It’s International Women’s Day, a global holiday to celebrate the accomplishments of women–and also to resolve to rectify the political, social, health-related, economic, and other injustices that still disproportionately affect women around the world. Celebrating women authors is one of the many resolutions of this day.
It’s always dicey to claim that any author, especially a long-dead one like Jane Austen would be raising her fist in solidarity. Of course, there’s wonderful quotes like this from Austen’s novels that seem so refreshingly modern:
“Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.” –Anne Elliot, Persuasion
“I think it ought not to be set down as certain, that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself.” –Fanny Price, Mansfield Park
“Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband…” Jane Austen, on Princess Charlotte and the Prince Regent, Letter to Miss Martha Lloyd on 16 Feb 1813
But Austen is brutally realistic that society judges female indiscretions of women like Maria Bertram and Lydia Bennet much more harshly than rakes like Henry Crawford and Wickham, and accepts entailment of estates to male heirs as an unfortunate fact of life.
Still, in this author’s opinion, sometimes–for all of her canonization–Austen isn’t appreciated enough for how she made the novel what it is today–ideally, a lively, educational, and gripping collection of stories and characters that seem to live and breathe–versus the pretty turgid books that predated her works. And if you don’t agree, read an unabridged copy of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa and get back to me.
Of course, the most important thing in the spirit of the day (and as an ongoing effort) is to uplift living women, including literature by women, and also making community-based as well as broader efforts where we can to ensure future generations have wonderful books by women to read. I’m old enough to remember when it was still debated if it was possible for a woman to be a genius as as an author–and I’m not as old as Austen. Let’s be honest, when any group “gets” a day or a month, usually it’s because some pretty terrible stuff has happened in the past, and while it’s certainly not enough, it’s still worth using such occasions to pause and ask how we can do better.