Our understanding of feminism has evolved over the course of the many years since the term was first coined in 1848. After the first Women’s Conference was held in Seneca Falls, we were introduced to this very important social movement. Originally used as a platform to work towards greater social changes such as abolition of slavery and the Temperance movement, feminism has in and of itself become something even greater than that. While we’re on the topic of feminism, let’s take a look at some strong female literary characters whose existence came about before the advent of this movement.
1. Jane Eyre, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
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Published in 1847, only a year before the movement was christened, is the novel Jane Eyre. The novel’s title character, Jane, is quite literally a “plain Jane” whose life is lived very simply and modestly. Jane is a woman who has been thrown curveballs at every turn, yet she remains strong-willed and pleasant throughout. She is quiet and reserved, yet her ability to gracefully maneuver around difficult circumstances shows immense courage and emotional intelligence. She believes in moral fortitude, and falls in love with a man she cannot be with because of an unfortunate bout of legal luck. When he suggests they run off together so that their love can continue despite the legality of the situation, she runs off alone. She values her convictions, beliefs, and morals far more than her emotions and this passionate love, and that makes her a true force to be reckoned with.
2. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
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Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 and tells the story of the two Dashwood sisters: Elinor and Marianne (“Sense” and “Sensibility,” respectively). All Jane Austen novels feature strong, female protagonists so it was difficult to choose a single title, but I think this one exemplifies the tenants of what makes a person strong. Elinor is a woman who demonstrates responsibility and a strong love for her family. She continuously sacrifices her own desires and wants for the well-being of those to whom she is tied by blood. Her sister becomes romantically involved with a man who treats her poorly because he is selfish and greedy, and she falls into a deep state of depression. Elinor is eventually able to help her sister recover from this heartbreak, and in turn Marianne learns a valuable lesson on the subject of good sense.
3. Elizabeth Bennett, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
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Okay, okay. I went back on my word and chose a second Jane Austen novel, because how can one compile a list of early feminist literature and not include Pride and Prejudice? Published in 1813, it tells the story of a girl named Elizabeth Bennet whose close relationship with her father echoes the values she holds true to her heart. She is stubborn and stands up for what she believes in, and this tends to get her into trouble. Her mother wishes her to marry a man she does not love to help save their home, but she cannot agree to such a decision because every logical cell in her brain stands against the union. She meets a man named Mr. Darcy, whose cold and seemingly harsh nature strikes a flame of hatred for him in her. Of course, the two characters eventually work their way through the pride and prejudice embedded in their hearts, and hate gives way to love.
4. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ft. in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
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While technically not a novel itself, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” takes place within the collection of The Canterbury Tales penned by Geoffrey Chaucer in Middle English somewhere between 1387 and 1400. Chaucer’s tales feature a group of people on a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of the martyr, Thomas Becket. Along the way to Canterbury, the group of people elect to tell stories, and this is how the reader encounters the Wife of Bath. Because of how old the text itself is, it’s difficult to fully determine what Chaucer’s intention was behind this character, but she essentially believes herself to be the foremost authority on marriage because of the statistical evidence she provides: her five separate marriages! She explains that she used sex as a tool to get what she wanted from her husbands including money and possessions; that she would tease her men with the promise of sex until she was given what she wanted. While her position as a feminist can be argued in either direction, it is at least quite clear that the Wife of Bath is a woman with a strong and fiery personality and stance.
5. A Declaration of Sentiments by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, principally
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As a way to close a list on proto-feminist characters in literature, I’m diverting from the initial path to include this important document signed in 1848, and the cast of characters is all women across time and space. This is the document that was signed all of those years ago at the convention held in Seneca Falls, and A Declaration of Sentiments is an important and worthwhile read for anyone who wishes to understand the very early history of the feminist movement. The primary author of the document was Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and she modeled its language and style after the Declaration of Independence. It provides a detailed list of sentiments that the 68 women and 32 men who signed the document believed important for progress to continue. The document itself certainly caused much controversy, but helped push forward the human mindset so that the suffrage movement could eventually take place.
Our world has changed greatly since 1848, and feminism has changed with it. But at the end of the day, what remains true and valid is that we the people have found friends and like-minded allies in our favorite literary heroines. There are a vast number of feminist figures who did not make it to this list, but these are the ones that had the chance to exist before Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped to give them a voice and a cause to fight for.
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