The Nature of Woman

The debate about women's roles reflects a more basic argument about the very nature of women. In The Subjection of Women (NAEL 8, 2.1060–70), John Stuart Mill argues that "what is now called the nature of woman is eminently an artificial thing — the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others." The king, in Tennyson's The Princess, voices a more traditional view:

Man for the field and woman for the hearth:
Man for the sword and for the needle she:
Man with the head and woman with the heart:
Man to command and woman to obey.

The king's relegation of woman to heart and hearth reflects a belief that woman's special nature fits her for her domestic role, as described in Coventry Patmore's poem The Angel in the House (NAEL 8, 2.1586–87).

John Ruskin's definition of the separate characters of men and women in Sesame and Lilies provides the foundation from which he develops an idea of home as a place of peace, where man could take shelter from the anxieties and conflicts of modern life. In Jane Eyre, on the other hand, Jane articulates passionately the view that women are not different from men, but need a field of action much as their brothers do. In "Lady Travellers," Elizabeth Eastlake upholds the domestic virtues that are said to be natural to women, but shows their relevance to spheres of activity outside the home. It is interesting to compare Ruskin's views to those of Sarah Stickney Ellis (NAEL 8, 2.1583–85). The frontispiece to Ellis's Women of England represents in graphic form the traditional view of women's and men's characters that her popular guidebook articulates. The great Victorian women writers, however, represent women's aspirations in ways much closer to Jane Eyre's plea. In a passage from her Autobiography (NAEL 8, 2.1589–92), the novelist and political philosopher Harriet Martineau describes her exhilaration when her brother tells her to devote herself to writing and "leave it to other women to make shirts and darn stockings." In the opening chapters of The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot portrays the difficulties young Maggie Tulliver faces in seeking a way to express her imagination and intelligence, and in the poem Aurora Leigh (NAEL 8, 2.1092–1106), representing the life of a woman poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning presents Aurora's ringing defense of her right to be a poet.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback   :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home