In the beginning, there was Mary Wollstonecraft. Known as the “Grandmother of Feminism” (Murphy), she used her literary power to forward the cause of feminism in the early 18th century, and then proceeded to stop it all because she was promiscuous, unfeminine and shouted her ideas too loudly for the time period.
Sometimes the louder the argument, the quieter the message becomes.
Though it is not widely agreed, Jane Austen is regarded by some as the one who understood the conventions of the day, and reopened the feminist conversation.
Here are five films that capture the spirit of Jane’s novels well, and show the underlying feminist ideals in each. Though many people today see an Austen film as the Anti-Feminist, I believe feminism is inherent in them all.
1. Pride and Prejudice
The Bennetts in Pride and Prejudice live in a comfortable country home with many of the luxuries of the day, and a good standing in polite society. There are no sons to inherit so Mrs. Bennett, the matriarch, lives in a constant flustery fear her daughters will not marry well. Although this cause is worthy of any mother, she is extreme in her execution and all roll their eyes at her brashness. She is loud and uncouth, and at one point Mr. Darcy alludes to her being an “unfortunate relation” of Lizzie’s.
To her mother’s great joy, lovely Lizzie catches the eye of her weasel-like cousin Mr. Collins--and as he is the one who will inherit when her father dies, naturally her mother desires that she accept him quickly. In Mrs. Bennett’s view, Collins is Lizzie’s chance to be taken care of. (Forget happiness, that’s a luxury they can’t afford.)
However, Lizzie is repulsed by the idea and does a very feminist-like thing.
She refuses him.
Somewhere in her intelligent mind, she believes she’ll have more opportunities to marry if she chooses, and if not, so what. Her happiness is of great concern to her, and one she won’t readily relinquish.
At one point, she tells Lady Catherine De Burgh--a powerful woman who dislikes Lizzie greatly--that very thing.
In her article, “Which Jane Austen Character Most Embodies Feminist Principles?” Stephanie Vardavas claps loudly for Lizzie Bennett. Lizzie lives life on her own terms as fiercely as any feminist would.
She is well-read, marries for love not money, and defends herself and her family to any outsider no matter their gender or place in society. She is also enviably skilled at annihilating anyone who crosses her, with her fiery speeches. (I personally love it when she takes down an opponent.)
Lizzie believes in the possibility of a better choice. She is unafraid of the world and knows exactly who she is, and where she belongs.
Some may argue that because she marries, she is not a feminist, but if feminism is about equal opportunity and freedom of choice, then our Lizzie fits the criteria well. Her actions say it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman to be a strong advocate for herself and maintain her femininity.
In her youth the main character, Anne takes advice from friends and her terrifically idiotic family and turns down a proposal from her true love, Frederick Wentworth.
She lives to sorely regret it.
In her subsequent misery, she grows from her suffering to learn that her own desires are worthy of pursuit, and that no matter how much she gives up for the sake of her selfish father and sister, they will remain ungenerous and reject her. She finally accepts that what matters most is for Captain Wentworth to know her heart is still constant.
Eventually, Anne begins to see her beloved Captain Wentworth in various places around town, and yearns to tell him she still loves him, and tries to speak of it several times, but to no avail. She gets a few words out, but they aren’t the right words.
Meanwhile Anne becomes reacquainted with an old friend, the wife of a Naval Admiral; Mrs. Croft, and she becomes Anne’s inspiration. Mrs. Croft chooses to live her life on the sea with her husband, and loves it. She talks of their adventures with a smile on her face and a reminiscent aire. Because we know of Anne’s love for Wentworth, her visible delight in Mrs. Croft’s stories betrays her secret longing for a similar life with him.
One afternoon, when they are both in the same room, Captain Wentworth leaves a note for Anne declaring his continued love and constancy, and asks if perhaps she might still feel the same. She reads it, all her pain is swept away. She comes alive again! She is rewarded at last for living life on her own terms.
She chooses a life on the sea with Frederick. She chooses to forego childbearing, though she is still young enough.
Although I firmly believe raising children is a fulfilling parts of life, Anne’s story helps us see value in other paths. Anne makes us ache for her and in that pain, we realize that we too have but one life. We have one chance to get it right, and horrid relations be damned, we are going after the sea captain! We learn the feminist ideal that happiness looks different to everyone, and women have the right to choose which form they desire.
3. Mansfield Park
Fanny Price is a born storyteller in the film Mansfield Park. When the she is young, she lives in abject poverty with hordes of siblings, and even greater hordes of cockroaches in her home right off the seawall in Portsmouth. She uses her circumstances as fodder for her grand imagination, and later becomes a career woman in an unlikely time--feminism in action.
In one of the opening scenes she is seen telling fabulously horrid tales to her enrapt younger sister, but there are many mouths to feed so she’s sent away.
She goes to live with her aunts, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Bertram, who both married above well, and can provide an education for her. The relatives she now resides with (except Edmund) treat her abominably and make life difficult. Edmund, and the reams of paper provided for her, are the bright spots among the torment, and they become very attached.
She shares her stories and her secrets with him, and though Edmund’s family discourages their comradery, they remain fast friends. He loves her stories, and makes an effort to validate her work by finding a publisher for them. (Isn’t validation what all feminists really want?)
By facilitating the thing most men in that age were fiercely against--wealthy women having careers--Edmund promotes a feminist idea. He doesn’t feel threatened at all by her success. though she seems a bit excited, she simply says, “Really? That’s wonderful!”, as if she believes her getting published is inevitable.
I love that Fanny is a writer--that she put her ideas and thoughts on paper in order to make them last, and to desire that her words emanate life after she leaves it. Fanny’s belief that a woman had the capability and the right to leave such a mark on humanity is to me, decidedly feminist. Edmund’s support of Fanny is another feminist idea seen in Mansfield Park.
4. Sense and Sensibility
In Sense and Sensibility, we meet the Dashwoods. Their father has passed away and they are left with barely enough to live.
Elinor and Marianne are the eldest, and early on in the film both of them fall in love. Marianne is broken hearted when her suitor becomes engaged to a woman with money, and Elinor suffers in silence when she learns that Edward (the man she loves), is engaged to a contriving girl named Lucy and (though he loves Elinor) is too honorable to break it off.
Elinor, is capable and procures a new home for her family, lives by the rules of propriety, keeps Lucy’s secrets, though they cause her great anguish, and manages the household--finances and all. If she were to remain a spinster, she would be perfectly able to live independently.
Marianne shows her feminist side in the film by flying about the countryside in a carriage unchaperoned, showing her affections without reserve, and unabashedly declaring her love for Mr.Willoughby. She lives for self-expression, a feminist right.
Many feminists today would argue that because Marianne lost Willoughby, she was punished for her wild behavior in the film it is anti-feminist, but I disagree. Yes, Marianne was terribly wounded when she lost Mr. Willoughby, but society didn’t punish her, and she eventually made an even better match with a man who respected her.
Her pain was a natural consequence of his choices, and not because she was shunned socially. She wasn’t. In fact, Mrs. Jennings runs out immediately after hearing that Marianne has been jilted, and tries “to find something else to tempt her”, then asks, “does she like olives?” but it’s implied she means a new man.
Her close friends and family never try to teach her a lesson so she’ll behave; it is implied that though she is foolish, she is not wicked.
Willoughby, who is responsible for the same behavior as Marianne, is punished in the film because he is wicked and has done indecent things. Losing Marianne to Colonel Brandon who knows his deeds, and ending up in a loveless marriage is his punishment.
Elinor and Edward wed one another thanks to the inconstancy of Lucy Steele, and even though he has been disinherited and they are penniless, it is assumed they live happily ever.
Though the feminist themes in this film are subtle, The Dashwoods are strong and capable and live on their own terms.
In the film Emma the main character is Emma Woodhouse, who is the daughter of a wealthy gentleman, and the only family he has. This makes her one of the only Austen women who does not need to marry for money.
In the beginning of the film Emma declares in true feminist fashion that she will never marry, but matchmaking is her favorite pastime. She paired well her governess, Miss Taylor, so repeating that success becomes her preoccupation.
Her friend Harriet loves with a well-to-do farmer, Mr. Martin, but Emma says he is “poky and cumbersome and not at all what Harriett should aspire to”, so Harriet refuses Mr. Martin. She is distraught, but decides Emma knows best.
Emma then turns Harriet’s attentions on Mr. Elton, as he is a “more respectable” match, but he isn’t interested. He declares his love and intentions to Emma instead, but she refuses and he leaves town. Mr. Elton ends up engaged almost immediately to someone he met while away.
Mr. Knightley, Emma’s longtime friend, tries to convince her to stay out of everyone’s affairs, but she continues on and makes blunder after blunder, putting her out of Mr. Knightley’s good graces.
Emma is upset that he is angry with her, and when Harriet shows interest in Mr. Knightley, Emma is really bothered because she hasn’t yet admitted she loves him, though he has loved her since they were children. In the end she does realize she loves Mr. Knightley, and they marry.
Meanwhile, Mr. Martin proposes again to Harriet and she happily accepts, and now that Emma is occupied with her own love, she approves of their union.
Emma was an independent woman who knew if she were to marry, in order to be happy she would need someone who engaged her, and Knightley did just that. It wasn’t enough for her to be thought of as pretty or charming to a man.
Emma’s freedom is a powerful example of the quiet feminism that Austen felt would eventually move the world.