“At every level of the educational establishment, women had to first fight for the right to learn, then for the right to teach and finally for the right to affect the content of learning. This last has yet to be accomplished to any significant extent”
Said Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Feminist Consciousness (page 45). This phrase perfectly summarizes the main obstacle of all women in history. Before the 16th century, most women, at least the low and middle-class women, were illiterate. Patriarchic society of the century didn’t consider the illiteracy of women as a problem, after all, the only purpose of a woman was to get married in order to give birth to several children. We can only state a couple of women writers before sixteen century; Sappho of Lesbos(650 B.C.E.-590B.C.E.) , which is known not as the first women writer, but at the root of the word ‘lesbian’, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim(930-990) who is the first dramatist of Christianity whose dramas are the first performable plays of the Middle Ages, Hildegard of Bingen(1098-1179) who is the advisor of popes, Christine de Pizan(1364-1430) who is the first women to earn money from literature and Aphra Behn who wrote the first English novel in addition to 17 plays and 13 novels along with several poetry and letters. Virginia Woolf gives her homage to Behn in ‘ a Room of One’s Own’(79): “All women together should let flowers fall on the tomb of Aphra Behn… for it was she who earned them the right to speak their minds”.
17th century saw the emerge of women scholar even though still considered as “oddities”.(Wilson, Warkne 10) Women writers in the 17th century were known mostly as religious or letter (belles lettres) writers. As they couldn’t attend colleges to get a proper education, they couldn’t have any knowledge or opinion on politics, economy or alike.
Another important problem facing women throughout history is the dominant patriarchic approach towards women writers. The most important women writers in history couldn’t have the opportunity to publish their works; they needed to use male pseudonyms like George Sand and Brontë Sisters, or have to open their own printing press like Virginia Woolf. As 17th century writer Marie de Gournay brings up:
“Freedom is the phenomenon of being taken seriously, of having the opportunity for intellectual and artistic fulfillment and success- aspirations not very different from recent efforts by women scholars to establish a policy of anonymous submissions for publications”(Kelly, 84)
Marie de Gournay’s discussion is perhaps the root of all problems that women faced since the biblical times. The patriarchic society is based upon men’s needs and views; therefore women should stay at the house nurturing the child and taking care of the domestic environment. This understanding of the female role in society takes its roots from basic distinctions of genders. Female is always physically weaker than male, because of that, women should stay at home gardening and taking care of the household while the strong male go hunting. This was a fair division of labor; because the outside work of the era is dangerous and physical. In time, this simple understanding turns into norms of society; into something almost invisible, yet powerful and hard to change.
In order to be able to write professionally, women first needed to find a way to enter actively in society. In this cause, the strongest enemy is the norms of society. First of all, women didn’t have any freedom. Looking at the history of law shows the patriarchic repressions women faced; only in 1840, ‘a man’s right to lock up his wife and beat her in moderation’ get uphold after decades of women’s rights debates.
Industrial Revolution first brought women the opportunity to work outside the house. With the fast progresses in industrial environments, the present male work force became insufficient. Women, who fought for their rights and freedoms over two decades, and stayed unable to change society’s rules, now, found a chance to join the active society life. Men, who continuously rejected even the idea of free women, had to allow them the economic independence in the sake of progress of society. But, this new freedom only helped low-class women to interact with the society. Middle-class women’s only option was to become a governess. Although a woman could earn enough money to have a decent living she had “no security of employment, minimal wages, and an ambiguous status, somewhere between servant and family member, that isolated her within the household.” (Norton Anthology of English Literature, 903)
Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ describes the oppressive environment for women in the Victorian period very vividly. This novel is also important for its descriptions in the governess life. The book is, by many critics, considered as the first major feminist novel, although it has an understanding in similarity of both genders, rather than their equality. In the passage below, Brontë reveals her feelings very openly using Jane’s speech to Mr. Rochester:
“Do you think I am an automaton? A machine without feelings? … Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong—I have as much soul as you -- and full as much heart… I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh; -- it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal, -- as we are”(Brontë, 252).
Jane Eyre is also very important for its metaphors on women’s oppression of the era. As a young girl, Jane had her first punishment at the Reeds, by rebelling against ‘Master Reed’ (Brontë 2), the 14 year old boy of the house, who sees Jane as a ‘ poor relation’ (Brontë 3) who ‘ought to beg, and not live with gentlemen’s children…’(Brontë 3). As punishment, she is trapped in the red room, which “perfectly represents her [Jane’s] vision of the society in which she is trapped.”(Gilbert and Gubar 340) Even though vivid as a color, the red room represents the vivid seeming society, which, in reality, functions as an oppressive world consisting of customs and punishments. In the red room, Jane faced her status in society; ‘ less than a servant’ (Brontë 5) and after being sent to an orphanage, she tried to promote her status as governess. But the house at Thornfield is the same kind of house ‘ that symbolize the patriarchal structures within society that inhibit or negate the possibility of female liberty’ (Allingham 1). The house is almost a shelter for women that can’t find a suitable role or place into the society- ‘fallen or the outcast’ (Allingham 3). The servants or habitants of Thornfield are rather, rebel like Jane, a drunk like Grace Poole or mad like Bertha Mason. Diagnosed as “mad”(Brontë 327) by “medical men” (Brontë 327), she must be kept in prison like a savage animal that must be tamed. In the novel,
Brontë uses this occasion to show what can happen to a woman who refuses to fit into society; men label them as ‘mad’ and lock her into some attic or sort, in order to prevent her from injuring society. As a governess, Jane couldn’t place herself clearly; she was more than a servant, but less than a respectable habitant, but somewhere in between.
Though being a governess or working in a factory for 15 hours a day is hard work with a little income, it brought the economical independence to women. And one can also say that, these working opportunities brought women bigger freedoms. First of all, in order to achieve the governess status, a woman had to receive a proper education, which gave the opportunity to women to attend first in institutions (first institution; ‘Governess’ Benevolent Institution’ founded in 1841), than in better colleges (first women college; ‘Girton College’ in Cambridge founded in 1869), where they could have almost a similar education as men. Second, gaining the status of workers, women gained the access to fight for better rights. Men could no longer ignore their demands; because they now were productive members of society, who society itself relied on. With the Industrial Revolution, women first organized ‘Factory Act’ (in 1844, 1847&1850), than associations concerning women’s rights (‘Women’s Rights Association’ in 1849, ‘Women’s Rights Convention’ in 1850, ‘Women’s Suffrage Petition in 1851, ‘Association for the Promotion of the Employment of Women’ in 1857, ‘Society for Promoting the Employment of Women’ in 1859, ‘American Woman Suffrage Association’ in 1869). With the aid of these organizations, the passive and domestic female, who couldn’t find any way to free herself from men’s dominance, gained important rights- their ancestors couldn’t dream about- like ‘Education Act’ in 1870, which gave women, the right to serve on School Boards and ‘Voting Act’ in 1918.
The main problem women writers had suffered from, especially before the 20th century, was the patriarchal community which didn’t take women’s writings seriously or gave them freedom to write whatever she pleased. Even though a woman could find the opportunity to write, and even though she had as much talent as Shakespeare, she couldn’t find an environment, which would take her seriously. Virginia Woolf explored this problem deeply in her book; ‘A Room of One’s Own’. After the constant accusations of many men, on how low the female talent is, because it never managed, manages or will manage to create a Shakespeare, she created a story about Shakespeare’s imaginary, talented sister. She had same talent as her brother and though she couldn’t have proper education, her brother taught her everything he learned at school and provided her books to read. She, like her brother, decided to become a play writer. When she opened up to her father, he first locked her into her room, then, without much delay, he found her some young gentleman to marry. She, then, escaped from home to a big city, where, in the end, she killed herself in despair without writing a word:
“I told you in the course of this paper that Shakespeare has a sister; but do not look for her in Sir Sidney Lee’s life of the poet. She died young—alas, she never wrote a word. She lies buried where the omnibuses now stop, opposite the Elephant and Castle. Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the crossroads still lives. She lives in you and me, and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed. But she lives; for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences…” (Woolf 59)
Unlike many others who only find the symptoms, she gives also the cure in her book; “A woman must have money and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.”
Allingham, Philip V. Essay for English 3412, Lakehead University, 26 March 2004
Brontë, Charlotte. “Jane Eyre”, Longman Ed. 1947
Gilbert, Sandra M. and Gubar, Susan. “The Madwoman at The Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth- Century Literary Imagination, New Haven: Yale UP, 1979
Kelly, Joan. “Early Feminist Theory and The Querelle des Femmes”, Signs, 1982
Lerner, Gerda. “The Creation of Feminist Consciousness”, Oxford University Press, 1993
Shoshana, Felman. “Women and Madness. Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Rev. ed., Ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Dian Price. New Jersey, Rutgers University Press, 1997
Spender, Dale. “Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them, Pandora Press, 1982
Wilson, M. Katharina and Warnke, Frank J., “Women Literature in the 17th century”, page 10
Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own” 1929