“Women’s Place in Society during the Romantic Era”–Tiffiny Wolf

Staff Work

During the Romantic period of British Literature, society began debating the proper role of women; not only were male poets and writers writing about their views of women’s changing role, women were increasingly prolific writers, writing about their own thoughts and experiences on the topic. Using language that was easy to understand, these women used their experiences to, in many cases, advocate for more egalitarian treatment from both men as individuals as well as society at large. This is especially notable as before this time period, few women were afforded the opportunity to be educated in what were traditionally considered more masculine pursuits; subjects generally considered appropriate for women included lessons in music, dancing, art, and needlework (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 216). These role of women in society was fiercely debated by writers of the period; Mary Wollstonecraft, Maria Edgeworth, and Mary Darcy Robinson posited for women to be allowed more rights and autonomy over themselves, while Anna Letitia Barbauld wrote affirmatively in favor of the current social norms.

Fighting to obtain better rights, advocates for that position explained that the idea of feminine equality followed logically from the arguments being put forth during this time period regarding individual liberties. Mary Wollstonecraft, in the dedication of A Vindication of the Rights of Women, as written to Bishop Talleyrand-Perigord (who had submitted a report on public education to France’s Constitutional Assembly), inquired if it was “not inconsistent and unjust to subjugate women, even though you firmly believe that you are acting in the manner best calculated to promote their happiness? Who made man the exclusive judge, if women partake with him the gift of reason?” (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 212). At this particular time, women “had no political rights, were limited to a few lowly vocations… and were legally nonpersons who lost their property to their husbands at marriage and were incapable of instituting an action in the courts of law,” which the law called coverture (Wollstonecraft, “Introduction” 209). Furthermore, Wollstonecraft claims that both men and women had been impacted negatively by social constraints, writing “Whilst [women] are only made to acquire personal accomplishments, men will seek for pleasure in variety, and faithless husbands will make faithless wives… What is to preserve private virtue, the only security of public freedom and universal happiness?” (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 213). Analyzing the social situation against the backdrop of her society, Wollstonecraft argues that without women truly gaining a foundational understanding of the reasons why they should behave in certain ways, not only was women’s development constrained, but the virtue of women (as mentioned above) was based on training and not on reasoned and rational response.

Claiming that improper education was one of the main causes of social dysfunction, Wollstonecraft argues that without a proper education and understanding of the world, women are not able to be the partners that their husbands needed, in order to manage the household effectively and educate the children that they were expected to produce. As she notes in Vindication, she has “turned over various books written on the subject of education, [and observed parents and schools, but have come to the ‘profound conviction’ that neglecting education of women leads to misery]; women, in particular, are rendered weak and wretched by a variety of concurring causes, originating from one hasty conclusion” (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 215). Furthermore, quoting from Shakespeare to underline this point, she states that “it is acknowledged that [women] spend many of their first years of their lives in acquiring a smattering of accomplishments; meanwhile strength of body and mind are sacrificed to… notions of beauty, to… establishing themselves…when they marry they act as such children may be expected to act – they dress; they paint, and nickname God’s creatures” (Wollstonecraft, “Vindication” 216). This was not met with positive acclaim from all quarters, however; Horace Walpole remarked that Wollstonecraft “was a hyena in petticoats” (qtd. in Gilbert and Gubar 31). After Wollstonecraft’s untimely death, her legacy was tarnished by her husband William Godwin’s decision to release an account of her life including her love affairs, her illegitimate child, and her suicide attempts. Reviewers and society alike turned against Wollstonecraft’s ideas based on her unconventional lifestyle choices. Fortunately, through her prolific writings and response to the male-dominated social structure, she succeeded in beginning the discussion to redefine social expectations of women.

Other women writers began to debate this issue, influenced by Wollstonecraft’s writings; this debate was approached in different ways by different writers; Maria Edgeworth, in her Letters for Literary Ladies, published in 1795, illustrated this via essays written in letter format between contemporaries. In Edgeworth’s “Letter from a Gentleman, the gentleman writes his friend, who has just been presented with a baby daughter, exhorting him to consider raising her according to the prevailing social mores of the day:

[Women] of rank, of riches, or of beauty, depend upon the world for their immediate gratification… they are sensible of their dependence… [However,] women who [do not] feel dependent for amusement… are apt to consider this subjection as humiliating… Envy [is] one of the evils which women of uncommon genius have to dread. Women must expect to pay it doubly.

The letter writer of this particular text also inquires after the baby’s future social prospects, saying his friend will “make her incapable of friendship with her own sex. Where is she to look for friends…? Learned men have usually chosen for their wives, or for their companions, women who were rather below than above the standard of mediocrity: this seems to me natural and reasonable” (Edgeworth). As women were expected to get married, those ladies who did not enter the matrimonial state were beholden to their families to take care of them (if such assistance was forthcoming), needed to gain employment at one of the few opportunities available to women, or were reduced to begging in the streets for sustenance. Edgeworth was more fortunate than most in this regard; she had been educated by an open-minded father, and held progressive views on estate management and education. She also was well-known as a writer, and corresponded with many of the literary notables of the day.

In the “Response” that follows, Edgeworth argues the opposite point, stating that women in the evolving society need to be educated to be able to be fully participating members within that society (like she is able to be). The respondent writes his friend, informing him that he does “not pretend, that even by cultivating [his] daughter’s understanding [he] can secure for her a husband suited to her taste; it will therefore be prudent to make her… [somewhat independent] of matrimony” (Edgeworth). At the time, this was a radical concept, as women were expected to pay more attention to their bodies and behavior, instead of cultivating their minds; society judged women principally by these standards, and husbands specifically looked for the most advantageous match they could contract based on these attributes. The writer continues, realizing that social norms were moving beyond those that had been considered “feminine” in the past, stating that “much of her happiness… will depend upon her being able to conform her taste to [her future spouse’s]… I wish to give her the habit of industry and attention, the love of knowledge, and the power of reasoning: these will enable her [to be successful] at any pursuit” she desires (Edgeworth). By inculcating her in these standards, he is ensuring that his daughter is able to run a household efficiently, raise her children to be a credit to her husband and her family, and generally avoid the “dissipation” that was so common during this period.

In “Letters of Julia and Caroline,” Edgeworth continues to advocate for women’s rights through letters written between women. Caroline writes her dearest childhood friend Julia; Edgeworth uses Caroline as an example of a lady who is allowed full faculty of her intellect, where Julia is not afforded the same opportunity. In “Letter Two: Caroline’s Answer to Julia,” Caroline (described in traditional terms within the correspondence) explains to Julia that by Julia believing that “it is the sole object of a woman’s life… to please. Her amiable defects please more than her noblest virtues, her follies more than her wisdom, her caprice more than her temper,” Julia is at risk of being desperately unhappy with the type of husband that she is likely to marry (Edgeworth). However, Julia marries Lord V. in spite of Caroline’s warnings.

As the letters continue, Edgeworth uses Julia and her situation as a cautionary tale. Julia finds herself unhappy confined in the strictly domestic sphere; Caroline writes Julia concerning her “intended separation from her husband” (Edgeworth). Commenting “with bitter irony on the control over women that contemporary society granted to married men” (Day 24), Caroline writes:

From domestic uneasiness a man has a thousand resources… Dissipation, ambition, business, the occupation of a profession, change of place, change of company, afford him agreeable and honourable relief from domestic chagrin. If his home become tiresome, he leaves it; If his wife become disagreeable to him, he leaves her, and in leaving her loses only a wife… She has no remedy… The wife who has hazarded least, suffers the most by the dissolution of the partnership; she loses a great part of her fortune, and of the conveniences and luxuries of life. She loses her home, her rank in society… ‘Her occupation is gone.’ She becomes a wanderer. (Edgeworth)

In Letter Six, Caroline informs Julia that she (Caroline) cannot have any future communication with her (Julia), and reminds Julia that her actions will directly impact her family’s social status as well. Leaving her husband anyway (in an effort to gain personal agency for herself), Julia causes a scandal; at the conclusion of the letters (Letter Seven), Caroline writes Lord V., stating that Julia’s “sense of her own ill conduct, was undoubtedly the immediate cause of her illness, and the remorse which had long preyed upon her mind, at length brought her to the grave” (Edgeworth). Perishing in Caroline’s home, Julia gives her daughter the final advice to “be good and happy,” having repented of her earlier actions. As social judgement was swift and severe, very few options remained to women who found themselves outcast from society; death could take any form, from the literal to the figurative “social death” that Caroline references in Letter Six, when she bids Julia a permanent farewell. As seen in Wollstonecraft’s example, not even death could protect from the judgement of society.

Not all women writers were in agreement with the newly emerging viewpoint. For example, Anna Letitia Barbauld argued the opposite viewpoint, writing her poem “The Rights of Women” as a response against Wollstonecraft’s Vindication; she “was one of the few members of the radical intelligentsia of the time whose opposition to Wollstonecraft was the product of a real engagement with her views on women” (Tomaselli). Barbauld begins her poem by stating:

Yes, injured Woman! Rise, assert thy right!

Woman! Too long degraded, scorned, opprest;

O born to rule in partial Law’s despite

Resume the native empire o’er the breast! (1-4)

Towards the middle of the poem, the tone of the poem begins to change, when she suggests that even by [trying]:

all that wit and art suggest to bend

Of thy imperial foe the stubborn knee;

Make treacherous Man thy subject, not thy friend;

Thou mayest command, but never canst be free. (17-20)

Where Wollstonecraft had informed her readers that education and development of a woman’s body was of paramount importance, Barbauld has a different opinion, advocating that the social structure is unlikely to accept the new femininity; she concludes her poem by writing:

But hope not, courted idol of mankind

On this proud eminence secure to stay;

Subduing and subdued, thou shalt find

Thy coldness soften, and thy pride give way.

Then, then, abandon each ambitious thought,

Conquest or rule thy heart shall feebly move,

In Nature’s school, by her soft maxims taught,

That separate rights are lost in mutual love. (25-32)

Barbauld specifically tailored her message to her readers, stating at the close of this poem that all that a couple really needs is love, and rejecting Wollstonecraft’s call to change social structures; poems written by Barbauld are filled with the language of feelings, such as she utilizes to make her point in the poem above. The daughter of a minister, Barbauld married another minister, and frames much of her literary work in terms of motherhood and the expected roles of women during the era.

Sharing Mary Wollstonecraft’s views on women’s place in society, Mary Darcy Robinson wrote Letter to the Women of England as a criticism of the social mores of the day. Robinson’s father had run off with his mistress, and Robinson’s husband was arrested for debt and went to debtor’s prison; Robinson expresses her disillusionment with the institution of marriage, noting that:

man may enjoy the convivial board, indulge the caprices of his nature; he may desert his home, violate his marriage vows, scoff at the moral laws that unite society, and set even religion at defiance, by oppressing the defenceless; while woman is condemned to bear the drudgery of domestic life, to vegetate in obscurity, to love where she abhors, to honour where she dispises, and to obey, while she shudders at subordination. (10-11)

Robinson follows up this observation by criticizing how the majority of men “continue to debilitate the female mind, for the sole purpose of enforcing subordination” (12), while also exhorting women to “shake off the trifling, glittering shackles, which debase you… Be less the slaves of vanity… know yourselves equal to greater, nobler, acquirements: and by prudence, temperance, firmness, and reflection, subdue that prejudice which has, for ages past, been your inveterate enemy” (93-94). Rejecting the “glittering shackles” that society imposes on women during this era, Robinson claims that not only will women’s lives be improved, but through education of their daughters, the “superstitious tenets of bigotry and fanaticism [will be lessened, and the daughters that follow will have] that genuine glow of conscious virtue which will grace them to posterity” (94-95). Women of this time period were subject to the whims of their husbands, and found very little recourse; by women training their daughters to be able to take care of themselves, they will be able to be socially and financially independent. Consequently, those daughters will be able to claim their rightful place as the social and intellectual equals of men.

In addition, Mary Robinson comments on the inequities inherent in being a woman who is wronged, as opposed to a gentleman. Women in this era who found their reputations tarnished found society to be particularly unforgiving; men, on the other hand, did not face such harsh judgements from society. Robinson writes that “what in man is laudable; in woman is deemed reprehensible, if not preposterous. What in man is noble daring, in woman is considered as the most vindictive persecution… The dastardly offender triumphs with impunity, because he is the noble creature man, and she a defenceless, persecuted woman” (Robinson 71-72). Social norms imposed on women (as seen in Mary Edgeworth’s “Letters of Julia and Caroline”) required that women remain free of all potential “blemishes”; female writers of this time period found their work being viewed through the particular lens of modesty and morality, and critics were happy to utilize their judgements on that point to color their opinion and attack works that failed to conform to society’s standards. As Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar note in The Madwoman in the Attic:

until the end of the nineteenth century the woman writer really was supposed to take second place to her literary brothers and fathers. If she refused to be modest, self-deprecating, subservient, refused to present her artistic productions as mere trifles designed to divert and distract readers in moments of idleness, she could expect to be ignored or (sometimes scurrilously) attacked. (Gilbert and Gubar, 61-62)

Robinson’s Letter, for example, was reviewed by “Gentleman’s Magazine”; the reviewer states that he is “not surprised to find claims set up for the female sex, unsupported we must say by prescription, but we are justified in saying by reason… all who have any regard to decency, order, or prudence, to avoid her company” (Review). Both Wollstonecraft and Robinson were unconventional figures with immodest personal lives who wrote to a diverse audience about important societal issues, and “polite society” judged them harshly for their perceived failings. Wollstonecraft had an illegitimate daughter and attempted suicide twice; Robinson was an actress who became a royal mistress, who became an object of public interest, and whose movements were closely tracked and commented upon by the gossip columnists of the day.

Romantic era authors debated issues such as women’s rights, democracy, freedom, and many others, in an effort to make a change for the better in the prevailing social structures of the day. All of the authors who contributed to the discussion of women’s issues came from different backgrounds, had different experiences and perceptions, as well as different levels of education; consequently each had different visions of what social improvement for women would look like. Not only did these writers impact other writers of their own era, their writings also impacted future generations of writers and are still part of the discussion today. Not only did each of these women make the effort to improve their experiences in society, they each truly felt as though they were advocating their firmly held beliefs on behalf of all women everywhere. In bringing the discussion to the forefront of human consciousness, these writers succeeded in impacting society; not only did the discussion set the framework for the debates that would occur in the Victorian Era, this remains a topic under discussion and debate as it impacts the women of the present era, over two hundred years later.




Works Cited

Barbauld, Anna Letitia. “The Rights of Woman.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period, Volume D. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 48-9. Print.

Day, Aidan. Romanticism. London: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Edgeworth, Maria. “Letters for Literary Ladies.” A Celebration of Women Writers. Ed. Mary Mark Ockerbloom. N.d. Digital Library, U. of Pennsylvania. Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic. London: Yale University Press, 1979. Print.

Review of Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination; with Anecdotes by Anne Frances Randall. Gentleman’s Magazine. April 1799: 311. Print.

Robinson, Mary Darby. “A Letter to the Women of England on the Injustice of Mental Insubordination, with Ancedotes.” Romantic Circles Electronic Edition. Ed. Adriana Craciun, Anne Irmen Close, Megan Musgrave, and Orianne Smith. May 1998. Romantic Circles (U. of Maryland). Web. 5 Oct. 2015.

Tomaselli, Sylvana. “Mary Wollstonecraft.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition). Ed. Edward N. Zalta. June 2014. Center for the Study of Language and Information (Stanford University). Web. 10 Oct. 2015.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period, Volume D. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 211-39. Print.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. “Introduction to ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women.’” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period, Volume D. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 208-11. Print.