• Tue, Apr 3 2012

Historian Says Women Trying To ‘Have It All’ In 19th Century Would Have Been Institutionalized.

Emma Bovary

According to literary expert Dr. Sarah Dillon women, who try to balance careers and families, would be institutionalized if they had lived in the 1900s. Well, if you look at it from that perspective, we have made a lot of progress. Now women who try to do both have the safety of knowing they can feel certifiably insane, but won’t necessarily be committed.

Women who felt powerful and wanted to break free from their restrictive roles were considered “mad women.”  Dr. Dillon, a lecturer in contemporary fiction at St. Andrews, said the figure of the “mad woman” is a familiar one in some of very famous literary classics. Bertha Rochester, the crazed ex-wife in from Jane Eyre, was locked in an attic by her husband when she went insane. Maybe if he had just let her be a stock broker she wouldn’t have burnt the house down and (spoiler alert for everyone who hasn’t gone to 8th grade) committed suicide. Though I suppose the book would have lost some of its tragic excitement. Women like Bertha and Emma Bovary were really just the predecessors of Type A career women. “These were women who could not reconcile their roles, who could not be satisfied with staying at home ‘baking puddings and knitting stockings’. But the same could be said for any strong independent woman today. Many professional women, including myself, might have been locked up if we’d lived in the Victorian age,” said Dillon. She continued:

“There is a famous quote in Jane Eyre, in which she says that ‘women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings….It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex. Interestingly, the maddening tension of trying to fulfill the multiple demands placed on women as wives, mothers and professionals, is something that still resonates amongst strong, confident women today.”

This may change how I read books from that era forever. So were those witches from Macbeth just crazy because they weren’t real doctors?

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