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Feminist Perspective on Eighteenth Century Literature Essay

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Feminist Perspective on Eighteenth Century Literature

Feminism during the eighteenth century has come to be defined by the literature of the time. Women, who did not have as many outlets as they do today, expressed their political opinions through literature itself. Although feminist texts existed before the end of the century, women writers in the final decade were seen as more threatening to the dominant patriarchal system. Following the overthrow of the government in France, women in Britain believed that "a revolution in sentiments, manners, and moral opinions was possible in their own country" (5). Writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft reacted to the conservative patriarchal society by "[drawing] parallels between the domestic and the political, between the private and the public, in their fiction" (155). While all women did not attempt to reconstruct the gender roles of her time, the women who sought to equalize the positions of men and women were labeled as monstrous or "unsexed."

Male authors of the late eighteenth century saw the patriarchal hereditary government as tyrannical and viewed Kings as animals. Writers such as Tom Paine, William Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, and Robert Bage believed "reason should decide issues of human affairs, not power based on money, age, rank, sex, or physical strength" (10). Men also saw the possibility of a revolution but only in terms of class structure. Although most male authors were sympathetic to the plight of women, they recognized the need to minimize class distinctions as more important than gender. Nevertheless, male appeals to humanity ironically inspired and became models for revolutionary women writers. Women writers later adopted this emphasis on individual abilities r...


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...ewed women as naturally subordinate to men, women writers attempted to challenge this ideology and assert the need for change. The revolution in France, and the belief in the possibility of Britain's own revolution, led some women to adopt inappropriate outspoken tactics. However, these radical women were given derogatory labels which ultimately prevented other writers from directly challenges the system. Nevertheless, women writers during the final decade of the eighteenth century "politicized the domestic or sentimental novel in response to oppression and exclusion." In their fiction they challenged the roles of women in education and in the household. While they were not tremendously successful, the women of this time made recognizable to the public the importance of changing the role of women in society, and provided an impetus for the entire feminist movement.


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