In this thesis I argue that Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, and Jane Austen use female-female friendships, sororal relationships, and depictions of the “fallen” woman in their novels to expose the oppressive nature of patriarchy and marriage for women. Wollstonecraft and Hays were radical in their time, which is represented in their novels that point out marriage’s inequities towards women in regard to divorce laws and custody laws. Focusing on how marriage impacts a woman’s friendships, Austen acknowledges the potentially isolating nature of marriage.
Wollstonecraft and Hays wrote novels that eschew the marriage plot by focusing on how female-female relationships provide solace to the married heroines and friendship is an alternative to marriage. I argue that by prioritizing female friendships and thus female solidarity they undercut the traditional heteronormative narrative. Additionally, these female relationships in the novels transcend the boundaries created by social classes to exhibit the different types of oppression all women faced. Using the relationship between a mother and her child, Wollstonecraft directs attention to the unjust divorce laws and custody laws of the late eighteenth century. Wollstonecraft uses the fallen woman to show the repercussions of being a sexually transgressive woman, and I argue we are invited to feel pity toward the fallen women. While Hays never punishes her protagonist for being open about her sexual desires, she points out the privileges of being a man and the consequences a woman must fear.
Similar to Wollstonecraft and Hays, Austen points out the inequities of marriage using female-female relationships. Unlike the other two, Austen demonstrates that a good marriage is one that allows female-female relationships and sororal relationships to endure. Although her novels are all marriage plot novels, I argue Austen includes some dubious marriages that force the readers to recognize how marriage can isolate a woman from her friendships. Austen includes minor characters who are fallen women to show consequences sexually transgressive women faced. She invites us to sympathize with the fallen women instead of condemning them, and I argue we ought to pity the fallen women who are redeemed even if we find the characters disagreeable. I highlight how Austen differs from Wollstonecraft and Hays by demoting the “fallen” women to minor characters and how she focuses on marriage’s ability to interrupt female friendships. Although Austen is more subtle in her critique of marriage, I argue all three writers demonstrate that marriage commodifies a woman’s body and is equivalent to legalized prostitution.
McLaughlin, Anne, "From Major to Minor Characters: The Fallen Woman and Her Female Friends in the Novels of Wollstonecraft, Hays, and Austen" (2021). English Honors Papers. 55.
The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.