First-Wave Feminism and the Rise of Women in Romantic Society

The advancement of women’s rights is advocated for in Romantic literary works

The Romantic period is known for a plethora of innovations, but one often overlooked is the brewing of feminist movements and women’s rights.

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were home to some of the earliest prominent feminist movements in modern society, dating even prior to the first wave of feminism which occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, which encapsulated much of the Romantic period, a surplus of authors created works which argued for the equal treatment of women in society.

While some of these works argued against the rights of women, most actually did argue for the rights of women, including Olympe de Gouges’ The Rights of Woman and William Thompson’s Appeal of One Half the Human Race. Additionally, Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson is another work which promotes the ideas of feminism and women’s rights. All three of these authors focus on the central theme of feminism, arguing that women should be treated equally to men, and present this argument by highlighting the flaws present in society during the time regarding the poor treatment of women.

We’ll start off with a well-known work which I have discussed before. Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded, or simply Pamela, is a Romantic novel written by Samuel Richardson and published in 1740. The book is told from the perspective of Pamela, an English woman who is forced into servitude for the lavish estate owner, Mr. B. Pamela’s horrible and miserable experiences as Mr. B’s servant are displayed in the book first-hand, and serve to point out the severe deficiencies present in society of the time, particularly with the British class system.

Accounted are Pamela’s experiences with being violated, both physically and mentally, feeling like a prisoner and having no means of escape. The novel undertakes a variety of themes, but arguably the most prominent one is the argument for the rights of women, as Pamela demonstrates first-hand the lack of rights women during the time had, especially as servants, which they were often forced to be. Pamela attempts to bring to light these issues by using the character of Pamela as a representation of the misfortunes women often faced, and to call for societal change, as the other works do as well.

Artist’s illustration of Pamela writing her letters, the only way she could ‘escape’ her trauma of servitude.

Containing similarities to Pamela, The Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen, or simply The Rights of Woman, is a declaration written by political activist and playwright Olympe de Gouges in 1791. It was written as a response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which itself was written during the French Revolution. The Rights of Woman sets up an argument that women are oppressed by men, something that both Pamela and William Thompson’s Appeal of One Half the Human Race, which will be discussed later, also argue.

Of this, de Gouges states, “what has given you the sovereign power to oppress my sex?”, with “you” referring to men, and she calls the treatment of women by men “tyrannical power”. de Gouges goes on to state that “he wants to rule like a despot over a sex”, comparing men to dictators that treat women like victims and rule over them. These points all directly relate to Pamela, who is treated this exact way by Mr. B, who rules over her like a despot and oppresses her constantly.

The Rights of Woman then goes on to list specific declarations that de Gouges would like to be implemented into society. She states that women should have the same rights as men, stating

This directly relates to Pamela as Mr. B ensured Pamela had no freedom as his servant, and repeatedly violated and raped her, such as on Tuesday, the 39th day of Pamela’s imprisonment. Pamela’s account of this states,

At this point, Pamela was forcibly held down against her will by Mr. B and Mrs. Jewkes, and raped by him until she lost consciousness, which is exactly what de Gouges is advocating against. de Gouges also declares that women should always be able to voice their opinions without severe repercussions, stating:

All of these aspects directly relate to Pamela, as Pamela did not possess the ability to maintain free communication and thoughts. She would write her thoughts and feelings towards being Mr. B’s servant down in her letters, which were often seized and read by others behind her back. Mr. B often openly admitted to Pamela that he read her letters, such as on Monday morning at the beginning of Volume II, when Mr. B says to Pamela, “After you were gone, I ventured to look into your journal.”

This is a direct example of Pamela’s freedom of thoughts and opinions being non-existent as a servant, and this was common in society both of servants and women in general, which is another way the context and non-context works compare. Unfortunately, de Gouges’ wishes were never fulfilled in her lifetime, and her point about women being able to voice their opinions without consequences ironically backfired on her, as she was later executed for her writings and political actions.

The trial of Olympia de Gouges, who was eventually executed.

Regardless, de Gouges’ The Rights of Woman is a monumental piece of feminist work which attacks the structure of the then-society and argues for the equal treatment of women, as does Pamela, but they do so in different ways: de Gouges does it through direct declarations, and Richardson does it through first-person storytelling — both are equally effective.

The other work which relates to the theme of women and society is William Thompson’s Appeal of One Half the Human Race, or specifically, the Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political, and Thence in Civil And Domestic Slavery. Published in 1825, the book — or at least the section in the PDF — discusses the horrid treatment of women by men during the time, and how it was openly accepted in society.

The work shares many of the viewpoints of de Gouge’s The Rights of Woman, focusing heavily on the idea that women are often treated as mere slaves to men, stating that throughout their whole lives, women have no freedom of choice, as they “remain all their lives — should their owners…from the excessive abuse of despotic power”. This directly relates to Pamela as, like stated with de Gouges, Pamela is treated this exact way, with Mr. B ruling over Pamela like a dictator, abusing her and granting her no freedom. She admits this throughout the novel, but specifically when she writes, “Why, sir, must I be a close watched, a wretched prisoner!”, expressing her immense frustration and desperation.

An intriguing aspect to Thompson’s argument which is arguably absent in de Gouges’ is the idea that enlightened women should and do is reject the so-called “submissive tricks of the slave and the caprices of the despot”. Pamela is an enlightened woman who knows what is good for her, but she does not reject the life she is forced to live in. She openly disagrees with the way Mr. B rules over her, and views his actions against her as morally wrong, but she does not try to escape.

Family was at the center of life during this time, but women were essentially slaves for men.

It is apparent to Pamela that this is how society functions, servitude is her fate, and there is little hope or point in trying to fight it. This is indicated when Pamela, despite every heinous action Mr. B has committed against her, agrees to marry him. The fact that she accepts his hand in marriage further reiterates the novel’s theme of women and society, as it demonstrates that in society of the time, this treatment of women was viewed as normal, and women had no choice but to accept it, further presenting the severe flaws in society regarding the rights of women.

Like de Gouges, the main purpose of Thompson’s work is to argue that women should be treated better in society, and should have equal rights to men, stating of this,

“nothing could be more easy than to put the rights of women, political and civil, on a perfect equality with those of men.”

This, as discussed, is exactly what Thompson, de Gouges and Richardson all argue for. The works by Thompson and de Gouges argue that the overall view of women in society during the time was severely flawed, and demonstrate the necessity for the treatment of women to improve. Pamela evinces this exact same idea, but does so through fictional first-person storytelling, rather than the declaration-style of the context works.

In fine, both the context works by Thompson and de Gouges and the non-context work by Richardson exemplify the blemishes present in the patriarchal society of the time, specifically regarding the harsh treatment of women by men, and thus encourage the equal treatment of women on all fronts. And in many ways, these aspirations have thankfully become reality.

Chris is a writer and publisher who travels America, and loves doing it. He also loves pizza, video games, and sports, and can tell you a thing or two about each. Follow him on Medium to be informed of new articles.

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Chris K

Native New Yorker. Pizza, Sports, Games, Life. Writing about whatever my heart desires. Follow me here and on Twitter for more articles!