Before we start with the importance of women in literature, it is said that women themselves were the only champions of themselves. In the “A Vindication on the rights of women” by Marry Wollstonecraft made a lot of women realize their worth and encouraged them to publish their work. In the 70s and 80s, it highlighted on the works of women.
The Press dedicated itself completely in publishing the lost and ignored works of women. In recent years a greater emphasis on intersectionality has encouraged exploration into the relationship between race, gender, religion, and class to even further prove the importance of the acknowledgment of the place of marginalized groups in literature.
The rise of women in literature started with Jane Austen and her novels. Jane Austen was born on 16th December 1775. Jane Austen was an English novelist and was known for her 6 major novels. Her plots usually explored more on the dependency of women on marriage and economic security. She became one of the known writers after the publication of “Sense and sensibility (1811)”, “Pride and Prejudice (1813)”, “Emma (1815)”, “Mansfield Park (1814)”.
Most of her novels were rarely out and were published anonymously which brought a little fame during her lifetime. . Self-delusion or the attempt to fool other people has always been her object of her wit. Jane Austen uses Irony to provoke people and to make bitter observations.
During the time of Jane Austen’s Career the Romanticism had reached its highest peak. Jane Austen always supported the traditional values and the established norms and would view human condition in the comic spirit. Austen’s works possess a timeless quality, which makes her stories and themes as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago.
In Today’s world young women have a variety of options in front of them regarding their future such as – the person they will get married to, to go to college of their choice, and follow any career that may interest them, or live independently. In Jane Austen’s period young women did not have all these varieties. Although the girls of upper class and middle class would be sent to school. Similarly, the women in 19th century were not allowed to have higher education as men said that the only job of a woman is to look beautiful for their husbands and cook.
A woman’s formal education was limited because her job opportunities were limited — and vice versa.
The society during the Jane Austen’s time couldn’t take it if woman entered profession such as medicines, law, writer etc. Although few woman from upper class and middle class had some advantages. And if a woman is unmarried then she would remain depended on her relatives.
Some social historians have depicted “woman’s place” as very low, indeed: with few legal and economic rights or even receiving little respect, women can be seen as oppressed victims of a patriarchal society, subordinate first to their fathers and, then, to their husbands who had, of course, been selected by their fathers; some late eighteenth century authors of advice to girls and young women regarded women’s minds as limited in reason and not to be overtaxed with serious, intellectual education. In Jane Austen’s novels, the pictures of women and their lives are very different from the pictures painted of women as suppressed, passive victims of their society. Jane Austen’s heroines are intelligent; they exercise reason; they are held in high esteem by the men whom they love, who love them, and whom they marry.
Basically the women were not allowed to do anything. The women were not allowed to work or to vote. They would make the young girls get married soon. Usually a women’s legal protection and her status are vested with their fathers but after she gets married, all her legal status gets disappeared. Her children, her family, and the life she lives are all under control of their husbands. And if in case she were widowed , she would have no rights or control on her children’s unless her husband named her as a guardian, and if she is separated from her husband she is disgrace in the eyes of the society.
A 1770 statute passed by Parliament reveals some of the attitudes toward women at this time:
All women of whatever age, rank, profession, or degree, whether virgin maid or widow, that shall from and after such Act impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty’s subjects by means of scent, paints, cosmetics, washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, hoops, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft and like misdemeanors, and that the marriage upon conviction shall stand null and void.
A woman’s economic independence was further restricted because of the stigma attached to a woman who earned money through working. An unmarried woman could become a governess, but this was a position beneath the social rank and status of middle and upper class young women and was thus regarded as humiliating.
However, by 18th century writing as a profession for women had developed steadily. The entire woman started writing novels, poems and as the novels increased in popularity some women writers started living independently and in some cases few woman earned a lot of money for their works. For Jane Austen, as the daughter of clergyman, there would have been no possibility of her owning a small business – or being a midwife – but it was possible for her to become a professional writer of fiction – and, respectably, from this work to earn money, albeit, a very small amount.
For most of the women, marriage was the only choice they had in front of them in order to have economic security and respectable fulfilling life. As we have seen in Jane Austen’s novels that the only choice a woman has in front of her is marriage which insures a woman’s place, her future and her successful future.
In Jane Austen’s novels, these issues of “woman’s place” – economic security, proper marriage, and sound education of girls and young women – are represented realistically – sometimes with sympathy and approval, sometimes with wit, satire, or harsh criticism, but never with didacticism, for Jane Austen’s intellect and artistic genius effectively blended these topics both thematically and aesthetically so that each novel tells the distinctive story of an individual young woman who achieves rational self-awareness, who learns to make sound moral choices, and who chooses a husband whom she loves and esteems and with whom she will live a happy, intimate, compatible, and economically secure life which enriches their society as well.
Jane Austen is the famous authors in western cannons.
After Jane Austen, the most dominant author was found to be was Virginia Woolf (25th January 1882- 28th March 1941)
Virginia Woolf is considered to be one of the known modernists of the 20th century and was the first to use stream of consciousness as a narrative device. She was homeschooled for most of her childhood and she started writing professionally in 1900.
“The Voyage Out” was her first novel that was published in 1915 through the Hogarth press, which was a publishing house which she established with her husband Leonard Woolf. Her major works were – Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Light House (1927), Orlando (1928), and a long essay – A Room of one’s own (1929) with its dictum which said “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”.
Virginia’s works are read all over the world and her works has been translated in more than 50 languages. Woolf became one of the central subjects of the 1970s movement of feminist criticism, and her works have since garnered much attention and widespread commentary for “inspiring feminism”
Woolf believed that to break free of a patriarchal society that women writers needed a “room of their own” to develop and often fantasized about an “Outsider’s Society” where women writers would create a virtual private space for themselves via their writings to develop a feminist critique of society.
Virginia Woolf dedicated most of her works to the woman. In one of her famous essays “A Room of one’s own” she shows the discrimination of woman in humorous fashion. In this essay she talks about the University scholars who are attending a dinner and are served with the most delicious food ever whereas the woman are served with the boring food although both men and women hold same position their treatment is far from equal.
Virginia felt that this scenario showed the daily life of woman and the problems they go through everyday of their lives. This is one of the main reasons why she stood up for women’s right and to bring justice to them. She blames men for the most of the events that took place in her life. With the inherent taste of a novelist Mrs. Woolf chooses to speak through an “I” who is and yet is not herself.
Mrs. Woolf said that there were reasons why there were only few achievements among woman novelists throughout the centuries. She said that they failed because they were financially not dependent, they were not intellectual free, and they were not allowed the fullest worldly experience.
The woman novelist is nowadays sex-conscious; and the artist can no more be sex-conscious than sex-inhibited. The great creative mind must be androgynous; and Mrs. Woolf interprets Coleridge’s famous definition to mean, not sympathetic with the other sex (which effects a creative division) but harmoniously bisexual in comprehension (which affects a creative fusion).
After Virginia Woolf, one of the most prominent contemporary female writers was Maya Angelou (April 4th 1928- May 28th 2014)
Maya Angelou is one of the renowned voices of our time. Angelou is a celebrated poet, memoirist, novelist, educator, dramatist, producer, actress, historian, filmmaker, and civil right activist. She faced a lot of brutality of racial discrimination but also learnt the unshakable faith and values of the African – American Family, Community and culture. She took an active participation in the civil rights movements with Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.
After the publication of “I know why the caged bird sings” she publically discussed about her personal life to the people. Her works are considered to be the defense of black culture. Even today her works are used in schools and universities all around the world.
At the age of 8, while she was staying with her mother, Maya Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, a man named Freeman. She later informed her brother who later informed the entire family. Freeman was found guilty but was jailed only for a day. 4 days after his release he was murdered by Angelou’s uncles. After experiencing this entire incident Maya Angelou became mute for almost 5 years and believed, where she had stated that “I thought, my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone…”
Maya Angelou later credits a teacher and a friend Mrs. Bertha Flowers who helping her out to speak again. Mrs. Bertha Flowers introduced Maya Angelou to authors like Charles Dickens, William Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe, authors who would affect her life and as well as her career.
Maya Angelou also reflected upon the racial discrimination that she faced and for the people who faced and are still facing. She spoke about the white people (Caucasian) who would trouble and humiliate black people. She spoke about how black people underwent through slavery, discrimination, segregation, hegemony, prejudice and stereotype and class conflicts.
Maya Angelou’s work became one of the most useful literatures in order to trace the racism in America in 16th century until 19th century. Her works also shows her emotions and the ignorance of white people towards her race.
She says that slavery is one of the painful parts in one’s life. Maya Angelou continuously stresses upon the slavery and racial discrimination in her poems which has a different tone of emotions such as – anger, sad, guilty.
Maya Angelou’s novel will forever be remembered and read with admiration. Her most famous book I know why the Caged Bird sings an autobiography she wrote in 1969 that tells the story of Angelou and her brother’s struggles growing up. It was a bestseller and it touches ground on controversial topics such as racism, rape and sexuality. It is also shows the author’s journey while seeking self-independence and getting to know herself.
The above information shows us how the women in that Era had to fight for their rights and how difficult it was for them. All the three women has shown their hard work tremendously and stood for the rights of woman and made the woman realize their worth. From Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf and from Virginia Woolf to Maya Angelou. The only thing that was constant throughout their times were the dedication, the dedication to become something, the dedication to work hard, the dedication to help woman, and the dedication to not to become a burden on anyone.
Women have not only seen the struggles in the society to have equal opportunities but they have also seen their fair share of highs and lows in literature.
However, in the process they have impacted generations of writers not only female but male as well to look up to them so that they can relate to them, and a soaring towards building a legacy of their own.