What does it mean being a woman? Elizabeth Bennet’s avant-garde mental ‘quickness’ or Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary’s rebellion? What our favorite characters have in common is the chance to choose. Choosing who to marry, who to love, how to spend the money… Decision-making power. The history of literature, however, is not only full of fictional female characters, able to «buy flowers herself» (Mr. Dalloway), but also of flash and blood ones. (Today) talking about the role of women in society is easy, but a few years ago it used to be challenging. Three women, in particular, over the years have turned into unconventional voices devoted to giving shape to the role of women in society and giving a higher meaning to their existence.
The first step to becoming a woman is education
Not only the virtue, but the knowledge of the two sexes should be the same in nature, if not in degree, and that women, considered not only as moral, but rational creatures, ought to endeavor to acquire human virtues (or perfections) by the same means as men, instead of being educated like a fanciful kind of half being.Mary Wollstonecraft – Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792)
These are the words of Mary Wollstonecraft, mother of Mary Shelley, and exponent of a primitive movement supporting female emancipation. It was 1792 when she published Vindication, an essay about education. At the time, women had no way of fully educating themselves, some subjects, considered of little relevance to their future life, were completely eclipsed. Overall, female education is so different from male education that it results in women who are ignorant and indolent.
Reform was therefore necessary. The young women had to attend school with boys, have physical exercise, learn the same subjects as boys, and live with their families instead of boarding schools.
But from what pulpit did the sermon come? From a woman raised in a destitute family, with an alcoholic father, who achieved her independence by working and educating herself. Her work at the Johnson publishing house allowed her to get in touch with the thought of the major European intellectuals, translating articles by the Enlighteners d’Alembert, Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau. She is a super-heroine of the Enlightenment, she married out of love with the precursor of anarchism. As you can see, anything is possible.
Then, a woman needs a job and a room of her own
Have you any notion how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?Virginia Woolf – A Room of One’s Own (1929)
A Room of One’s Own, originated from Virginia Woolf’s question: why there have been so few female writers? The woman ties their minority status largely to socioeconomic factors, specifically their poverty and lack of privacy. Her mantra throughout the essay is that a woman must have 500 pounds a year and a room of her own if she is to write creatively.
Virginia Woolf knew what she wanted to do with her life very well… After years of spying on her father’s literary salons, which hosted authors of the caliber of Henry James, Thomas Stearns Eliot and George Henry Lewes. She wanted to be a writer, but not only that, she wanted her opinion to be taken into consideration. So, she moved to London, started working for the Times and became a regular at the Bloomsbury Group.
There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.Virginia Woolf
Ultimately, a woman needs the recognition of society
One is not born, but rather becomes, woman. No biological, psychic, or economic destiny defines the figure that the human female takes on in society; it is civilization as a whole that elaborates this intermediary product between the male and the eunuch that is called feminine.Simone de Beauvoir – The Second Sex (1949)
Twenty years after the publication of Woolf’s essay, Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, a decidedly bolder text. A woman becomes a woman the moment she is recognized by society, when she has her own space in the world.
This is a central claim of de Beauvoir’s text. Societal values lead us to define women the way we do. In turn, these values lead people born female to define as women in a specific way. These values are shaped by civilization as a whole as opposed to a single factor such as biology, the economy, or even psychology.
Simone was an existentialist and carried on a decidedly unconventional relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Free from the constraints of society, they loved other people at the same time, while remaining faithful to the bond that united them. Their polyamory was the only possible solution for them.
The happy couple who recognize themselves in love challenges the universe and time; self-sufficient, it realizes the absolute.
We must not believe, certainly, that a change in woman’s economic condition alone is enough to transform her, though this factor has been and remains the basic factor in her evolution; but until it has brought about the moral, social, cultural, and other consequences that it promises and requires, the new woman cannot appear.Simone de Beauvoir