Pride and Prejudice: The Origins of Feminism

By Grace Wydeven

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

So begins one of my favorite stories, “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen and what ensues is the classic romance between Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy. A tale that maintains its relevance today, and with a closer look, it’s no wonder why we still value Austen’s wisdom so many years later.

Elizabeth’s speech is thick with sarcasm, her candor can be crippling, and her personality? Fiercely genuine. She is real, she is herself, and no societal pressure of needing to marry can force her to change. Elizabeth is, as Coco Chanel may say: “who and what she wants.”

But what does this Victorian era novel have to do with feminism? And more importantly modern women?

You didn’t think your English professor made you read that book to get a history lesson on corsets and farming.

In my mind, Elizabeth Bennett exemplifies the feminist woman. When forced to marry she refused. When told to tone down her behavior, she rebelled even more. Elizabeth asked Darcy to dance, and when he snubbed her, she spared him nothing in the disdain department.

Though gender roles today may not seem as extreme as they were in the Victorian age, one would be as foolish as the ridiculous Mr. Collins to believe they have disappeared altogether. Women are still largely deemed to be traditional wives and mothers, with careers put on the back burner. Women should be proprietous, but appealing, but not too appealing as to distract men. We must be strong but not masculine, caring but not weak. The expectations from society seem to change as often as the weather.

But women today can (quite literally) take a page Austen’s novel in dealing with the frustrations of these static, still very rigid gender-oriented roles. We should feel safe and comfortable to be wholly ourselves—whatever shape that role may take, not decided by a predetermined mold. Women can be strong and caring, mothers with careers, or simply people looking to make a difference in any way they can.

But the all-important “we” is the word to remember in this ongoing fight against what and who we are supposed to or should be. As the head of the “He For She” initiative Emma Watson emphasized, this movement must be mutual. Men and women will get nowhere alone. We cannot garner anything useful from the accusations lost in white noise. Men must be comfortable to have emotions, to take on more dynamic roles just as women must feel empowered to do the same. If Darcy was able to apologize to Elizabeth in the rain and marry into her somewhat ridiculous family, our society should be able to relax the hard and fast rules of what it means to be a man, and what it means to be a woman.

In truth, what it means to be a man or a woman is up to the individual. Just as Elizabeth Bennett was unapologetically herself, we as men and women, especially those aspiring to leadership positions, must be unafraid to breach norms in favor of progress and sincerity. Nothing worth doing is easy, and changing the way we think both about ourselves as women and our place in the world, certainly proves to be a worthy challenge.

We can still find meaning and inherent value in traditions like marriage and family, we just need to be willing to compromise the manner in which we pursue them. Changing the way we perceive gender is only the beginning on the long and bumby carriage ride to equality.

In the words of Elizabeth,  “There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

We shouldn’t lose our stubbornness, but rather utilize it in order to fuel the fire that Jane Austen sparked in the 19th century today, in 2015.