Feminism and the middle class woman in Victorian society



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The feminist movement in Victorian England began with the ideas of equality and independence that originated with the French Revolution. With a foundation in rationalist philosophy, women such as Mary Wollstonecraft announced that if there were natural rights for man, then there were natural rights for women also. Though the first feminist works remained obscure until mid century, the pressures of the Industrial Revolution gradually changed the social structure so that increasing opportunities arose for women in the fields of education, employment, and personal independence. The intellectual and theoretical foundation of the feminist movement reacted against a repressive social code formulated in a number of books on conduct. In effect, the behavior they recommended negated the social and intellectual development of women and destroyed the growth of a healthy personality. The primary insight of the literature on women's rights is the recognition of this problem of identity. Though feminist tracts are important in protesting the problem, an equally crucial source for defining a new role for women was in the novel. The works of Charlotte Bronte are the best example of feminist ideas in literary form. However, some novels and early feminist tracts suffer from a belief in a conspiracy against women and fail to recognize that the abuses in English society were the produce of a gradual evolution of custom and law. [...]