Gentle reader, let us not forget that March 8 is International Women’s Day. It focuses on the collective efforts of women’s struggle for equality. And while many of us “Good Time Regency Girls” love to curl up with a Jane Austen novel and romanticize the period as an endless string of dinners, dresses, and balls, it is worth remembering that most regency girls were most likely not having all that good a time.
Jane Austen died in 1817, and she lived in the shadow of a century’s long patriarchal society which viewed women as lustful, stupid, sexually manipulative inferiors who needed to be constantly controlled by men. It was not until the later half of the 19th century that Women were seen to start raising organized issue with their place in society. The inability to inherit or retain property rights following marriage, the vote, and the right to be admitted into academic programs and careers that were considered the domain of men were battles being taken on by women. The London School of Medicine for Women was established in 1874 and was the first medical school in Britain to train women. In 1889 Cornelia Sorabji became the first woman to enter law school at Oxford University and eventually practice law in England. Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom was a national movement that began in 1872, and women did not get the vote until 56 years later in 1928.
I sometimes play a game where I imagine that I can transport people from the past to spend a day with me here in the present. What would Jane Austen think of the 21st century woman? Jane wrote
” A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can”
Would the modern women shock or intrigue our Jane? I imagine hot running water, medicine, and transportation would count as shiny objects. But what would she think of the status of women? In my country I can take any academic program I want to, work in a career of my choosing, and the law states I am not to be beaten. I can buy and sell my own property, can vote, and live my life without the support or control of a man. And I find it comforting to remind myself of these facts, as I am still dubious as to the overall status of women both in my society and worldwide. There is still much work to be done.
So as we 21st century girls delve into our books, wear our ball gowns, dance at balls, and feast at regency supper parties, let us not forget the violence, objectification, and humiliation that women of the regency era were subjected to. Let us honor their strength and ability to cope within a stifling and horribly unfair patriarchal society, that in some respects still exists in the modern world. And each time we slip into one of our ball gowns, remember the successes because
“Our scars make us know that our past was for real” … Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.