Roles of Women SadhaNA RAMASESHADRI

During the regency era, women had a very limited set of rights compared to the modern day. Jane Austen depicts these roles through the Bennets and Bingleys in Pride and Prejudice. They held certain expectations as women, and their actions fulfilled them. They were expected to marry up in order to create financial stability, perform none to menial tasks, and to keep up their reputation for the sake of the whole family. Jane Austen’s female characters in Pride and Prejudice are an accurate reflection of the way females fit into regency England’s society.

All of the Bennet sisters in the novel are under tremendous pressure from their mother to get married. During the regency era, women were always considered dependents, whether it be of their parents, or of their husbands. The only option for a woman to leave her parents' household was through marriage. Marriage was also a way for struggling families to obtain financial stability. When a couple got married, it would have been as if not just them, but their families as well, were taking part in a financial transaction. This was because, if the woman married up, she could receive family wealth. In the novel, this was one of the main reasons why Mrs. Bennett so desperately wanted the girls married off, and especially to such a wealthy family like the Bingleys. At the time, it was also rather shameful for families to house their older daughters beyond a certain age, because she became known as a burden on her family. We can see this in example when Charlotte Lucas chooses to marry Mr. Collins. It is not for love, but rather because she is getting older, and needed both to be married off, and the money for her family.

Before a woman was married, her legal status was tied to her father. However, when a woman was married, she immediately became the legal property of her husband, and her legal status disappeared. As a result, naturally, she was not granted human rights either. Women were not allowed to own property, testify in court, or have careers outside of the home. This was according to the Law of Coverture, which stated that “the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended during marriage – or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of her husband under whose wing and protection and cover she performs everything.” This explains the concept of a dowry as well, which was a sum of money and worldly goods that was handed over to the man’s family, showing that by law he owns her economically. In addition to the absence of economic and proprietary rights was the lack of rights over a woman’s own children. If her husband died, her children were out of her legal control unless her husband had declared so prior to his death. The exception to this was if the woman was very wealthy and of extremely high social status, such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who was a widowed woman, but had control over her daughter solely because of her social status. But, if her husband left her, he both held legal custody over the children, and moreover, she was seen as a disgrace to the entire community.

In terms of hobbies and careers(or lack there of), it was not a societal norm for women to perform tasks that were “indelicate” and anything less than ladylike. Jobs such as entrepreneurship, or even portrait painting were seen as too masculine for women to do, and thus, they were confined to being stay-at-home mothers and wives. In fact, female authors such as Jane Austen tended to publish their novels anonymously for the good of the book’s sales, and reputation. In the most desperate of times, a women could become a governess, or a nanny, for a more wealthy, upper class family. However, taking up a role as a governess was seen as substandard, and for the lower class. Becoming a teacher for girls’ schools was an option as well, but only for educated women, which was an uncommon occurrence. Because of these issues with societal norms, there was a really narrow set of hobbies for women to pursue during this time period.

Middle and upper class girls did have the opportunity to receive an education, but in the eyes of regency England’s society, their intellectual capabilities were far below those of boys. Philosophy, science, mathematics, and classical languages were all regarded as too taxing on the female mind, and as a result, women tended to stray from these fields. Women who did become educated in these subjects, however, were said to have lost their “softness.” An example of this is through Jane Austen’s description of Mary Bennet. She describes Mary as “in consequence of being the only plain one in the family, worked hard for knowledge and accomplishments.” This suggests that if a woman was not physically attractive, she would have to compensate for it by being knowledgeable and possessing certain skills, such as playing the piano. Elizabeth Bennet defies a lot of these societal expectations by doing tasks that were "not for women", such as reading, and others find it peculiar, so it could be argued that Elizabeth is the one in the book to break from that mold of female stereotypes at the time.

Women also had to play a role in society in which they had to work extra hard to attract men while men sat back to “pick and chose.” An example of this is shown in the beginning of the novel, at the ball. Darcy and Bingley sit back and have open conversation about the physical appearance of the women at the ball, paying no heed to the women that are listening. Moreover, the women take the men’s good comments with pride, and do not oppose the judgement that comes their way. Charlotte Lucas even points this out upon saying, “In nine cases out of ten a woman had better show more affection than she feels.” This also justifies Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her girls. She seems to show a great deal of care, and put additional effort into it, because that was women were expected to do, and it was of high priority for them, determining their future family wealth, reputation, and marital status of the other Bennet children. A good majority of the time, women were also very subject to harsh judgment based off of even very little habits that they possess. For example, when Elizabeth shows up to the Bingley’s place in a muddy dress, so much judgement is passed upon her, and when Lydia elopes with Wickham, Darcy advises Bingley that Jane is not from an honorable family because of her sister’s actions. This also ties back into the fact that women had a duty to please men for them to consider marriage.

In Jane Austen’s novel, a “woman’s place”, whether it be in terms of economic security, marriage, legal rights, or the education of girls and young women, is clearly outlined, and is also distinctly shown as of high prioritization. A woman following her intended path could determine her whole life, and had the ability to impact her marriage, children, and family. Several people relied on the women of the family to marry rich in order to save their families financially, and even reputationally. These roles that women held in society ultimately justify the behavior of all of the characters in the novel, because despite women having so little power and say towards the outcome of their lives, certain small decisions that she made could have a tremendous impact, and could even be considered as the backbone of regency European society.


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