A seed was being planted; women’s communities were demanding a more central intellectual role in European life. This seed would blossom into the revolutionary feminist works at the end of the century: Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman and Olympe de Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Women.
Neither in her life, nor in her writings, was Jane Austen a rebel. Her chief concern was virtue, not rebellion, and against the liberal attempt to erase the distinctions between man and woman, Jane always distinguished between the particular virtues appropriate to men and women, as well as their particular vices and follies. (Wiker 228)
Several specifics could be discussed (two of which we’ll look at next week), but in the end it comes down to this: Austen was not trying to free women from traditional institutions, she was trying to free those institutions (and the men and women within them) from the dross of decay, by pointing them back to their heads and their hearts. As Wiker also points out, though, we unfortunately failed to learn the lesson she did her best to teach:
Sadly, both original species presented by Austen are largely extinct. Women like Elinor [or Elizabeth] have been driven out of the culture by force or ridicule, and the Mariannes [and Kittys] have given way to something even more alarming. The Romantics might have been destructive of themselves and others (as they are in Austen’s novels), but Romanticism has been replaced by something far worse, nihilism – what is really the fulfillment of Romanticism and liberalism. (Wiker 231)