Jane Austen, feminism and the future

Posted in: Gender equality, Women

In the wake of a trailblazing International Woman’s Day 2018, Lorna Stevens takes a historical look at the evolution of waves of feminism through the lens of Bath’s most famous writer, Jane Austen. This year marks the centenary of women (over 30) getting the right to vote in the UK, but how far have we really come?


In 2000, I published an edited book on Marketing and Feminism: Current Issues and Research. Let’s just say our royalties were miniscule! Today, though, we are planning a new and revised edition of the book. While this might have been unimaginable nearly a decade ago, there have been some important recent developments that have encouraged many young women to “discover” feminism in recent years. It is no longer the “F word”.

Feminism and its waves

We talk about the waves of feminism – the suffragette movement being the first wave. These “waves” have always been present in women’s lived experiences, but at various times in history a wave becomes stronger and crashes upon the shore of public consciousness.

After third wave feminism, or post-feminism, as it is often referred to, some said feminism was dead. But a change was on the horizon.

Writing in The Guardian in 2013, Kira Cochrane stated: “the campaign for women’s liberation never went away, but this year a new swell built up and broke through.” Fourth wave feminism had crashed onto the shore, and it continues to gather strength and mobilise women.

What fourth wave feminism teaches us is that women’s liberation is on-going, often generational, frustratingly cyclic, and often about the same issues that have always concerned women throughout history. It also teaches us that it’s better when we stick together as women, and bring our concerns out into the open.

The internet has enabled women to break their silence and find a voice, to share their experiences, raise awareness, and mobilise together, both online and offline. Issues such as sexual harassment, objectification, and pay disparity in the workplace, are in the public domain and visible for all to see.

Once again, the feminist principles of political action, community, praxis (change) are uppermost, and many issues, such as the “politics of appearance” are once again challenged, as are issues around gender, race and intersectionality.


Yet real progress is slow. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report benchmarks 144 countries regarding their progress on gender parity via four main themes including economics, education, health and political empowerment. The data makes for depressing reading - the gender gap is widening rather than shrinking. Instead of taking 170 years to close the gap at the current rate of progress, it is estimated that achieving gender parity across the world will take 217 years.


Let’s go 200 years into the past, to the heart of Jane Austen’s time. Austen wrote the first draft of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 1794. Two years previously, Mary Wollstonecraft had published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, considered to be the first feminist manifesto in this country. Austen never mentions Wollstonecraft in her writings, but I think that in her own subtle and ironic way, she addresses many of the issues that concerned radical feminists of her age, such as women’s dependence on men for financial security, and their lack of educational opportunities.

I have just read Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last novel. It is clear to me that Jane Austen’s feminist voice can be heard through her female lead character, Anne Elliott, here in conversation with Captain Harville. He argues with her that women have less constancy than men when it comes to love. Anne replies that women have greater constancy than men: “It is perhaps our fate, rather than our merit … we live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us”, whereas men have “a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other … and continual occupations”.

As the conversation develops, he observes that “all histories are against you”, as every book he opens points to women’s “inconstancy” and “fickleness”. Anne pithily replies that, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.

Whilst many persist in dismissing Jane Austen’s work as genteel novels dealing with domestic, ‘feminine’ matters, and point to the fact that all of her novels end in marriage and so cannot be viewed as having a feminist message, let me disagree.  Marriage was usually the only means for women of her class to have financial security. Jane, though, believed in marriage for love, and indeed turned down a proposal of marriage herself despite the financial security it might have brought her. She knew what it was like to live precariously with little money, to be a carer (of an invalid mother), to be dependent on the largesse of a rich brother.

Her pen was her weapon of choice, wielded with wit, no less potent than the more polemical writing of Mary Wollstonecraft. Both shared a passion for the ideal of women being independent. Jane was of course constrained by the need to be marketable. She was trying to earn a decent living, and her work needed to cater to the public taste. But in her novels she subtly critiques the economic, social and educational restrictions and inequalities of women at that time. In fact she describes the very conditions that led to the birth of the Suffragette Movement in 1903, over seventy years after her death.

 The Future

Jane Austen’s work reminds us of some of the key issues women are still fighting today: women’s right to education; to not be confined to the private, domestic sphere; to have financial independence and equal opportunities to men. These issues remain as pertinent today as they did in the eighteenth century. Recent scandals and the statistics remind us that this is an on-going struggle, but we remain optimistic that progress has been made and continues to be made. Let us relish the hashtags and the hype, not to mention the publicity that currently surrounds the issues that concern us as women and work together to #PressforProgress.


Header image by Gresham College

Posted in: Gender equality, Women


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