who wrote novels merely as a side hobby, never taking a serious or critical interest in writing. By the twenty-first century, dozens of film adaptations, modern “spin-off” novels, and Regency-themed balls solidified Austen as hardly revolutionary in the public consciousness.

Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism: Women Writers As Agents of Change seeks to remedy this unfair characterization. The exhibit features texts from Austen and other women writers from the late 17th through early 20th centuries. Several books on display are first editions, including all six of Austen’s major novels. Heather Simoneau, Lehigh’s Humanities Librarian, developed the idea for such an exhibit as part of the university’s Jane Austen at 200 Symposium. Held on September 22, this event featured presentations from various Austen scholars to commemorate the 200th anniversary of her death. Though the event has passed, the Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism exhibit will remain open until December 16—Jane Austen’s birthday. The exhibit is located in Lehigh’s Linderman Library on the ground, first, and third floors. The exhibit is free and open to the public, available for viewing whenever Linderman is open.

Last summer, I worked as a Research Assistant on the display under the supervision of Simoneau and Lehigh’s Special Collections Department. I researched each text, organized them into categories, developed explanatory cards, and wrote the exhibit’s general essay. Keeping with the exhibit’s goal of illuminating a different image of Austen, I sought to find feminist and other social justice impulses in each book. For example, I wrote about the critiques of marriage implicit in Sense and Sensibility. Elinor and Marianne, the central characters in the text, must, like many of Austen’s heroines and real-life women in the 19th century, marry for financial stability; as women, they cannot inherit from their father. I addressed subtle critiques of slavery and colonialism in Mansfield Park and speculated on the inclusion of Miss Lambe, Austen’s first character of color, in her unfinished novel Sanditon. I considered the unusual case of Emma Woodhouse—Austen’s only heroine who is financially independent, who, perhaps unexpectedly for a woman of her time, seeks partners who will help her avoid “intellectual solitude.”

Ultimately, I did not find it difficult to uncover feminist and progressive themes in Austen. They are in the text, and many scholars have commented on them (including, but hardly limited to, Helena Kelly, in her new book Jane Austen: The Secret Radical). I believe it is far past time to acknowledge Austen as a highly progressive, feminist writer, particularly given the regressive, misogynistic values of the era during which she wrote.

Beyond elucidating Austen’s specific desires for social change, the exhibit’s second goal is to do the same for other women writers, from Aphra Behn to Margaret Sanger. In fact, every single writer featured in the exhibit is a woman, which is unusual in the still male-dominated world of literary studies. The only potential exception is the anonymously written 1808 novel, The Woman of Colour, which deals with issues of racial and gender justice.

The featured authors come from around the world; they are British and American, as one might expect, but we also included George Sand (pen name of Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin) of France, Krupabai Satthianadhan and Pandita Ramabai of India, and Sara Jeannette Duncan of Canada, among other writers. It is part of our goal to show that feminist thought in early women’s writings was not limited to Great Britain or the USA, but, rather, was a global phenomenon. The texts are diverse, ranging from fantasy novels to history and biography, but they all feature shared themes including feminism, racial justice, and social progressivism.

Part of the project to uncover feminist themes in such texts involves, simply, uncovering the texts. Over the years, many women’s writings have simply been lost or ignored; the vast majority of writers in this exhibit never reached popularity anywhere near that of Austen. Many texts were rediscovered during the rise of feminist scholarship in the 1970s—notably, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Still, other authors, including the aforementioned Ramabai, Satthianadhan, and Duncan, along with writers like Florence Dixie and Jane Clapperton remain obscure, only now receiving some academic attention. My personal favorite of these obscure texts is The Mummy! Or, A Tale of the Twenty-First Century (1827), a deeply strange novel featuring a mummy come to life in the year 2126, total matriarchy, and, most oddly, technology that resembles the modern-day Internet.

Even within the context of comparing feminist themes, a fantastical novel about mummies hardly screams “Jane Austen.” I do not intend to suggest that every author included in the exhibit inspired or was inspired by Jane Austen. In fact, many of these writers were likely unaware of her and each other. Instead, I want to suggest that Jane Austen, whom we have so frequently mischaracterized and dismissed, is actually part of a large tradition of intelligent and progressive women writers, who, together, contributed to the “rise of feminism.” Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism: Women Writers As Agents of Change reflects such a value.

Be sure to check it out at Linderman Library by December 16 or browse the exhibit online.

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