McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Susan K. Howard
commodification of women, cultural materialism, history of feminism, marriage law and customs, marriage market
Mary Hays's Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796) and Mary Wollstonecraft's Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman (1798) demonstrate the futility of educating women, given Britain's law of coverture; they expose the impracticality of ideal women presented in Jean Jacques Rousseau's Émile (1762) and James Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women (1766); and they demand educational parity between the sexes. Although novelists throughout the nineteenth century revisit and reshape all four authors' ideas, by 1895 in Jude the Obscure, when Sue Bridehead fails to achieve sexual equality despite enjoying educational parity, Thomas Hardy concludes that educating women remains futile.
This cycle begins when Emma and Maria fail to embody ideals from Hays's Appeal to the Men of Great Britain in Behalf of Women (1798) and Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In Belinda (1801), Maria Edgeworth fictionalizes her Letters for Literary Ladies (1795) and Practical Education (1798), rejects educational parity, and combines autodidacticism with experiential learning. Susan Ferrier rejects Rousseau and Wollstonecraft but modifies Fordyce's ideal woman in order to achieve her optimal women's pedagogy in Marriage (1818). Charles Dickens, in Dombey and Son (1846-1848), meshes Rousseau's Sophy with the feminine ideal from Sarah Stickney Ellis's conduct books. Charlotte Brontë's Villette (1853) juxtaposes Ellis's ideal women's education with Wollstonecraftian models from Alexander J. Scott's Suggestions on Female Education (1849) and an anonymous review of Sarah Lewis's Woman's Mission (1839). In Phineas Finn (1867-1869) and Phineas Redux (1873-1874), Anthony Trollope counterposes Ellis's and Lewis's feminine passivity against Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon's Wollstonecraftian feminine agency in A Brief Summary, in Plain Language, of the Most Important Laws Concerning Women (1854) and Women and Work (1857). In Jude the Obscure, Hardy refutes Millicent Garrett Fawcett's desexualized Wollstonecraftian feminism in her 1891 introduction to A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and confirms the futility of coeducation wherever convention ignores legal reform.
Today, the gender wars continue to echo the advice found in nineteenth-century conduct books and novels, offering few fresh contributions. We have far to go before we indeed "have it all"--true educational, legal, professional, and social equality between the sexes.
Tobin, M. (2006). Ignorance and Marital Bliss: Women's Education in the English Novel, 1796-1895 (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/1287