Women’s roles in society have changed tremendously over the centuries. The medieval era viewed women as subservient peers to male and expected little contribution from them. The primary responsibility of women was to sustain the lineage with healthy offspring and run the households with meticulous planning while their lord husbands engaged in social discourses. Religious underpinnings affected the patriarchal views of the society, particularly by the Abrahamic religions, which propounded that woman was fashioned out of the ribs of man and hence was inferior to him in all constructs. Women were mere commodity owned by men, and at various points of her life, her liberty was limited to men’s whims. The early 19th and 20th century experienced a strong wave of feminism where women argued for the cause of their gender’s parity with males. Suffragette movement and women rights movement alerted the male ego. Feminine gender championed for their right to get inducted into the mainstream society and began to influence the tides of the society with their feminist ideologies. A thorough analysis of the literature of various periods can offer a better insight into the changing role of women in society.
Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall portrays a woman fleeing from the clutches of an abusive and alcoholic husband. In the same way, the gender of woman gets a better position in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, where the female protagonist has a clear-cut perception of the institution of marriage and is sensible enough to reject the unworthy proposals of men. The contemporary portrayal of women in literature stands in dark contrast with Austen and Bronte’s portrayal of women. However, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, and Love succeeds in portraying the strong individualistic personality of its female protagonist that remains unaffected by the opinions of the world and is not relatable to Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet or Bronte’s Helen Huntington.
Women during the Victorian Era
No literature work can better portray the role of women in the early Victorian era than Jane Austen’s universally acclaimed masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. The sole career aspiration of the women of the period was courtship and marriage with gentlemen of honor and wealth. Mrs. Bennett’s woes in getting her five daughters married to wealthy gentlemen reflect the general maternal sentiments of the period. Men cared too little for the trifles of life, and the wealthy one had all earthly possessions at one’s will. He had free rein over affairs of the society and was free to choose everything at his will. Though Victorian England was under the progressive tenure of Queen Victoria, the patriarchal society allowed little the empowerment of women. Vicinus (2013) argues in her book that the perfect attributes of a Victorian lady were an ideal mix of sexual innocence, family values, and conspicuous consumption. She further accentuates the unrealistic ideology of feminine sexual desires, underpinned in the inherent sentiments of Victorians. Vicinus (2013) opines that innocence was “an exalted state of feminine consciousness” where females lived under “forbidden knowledge of their own sexuality, instincts, and desires as well as the knowledge of good and evil” (Vicinus, Chapter, ‘Innocence in the Making of an Unconscious Conflict’).
The Victorian women offered prayers for suitable matches where money remained the more important concern than love. Women seldom cared for the fantasy of love, and Elizabeth Bennet created quite a stir in the society when she declined two possible matches from suitors who had respectable social standing. Austen highlights the difference in perceptions of female sex through the character portrayal of Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte observes at one point in the novel, “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance….they (the partners) always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterward to have their share of vexation” (Austen, 16).
Marriage and reproducing robust children were the only occupation that a woman could hope for in the Victorian era. Woman of the age cared little for social and political discourses and seldom broadened their understanding beyond silks, bonnets, and dolls. Mothers instructed their daughters on household affairs and expected them to attract potential suitors at balls and other social events. Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet is more of a rebel who is strong-willed in her cause of entering the sanctity of marriage for the sole purpose of love.
Anne Bronte highlights the gender roles that were persistent in society during the Victorian period. Women had to be happy with domestic activities while men engaged in leisure at public spheres. The patriarchal ideology in Bronte’s novel highlights the subservient role that married women played in society. Helen Huntington can no longer bear the company of her husband, but as a woman, society expects her to conform to his tastes. The lack of support from her family and friends on divorcing the man is evident as she exclaims, “Even if I told him (Helen’s brother) all my grievances, which I should be very reluctant to do, he would be certain to disapprove of the step” (Bronte, 326).
Married women rarely engaged in public excursions. Helen Huntington, the protagonist of the novel has no chance of a divorce from her abusive husband, and she decides to flee from him. She lives under an alias in a remote village, but the society cannot accept the idea of a young pretty woman living in seclusion. Rumors spread like wildfire and Helen’s ‘sexual innocence,’ comes under question. Bronte espouses a patriarchal society that seldom cared for the interests of women. The men portrayed in the novel engage in all forms of perversion, whereas women have to safeguard their innocence at the cost of the societal scandal.
Helen fends for herself in seclusion by painting portraits and landscapes. However, this is incomprehensible to the masochistic society, which considers men as the sole breadwinners of the family. As per the notions of Victorian society, if a woman is allowed to pursue an occupation, she would try to be free from the shackles of her subservient role. Autonomy in all affairs was a privilege enjoyed by male alone and woman had no role but to sympathize with the various ventures of their fathers, brothers, or husbands. Women’s less cared role is reflected in the plight of the very author of the novel, Anne Bronte, who had to publish her novel under a male pseudonym to gain public attention. The society during the period could not entertain the reflections of societal values from a feminine perspective.
However, women had a central role in households. They ran households and kept an account of the domestic affairs. Tilly and Scott purport that “women’s role as a consumer in society was thus central to the economic wellbeing of the family,” and women played a crucial role in the management of the financial resources of the family (Tilly and Scott, 138). Among all medieval societies, the Romans revered the status and opinions of woman. Hallet (2014) argues that many high borne and elite Roman ladies regularly took part in the public affairs of men despite getting challenged by the “society’s extolling of domesticity as women’s only proper concern… their own legal disabilities, and formal exclusion from political participation” (Hallet, 6).
The wake of Feminism
The social stature of female sex improved surprisingly with the feminist tides that restricted the patriarchal influence of men. Early feminist thinkers and critics staunchly advocated for women’s suffrage and parity in legal affairs with the male sex. The movements of feminism urged society to think differently from the age-old perceptions of woman, which illustrated them as weak and dependent on men. Shoemaker (2014) argues that the society from seventeenth to the nineteenth century was heavily influenced by the underpinnings of Genesis story and the concepts of Aristotle, which offered a biased interpretation of the distinction between the female and male sexes (Shoemaker, 15).
A second and stronger tide of feminism set the rage during the 1960s, the influence of which persisted until the 1980s. The scope of the second feminist movement was broader than the first one and included arguments for rights over reproduction. Women became infuriated with the patriarchal treatment of them as a mere childbearing asset. Such a notion was persistent in the Nazist society where women were barred from attempting physically taxing tasks to stay healthy and robust. The Nazi propaganda of domination was deemed possible only with a populous Germany, and hence, the government rewarded procreation both physically and psychologically (Stephenson, 190). The women of the second feminist period refused to confer to the mere role of childbearing and argued for their cause in mainstream society.
The feminist of the era urged others to see the important societal role that women played in every culture. The complexity of roles handled by women surpassed the ones held traditionally by men. Society tends to differentiate the roles between men and women from the moment of birth. Oakley (2016) lists four main processes as identified by Hartley (1966) that influence society’s differentiation on gender roles. The first process, manipulation, occurs when mothers tend to confirm female children to feminine roles during the ages of one to five. The second process, canalization, occurs when the attention of children get diverted to objects which only a particular gender can enjoy. Verbal appellation occurs when the children get the knowledge of the society’s expectation of gender roles from the verbal discourses of their parents. The last of the four processes, activity exposure, happens when the feminine and male sexs get directed to activities that apply to specific gender roles alone (Oakley, 126-127).
The proponents of the second feminist era refused to accept the dominance of men and advanced with the induction of women in all spheres of society, previously held on by the male sex. Thus women’s empowerment began to take a new turn, and women’s role became prominent in all major domains of the society. Subsequently, society became more accommodating of women’s role in society. As Sanderberg (2015) claims, women occupy an important position in rural societies since they cater to diverse roles in society. They can provide food, maintain income generation, and affect the overall functioning of rural society in a positive way (Sanderberg, 138). However, the second feminist wave did not last long and received strong criticism for some of its failures. A subsequent third and fourth iteration of the feminist revolution strived to mitigate the discrepancies associated with the previous ones and improve the overall position of woman.
Contemporary Roles of Woman
A contemporary piece of literature that has the perfect mix of feminist ideologies is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray and Love. The novel portrays the liberalistic attitudes of career-oriented women of the contemporary society who are least affected by the bonds of marriage and love. The protagonist of the novel embarks on a self-awakening journey that gives her a myriad of insights into various affairs of life. Unlike Helen Huntington, Elizabeth is least bothered by the society’s perceptions of a divorcee. Elizabeth is the proper representation of modern feminist women who dictate the norms of life to their own terms.
Modern woman refuses to limit herself to the age-old constraints. Elizabeth herself expresses the frustration of such underpinnings when she muses, “Why did I feel so overwhelmed with duty, tired of being the primary breadwinner and the housekeeper and the social coordinator and the dog walker and the wife and the soon-to-be-mother” (Gilbert, 12). Elizabeth wanted to liberate her soul from the baseless norms instituted by orthodox society. The role of woman has improved dramatically, and woman has achieved parity in all affairs of life. The society has seen the flaws with adhering to the regressive views of the Victorian era and the period before that. However, the new waves of feminism have posed some challenges with realizing the cause it envisaged. One among them is the rising concern for the social security of woman in the wake of their empowerment in society. Rich women become richer from spousal benefits while the poor widows still trudge on the abyss of poverty. Woman’s traditional role as a homemaker is the cheaper conceivable alternative, argues Holden (Holden, p. xxi). The modern woman, however, refuses to confer again to subservient homemaker roles dominated by male.
In total, women’s role in society has always been a bone of contention. Many thinkers advocate for the exaltation of women while others still adhere to regressive patriarchal ideologies. The role of women has undergone a profound transition from the beginning of the medieval period. The influence of religious ideologies urged society to regard woman inferior to men. Woman of the medieval and Victorian era was confined to the domestic spheres where men expected them to procreate and run the households. A woman rarely ventured in public discourses, and instead, attended societies that were solely reserved for females. Women occupied a domestic sphere while men enjoyed the comforts and joys of public discourses. The regressive pattern continued until the dawn of feminism from the early 19th century and continued to the 2000s. Feminist ideologies thwarted the patriarchal attempts of shielding women from the mainstream, and women began to contemplate on their real capabilities. An analysis of the literature of the period reflects the society’s sentiments of the female gender. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice portrayed a woman as the sole aspirants of potential wealthy marriages. Austen’s heroine became a rebel when she expressed her desire to marry for love rather than wealth. The exclamation must have shocked the ideologies of Victorian society, but in the contemporary world, marriage and love have become synonymous constructs. Anne Bronte’s Helen Huntington is unable to attain a divorce, owing to the societal harbors against the divorced woman. The society contends with the idea of Helen wasting her life under the clutches of an abusive husband than living a tranquil life as a single mother. The feminist movement has improved society’s outlook of gender roles, and its underpinnings are evident in contemporary literature, such as Gilbert’s Eat, Pray and Love.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth.1993.
Bronte, Anne. Life and Works of Charlotte Bronte and her Sisters. London: Smith and Elder Co. 1873.
Burkhauser, Richard V., and Karen C. Holden, eds. A challenge to Social Security: The changing roles of women and men in American society. 2013. Elsevier.
Gilbert, Elizabeth. Eat, Pray and Love. New York: Riverhead Books. 2016.
Hallett, Judith P. Fathers and Daughters in Roman society: women and the elite family. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 2014.
Oakley, Ann. Sex, Gender and Society. London: Ashgate. 1972.
Shoemaker, Robert B. Gender in English Society 1650-1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? New York: Routledge, 2014.
Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean in-Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sage Journals, Volume 8, issue: 2. 2015. pp.137-139.
Stephenson, Jill. Women in Nazi society. London: Routledge, 2013.
Tilly, Louise A., and Joan W. Scott. Women, work, and family. London: Routledge, 2016.
Vicinus, Martha. Suffer and Be Still: Women in the Victorian Age. London: Routledge, 2013.