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Among the reasons why female writers gained increased popularity during this period, was the greater opportunities for higher education, which provided female writers with the skills and means for expanding their literature. Women's writings in a patriarchal society served the paradoxical purpose of both subverting and conforming to patriarchal ideology. 19th century female literature was both a platform upon which women voiced the oppressiveness of male hegemony, while ultimately conforming to it by allowing their heroines to be redeemed or rescued by men. Such contradictions demonstrate the difficulty in writing in a patriarchal system, which although empowering as a platform to denounce male domination, was a complex task, considering how embedded the patriarchal ideology was in the minds and lives of Victorian female writers and the society as a whole.
The predominantly patriarchal society had been characterized by a dismissal of the intellectual capacity of women where women's writings received little or no recognition. With the growth of cities, market economies and increased life expectancies, conformity to gender roles became less important and women became increasingly conscious of the inequalities of the political, social and legal systems. In the wake of numerous social movements that instigated change, female writers acquired forums, audiences and contexts where they expressed their grievances, opinions, hopes and aspirations. Progressively, inasmuch as many women writers continued to express themselves within the precepts of gender functions, more still broke away from this tradition and expressed their dissatisfaction with the plight of women and gender relations.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte is a fitting of example of female writing in a patriarchal society. The novel depicts how gender, class structure and education determine social relationships. Emily Bronte not only criticizes the patriarchal system for its oppressiveness of women, but questions the very foundations and values on which such as system is founded. During 19th century England, women were ideally relegated to the role of angel of the house, as they were considered inferior and less capable than their male counterparts. As a young girl, Catherine refuses to conform to this societal standard and is thus regarded as a rebellious child. Her waywardness causes endless rifts between her and her father (Wuthering Heights 45). Catherine's defiance of the tenets of patriarchy is a sound illustration of the rebelliousness against a gendered society by women writers of the day. Her character shows the boundaries within which women were expected to remain, if they were to survive in patriarchal system.
In Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte confronts the stiff constructions of gender and the manner in which Victorian society constrains women within oppressive rules and expectations. Similar to the writings of the other Bronte women, Charlotte scrutinizes the pervasive and repressive ideology that characterized 19th century British society. The angel in the house ideology, a theme addressed in the works of all Bronte women, typified a woman as one to be contained and kept within the confines of the home. John, Mrs. Reeds' son calls Jane's portrayal of rage bestial (Jane Eyre 3). Jane, consequently perceives John as her ultimate oppressor and the reason for her anger.
Both male and female writers in Victorian society exercised great restraint when it came to expressing sexuality. Maynard (1) points out that "Victorian society, more than others, is to be characterized by a peculiar attitude toward sexuality." He goes on to say that the society of the day did not publicly or through literature, express sexuality but "generally pushed normal sexual urges underground and reaped, in return, a harvest of compulsive or even mad behavior dominated by hidden instinctual needs" (1). For a woman writing in a patriarchal society, as was 19th century Victorian society, expressions of sexuality in literature would be frowned upon given that female writers were expected to write delicately and in a particular style that was aligned to societal expectations. Sexuality was addressed in veiled expressions, often as Maynard observes, manifesting itself in women who lost their senses and became mad.
All Victorian women, writers or not, were expected to be sexually passive, and addressing sexuality in literature, with a direct tone, was tantamount to breaking Victorian social conventions. Other than Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, expresses repressed sexuality in Villette with the same restraint that characterized Victorian society. On Charlotte Bronte's literature, Maynard (4) points out that she did not attempt to publicly confront the social conventions on expression of sexuality in literature as her successors did, perhaps because of her temperament, or based on expectations of delicateness in female literature, did not find expressing sexual explicitness as a necessary aim in itself (Maynard 4).
However, sexuality often found a voice in the literature of women writing in a patriarchal society. Though not explicitly expressed, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre illustrates the need by Victorian society to restrain female sexuality and its expression, in all ways. Bertha's failure to conform to social conventions of sexual passivity results to her supposed madness, and is placed under confinement. The mad behavior is an implicit expression of sexuality, and for this obvious display of a taboo subject, she not only needs to be confined mentally, by physical restraints need to be applied to keep her from her overt self-expression, which is a threat to Victorian society's male hegemony.
In sexual politics, Kate Millet, addressed the dynamics of sexual politics in 19th and 20th century literature. Sexual politics in this case connotes what the author calls the strongest ideology of Victorian, and to a considerable degree, modern day culture. Patriarchy, as an ideology is the means with which male hegemony derives its power. Millet (5) perceived patriarchy as the means and grounds upon which men sought to exercise their power and dominion over women. In this case, literature written in the context of patriarchy and male hegemony has to interpreted within the social-cultural context.
The constructions of femininity by patriarchy, is an unquestioning, submissive and nurturing woman, obedient and religious beauty. This representation appears in Charlotte Bronte's Villette, when Lucy, the protagonist ponders on two depictions of women through a man's perspective (Villette 202). She is appalled by these representations and calls them mere ghosts, cold and lifeless, exactly how patriarchy perceives womanhood. Ironically, the heroine is redeemed by a man. Even for female writers, condemning male hegemony in their writings, the idea of a woman not marrying was extreme if not alien (Millet 40). This reveals that insofar as women writings in Victorian society were an attempt subvert patriarchy, gendered socialization was so embedded that it was bound to rear its head even in the strongest literature condemning male dominion over women. In the end, the very platform that was intended to highlight the plight of the woman succumbs to notions of male authoritarianism.
Interestingly, this tendency has been likened to colonial mentality that pervades in nations that have previously been colonized, always perceiving the colonizer, as more superior. The restraint perceived in women's writings suggests that women, writing in a patriarchal society are well aware of the double standards used to assess women's literature, the standards having been laid out by men. The insistence, by a patriarchal society, that even female literature conforms to specific standards deemed feminine, is an indication that men do not resist female writings because they are inferior, but because acknowledging female perceptiveness in writing is tantamount to accepting that women are intellectually equal to their male counterparts. Rather than risk this, the patriarchal society created obvious obstacles and standards of femininity and female delicateness, to distinguish female literature from male, thereby labeling it as irrational, emotional and imperceptive.
Another way to examine the experiences of women writing in a patriarchal society is the ideology of the woman as the angel of the house. This is a recurring theme in Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and Villette, in addition to writings by other 19th century female writers. Womanhood and femininity is embodied by the ability of a woman to act and look ladylike, take of the household and conform to male hegemony. Any departure from this expected conduct is regarded as unwomanly. Writing, itself was regarded as a male field, and any woman attempting to write implied that some womanly duties and responsibilities had been neglected somewhere to create time for the woman to write.