I was always a feminist. I wasn’t supposed to be one. I was raised by people who unironically use the term “feminiazi”. I was raised in a church which prohibited women from being spiritual leaders. I was never supposed to be a feminist, but I always was. Before I knew what feminism was, I was a feminist.
As a baby feminist, I adamantly eschewed the old-fashioned model of womanhood which all my friends aspired to. Quiet, unassuming womanhood that desired romance and family above all else. My friends would take out sketchbooks and plan their future weddings, down to the reception tablecloths. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it was not for me. My friends prayed for gentle spirits and kind souls. These are wonderful things to aspire to, but they were not for me.
I was sick to death of my peers swooning over Mr. Darcy before I even knew who Mr. Darcy was. Whether it was a fictional man or a real life boy, there was always the abstract Male Presence looming over my female friendships. I resented men everywhere, fictional and actual, for this shadow.
The drama of crushes and who-likes-who always appealed to me, I must admit. If I had been able to reconcile my rudimentary and unguided idea of feminism with my love for soapy, overwrought emotional stories, I think I would have been a much better young woman. At the very least, I would have been a much happier one. As things were, I rolled my eyes at romantic stories and at my friends for loving them. I was too young, too ignorant to understand how my self-hate-fueled derision of the stereotypically feminine was inherently sexist, a long since outdated model of “feminism”.
And so I spent my adolescence firmly believing that Jane Austen’s works were the sort vapid, pandering drivel pushed on young women to inspire them to embrace traditional gender roles. I never gave them the chance to show me something other than what I heard in the idle chatter of girls too young to carry more than a cursory understanding of the emotional and social complexities of Pride and Prejudice.
To my mind, Jane Austen represented all the things about the feminine experience that I sought to eradicate in myself in order to transcend my assigned gender. To my mind, the feminine, and the beyond-feminine could not coexist. To my mind, the feminine was holding us back. How wrong I was!
Without any feminist role models or peers to help shape my feminism, I had adopted a reductive, second-wave version of it. A “claim your power from men by becoming more like them” version of it. But I didn’t resent the feminine. Not really. I resented the expectation of the feminine. Things changed for me once I realized this.
By allowing myself to choose my interests and behaviors, regardless of their gendered associations or expectations, I opened myself up to personhood beyond gender. Instead of defining myself by my gendered behavior or my subversion of gendered behavior, I gave myself the freedom just to be. To be a woman, and to be something beyond it. Something in between the lines. Something harder to define, but so much easier to live. As I began to open myself up to the world in this way, I wondered if it might be worth it to give Jane Austen another shot.
I have found myself in the years since identifying with Lizzy Bennet’s journey from consistently rebelling against the gendered expectations placed on her to making the choices which will bring her the most happiness, regardless of whether or not they conform. Perhaps I am projecting my own emotional growth onto her story, but then again isn’t that what books are for?
Lizzy marrying a rich man in the end of Pride and Prejudice after spending her whole life resenting the pressure to marry a rich man feels like a sort of higher-stakes mirror image to myself picking up a copy of Pride and Prejudice after years making fun of it. Lizzy and Mr. Darcy make each other happy by making themselves happy. They make themselves happy by forgetting entirely about outside opinions of their personal choices.
This was a revelation to me. The people who matter, they will understand. They will not make their own expectations your burden to bear. The people who matter will love you for your agency, and it is only in embracing your agency that you will discover which are the people who matter. Shackling yourself to Subversion is not agency any more than shackling yourself to Propriety is.
Most modern women identify with Lizzy Bennet. Most modern women feel that they get Lizzy Bennet in a way that no other modern woman does. But, you guys…
You don’t get Lizzy Bennet like I do.
Even more than Lizzy Bennet, however, I have found a tremendous connection to Austen’s second most prominent heroine, Emma Woodhouse. I have never met a story that belonged to me so entirely.
The story of Emma is the story of a young woman of considerable privilege stumbling repeatedly and brutally down the road to self-improvement. Emma is a woman who wants to do the right thing and to nurture in herself a noble and gentle character. Emma is a woman whose selfishness, manipulations and penchant for drama swoop in and ruin the day over and over again. Emma’s lessons are hard-learned ones, that must present themselves again and again and again before they stick.
My god. Whatever souls are made of, mine and Emma’s are the same. Emma seeks the same goodness I do. Emma deeply values her own independence, assertiveness and wit, just as I do. She also deeply values the soft, trusting, gentle nature that seems to elude her, just as I do.
“There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart… There is nothing to be compared to it. Warmth and tenderness of heart, with an affectionate, open manner, will beat all the clearness of head in the world, for attraction… I have it not; but I know how to prize and respect it.”
Emma is so painfully self-aware, so perceptive and so well-intentioned. These things carry her through each of her countless missteps. Oh, Emma. You have more tenderness of heart than you know.
I have more tenderness of heart than I know.
Yes, Emma falls in love, too. But her love story with Mr. Knightley is not the focus of Emma. Jane Austen did not write a romance novel here, as I so unfairly assumed she had. She wrote one of the most honest, painful and rewarding coming-of-age stories ever penned. Instead of relying on unspeakable tragedies and dystopian futures to push her protagonist from child to adult, Austen articulated the internal struggle that lives behind a seemingly average life with the utmost immediacy and relevance and unflinching honesty.
It is undoubtedly feminist to believe that the messy internal life of a deeply flawed young woman deserves to be told and deserves to be read. I cannot believe I spent so many years dismissing such an undertaking, devaluing it for its appeal to young women.
Jane Austen did not just write about young women, and she did not just write for young women. She wrote on behalf of them. She did not simply write to entertain, to appeal to female-socialized fantasies of love and drama. She wrote to assert the inherent value and interest in their lives.
Feminism has much bigger, immediate and more progressive things to worry about than a handful of novels about white English cis women who find wealthy husbands. We must always stay aware of this. But my lost, untaught, unbelievably naive infant feminism had to start growing from somewhere. I will always be indebted to Jane Austen for reinforcing in my mind the inherent value of the feminine experience and for the more inclusive, empathy-guided brand of feminism this has led me to.
If I was so wrong about Lizzy and Emma, how many other women have I been wrong about? How many other women have I overlooked? I will seek to answer these questions for as long as I live. I will spend the rest of my life fighting the ignorance that blinds me to the experiences of other women. I will spend the rest of my life asserting the inherent value of theirs.