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The Role of Women in Society


The role of women in society has undergone massive changes in the past. Industrial revolution in the 19th century is one factors which contributed to change of position of women in a number of ways (Monogue 21). The outcomes of industrial revolution for women led to change in jobs from traditional to a wider range of social ones. Industrial revolution has also expanded education opportunities for women. Education led to introduction of better ideas and standards; the latter elevated the position of women in the society (Monogue 22). Prior to the industrial revolution women were viewed as less capable members of the society and were equaled with children. They were relatively helpless and only men were viewed as capable human beings (Olsen 39). Men were the sole bread winners for families while women served the role of home makers. Women who worked in cottage industries prior to the industrial revolution were paid less wages compared to the male counter parts. Initially, there were no clear distinction between work and home as such men, women and children worked together in the cottages (Olsen 41).

The work of women prior revolution was heavily regulated by restrictions. This went a long way to discourage women from working and instead embrace household chores and take care of children (Monogue 17). A few job opportunities for women included those in textile, clothing and domestic services. Women hardly attended higher education. Therefore, industrial revolution led to a massive change in both the role and position of women in the society. A lot of writers had written about the effects of the industrial revolution on the role of women. One of these industrial novels Northanger Abbey and Gaskell’s North and South by Jane Austen’s will be extensively discussed below.

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Depiction of Changes in the Role of Women

In Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey,women are represented as free beings able to make decisions without intervention from men. Northanger Abbey is a story that revolves around the life of Catherine Morland who starts a friendship with a man called Allen. Catherine appears to be a gothic heroine in pursuit of self fulfillment and independence guided by her own opinions and thoughts in her mid-life age (Hipka 35). Austen strives to present her view of the role of women during this period of the late 18th century and the early 19th century. Gaskell’s North and South also further presents the delineation of men and women’s roles (Zlotnick 72). Women are presented as delicate beings that can only manage the domestic chores while work is left for men. This novel revolves around the life of Margaret Hale and her emigration from South England to the industrial North. Margret struggles to meet the standards of life in the North; at first she meets insurmountable hurdles but finally learns how to cope with them (Hipka 44).

Northanger Abbey is solely based on self fulfillment to the woman as opposed to the general role of women in society. Austen presents women as beings with equal intellectual abilities with their male counterparts. Catherine’s actions in the entire novel are governed by self pleasures. Catherine is innocent, confused, puzzled, but still curious to fulfill her desires. She loves reading novels and she does this purposely for personal pleasures; this fact is more highlighted by Henry in Chapter fourteen (Austen 72). To Catherine the role of women costume and novel reading are the major activities that are presented as objects of self fulfillment. Austen also goes further to question the common social norms and encourages women to achieve their desires as opposed to pleasing the opposite sex. Catherine sure fits the role of the modern woman and can easily perform the roles that were not commonly associated with women in those days (Austen 81).

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At the beginning of the novel, Catherine shows interest in certain activities as watering rose bushes, feeding canary birds and nursing dormouse among other activities (Austen 5). This example shows the extent women had grown to perform men’s roles with ease. Austen also rejects the common social knowledge and expectation of women. Catherine is different from all other female characters in the novel; she behaves differently and is criticized by the other characters (Monogue 65). For instance, she makes her own decision and dislikes John Thorpe despite the social pressures; though, it goes against everyone’s will she proceeds ahead to make her own decision. She refuses to yield to social pressure and she has the ability to make good judgment on her own (Austen 77). Catherine also refuses to get married for money which was previously a common practice. For this reason, she refuses to go on carriage ride with Thorpe’s family together with the brother because she thinks this is a way of luring her into falling in love with John, who comes from the wealthy family.  Thus, she stands strong and rebukes manipulation from the rich family of John Thorpe (Austen 68). Austen tries to depict how women have evolved to stand against social norms and conventions and she clearly encourages it.

She also agrees with other authors that women should conceal their knowledge and intelligence (Austen 76). Austen appears to mock the authors who are for the idea that women should hide their intelligence and states that women should be free to air out their opinions and thoughts.  Mrs. Allen is one of the female characters who appear to live as per the traditional standards (Austen 36). She is submissive and dependant on the husband. Austen shows criticisms for such kind of women; Mrs. Allen is a typical example of a woman that existed prior to the industrial revolution. She is conservative and does not break out of the shell. She appears to be naïve and approaches the opposite sex with dependence; she gives men in her life the opportunity to floss with their knowledge and intelligence. Such attitude enables Henry Tilney to easily manipulate her (Austen 76). For instance, Henry Tinley is delighted by Mrs. Allen’s ignorance and feels good filing her mind with knowledge.

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Catherine is initially naïve prior to her mother disappearance; when her mother disappears she becomes independent and learns to rely on her own judgments. Her education begins at the Baths when her family is totally out of sight (Austen 13). She shows appreciation where it is due unlike Mrs. Allen who is described as empty headed and shows appreciation of any man who shows interest in marrying her (Austen 18). Isabella and John Thorpe also attempt to manipulate and lie to Mrs. Allen; fortunately she notices this in time and does not let herself be duped. Catherine also learns to control her imagination when invited to Northanger Abbeyby General Tilney (Austen 24). The environment at the abbey presents her the opportunity for further education; this new environment is relatively better than the boring Baths. Henry even urges her to develop her own imagination and judgments since the times they were living in required independent thoughts.

The General is is a bully and can hardly agree with Catherine. He tends to make Catherine’s life difficult because of the level of self-independence she exhibits. After the General finds out about Catherine’s inheritance from John Thorpe, he sends her back home to her family. (Austen 203). Catherine’s experience during the journey home shows that she can take care of herself without help from any man. She returns home as a mature and grown woman who can fend for herself as opposed to the naïve girl she had earlier been. Her mother is pleased to find out that she is no longer a poor helpless creature and continues to develop her independency (Austen 217). In her adult stage Catherine only misses her beloved. Soon Henry asks for her hand. He is pleased to have finally reached her, while Catherine has developed into a sensible and all-round young woman. She had woken up from her gothic dream.

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The theme of women’s role is further elaborated in the character of Isabella. She believes in flirting in order to find her fortune. She seems to be an ambitious character but destined to make her dream come true. She gets engaged to Catherine’s brother, James, but they later break up. Catherine later learns that Isabella is a deceitful character who uses people to achieve her goals (Hipka 49).   Isabella further shows interest in Henry’s elder brother, Frederick, but to no avail. Eleanor, Henry’s sister, also uses marriage as a scapegoat to avoid her mean father, General Tilney. Eleanor becomes close to Catherine, but later her father uses her to send Catherine away from Northanger Abbey (Hipka, 54). Left to her own devices she could change the situation only by marriage. Therefore, the heroine represents helplessness of most women prior to the industrial revolution. General Tilney is presented as powerful character because he is a land owner, a father and a husband. However, Catherine has a guess he is implicated in killing his wife.

At Austen wrote her novel, the genre of Gothic novels received an increasing popularity. The horror presented in the gothic novels was a metaphor for women being trapped in social restrictions and beliefs (Hipka 13). Society presented women as feeble because they were entitled to being controlled by their fathers, then after marriage they were owned by the husbands. The novel makes it clear that marriage was the final goal in a woman’s life. The society is hostile to women and it is only marriage that gives a secure social life as represented by Catherine, Isabella and Eleanor examples. Prior to the industrial revolution women had no other priorities than to look for illegible husbands to marry. Marriage was the sole provider of women’s needs (Goloboy 49). Only Catherine tries to live far from family and that experience gives her a lot of opportunities to learn from. She develops both intellectually and physically. Isabella on the contrary, loses both the potential suitors because of her desperation and attention from men.

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Eleanor’s lack of initiative is another representation of women in the 18th century. Despite the fact that her father is a bully she still continues to live with him as she waits for a marriage prospect. She is not able to change her situation on her own (Austen 154). Eventually, she meets a person in the neighborhood who marries her and saves her from the father.  Northanger Abbey is an industrial novel written by a woman and for women; the readers were expected to break from the social ties and hostility that women faced.

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South is another social novel written in the Victorian era. This novel represents a new era in which women and men were considered to have equal ability and intelligence. Women are more capable of working on level with men; this is contrary to what is presented in Northanger Abbey (Austen 175). The novel represents women who can fend for themselves, work and run their lives independently without hinting aggressively at marriage (Olsen 57). These changes in the role and position of women in the society come as an effect of the industrial revolution. Elizabeth Gaskell brings out feminization of the social sphere during and after the industrial revolution. The novel focuses on the future more than the past; it presents the process of social establishment of women and the possibility of further improvement in their lives. The progress and changes in the role of women in the society are extensively exhibited in the life of the main character, Margaret. Gaskell’s novel was published at a time when of constant strikes and disharmony in the Black Country.

Firstly, Margaret shows diverge from the norms when she goes where the Victorian women were not supposed to go. Margaret’s change of residence from the South to the North is not also a mere irony but a sign that she is ready to break through the norms and the other social restrictions (Zlotnick 12).  There also exists an emotional conflict between Margaret and Mr. Thornton. She asks questions and starts to give people advice; which also was out of the roles of a Victorian woman. She gradually acquires a public role and befriends Bessy Higgins who also belongs to the working class (Gaskell 57). She easily crosses the boundaries of social class and is completely aware of her social superiority. A female character of Bessy Higgins, who works in the factory, represents an opposition to  typically men work. Gaskell even refers to the factory workers as ‘men’ (Weyant 35). Many social reformers highlight the negative effects of women working in the factories but this does not discourage Bessy and others from working. Working in factories for females was related with moral degradation to the wives and children in the society.

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Margaret also appears to ignore customs and this forms one of the major downfalls to her quest for a better life (Monogue, 124). She ignores some customs intentionally while she is simply not aware of others. Other factor that contributes to the poor development of the plot is failure by some characters to fulfill their roles. For instance, Dixon fails to tell Margaret that Thornton had attended her mother funeral. Bell also passes away before letting Thornton know the reason why Margaret had lied to him. Despite this failure, this factor also contributes to the development of the plot of the novel (Monogue 202). Margaret feels as though she has lost control of her entire life; her whole world has been yanked and she is left with nothing. She fails to understand the lifestyles in the North; her innocence also earns her a number of marriage proposals. Henry Lenox proposes to her but she declines because she feels uncomfortable. John Thornton also proposes to her and she feels assaulted by his proposal. She is further disappointed by Thornton when he fails to give a job to Bessy, who was Margaret’s best friend. However, Thornton reviews his decisions and gives Bessy a job. This plays a huge role in bringing the two lovers closer to each other. Refusal to give Bessy a job, serves as an evidence that in working positions women are given subordinate roles (Zlotnick, 66). They are to be supervised by the male counterparts who are considered to be having more experience. Workers especially female rebel against the controls in the working places; women are even louder and fearless. Margaret also shows lack of submission when she rejects marriage proposals (Zlotnick 45).

Gaskell also appreciates the division that exists between the role of men and women in the society. All chores outside the domestic care are considered to be designated to males  (Weyant 72).  Both Higgins and Margaret exhibit ability to run masculine chores. Margaret is forced to take up masculine roles when she is has to take care of her family and her ailing father, Mr. Hale. Margaret had earlier taken the family through the Journey to Milton from Helstone. She is able to carry her duty of taking care of her family with lots of power and authority; she is surely a strong woman. Higgins is also able to take care of the family after her husbands’ death. Despite breaking form the norms the two female characters are both tender at heart and can effectively handle maternal responsibility (Weyant 68). Margaret does not exhibit pride despite her masculine tendencies. She is the first to initiate a meeting between her and Mr. Thornton. However, Mr. Thornton reads this as a sign of love. Prior to the industrial revolution, women hardly made first moves and lacked initiative. To prove the opposite, Margaret takes initiative and arranges for a business meeting with Thornton.

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Gaskell’s industrial novel North and South explains how much the women’s role and position has changed (Gaskell, 88). Having covered the period that marked the industrial revolution period women appear to perform masculine roles with ease (Gaskell 102). Margaret and Bessy Higgins are the key female characters used by Gaskell to represent women in the society. They both exhibit fearlessness and strength in their endeavors (Olsen 44).


To date women still face discrimination in their places of work; sexism has its roots in ancient times prior to the beginning of the industrial revolution. In today’s world sexism is widely manifested through working environment (Jennifer Goloboy 52). However, with continued civilization most of these discriminatory acts have faded. Both Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Gaskell’s North and South novels illustrate the changes that had taken place in gender roles and the position of women in the society. Some effects of the changes in the role of women include the ability to balance both work and family. Prior to the revolution, women only handled domestic chores; nothing outside the home environment was within their scope (Goloboy 48). In Northanger Abbey, Catherine shows ability to concentrate in her dreams and work while at the same time she is able to show care and love for Henry Tilney (Hipka 41). Gaskell shows her attitude through depiction of life of both women, Bessy and Margaret. Bessy is working but can still take care of the family and father. Margaret despite her busy schedule is able to take her family with her and also nurture for her ailing father.

After the industrial revolution women were engaged in such services as nurses, receptionists, office workers, workers in ammunition factories among other factories and their work was nearly equal to their male counterparts (Monogue 67). Women were allowed to join special branches of the army and assist the soldiers overseas. The domestic role of women was slowly overlooked. By the Second World War, women had near equal opportunities in military work (Monogue 71). In Gaskell’s North and South, Margret shows ability to control a strike in Thornton’s factory. Even though she is injured in the process her behavior shows  women’s ability to take control (Gaskell 44). Several women also participated in the strike and were equally loud when claimed for their rights.  Women have grown to know their rights and take action along with male counterparts. Prior to the industrial revolution women were reluctant at taking action even when their rights were denied. For instance, in Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Eleanor is reluctant to liberate herself from the father who is a bully. She only waits to use marriage as a scapegoat to escape from the father (Austen 76).

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Presence of women in the strikes and Margaret’s role shows the active position of women in the work place.  After the industrial revolution women were hired to different positions as long they had the necessary qualification. Higher education opportunities have also become available for both men and women as long as they meet the required criteria (Olsen 32). With improvement in education women have been able to secure in the work places. Bessy Higgins in Northanger Abbey was able to secure jobs in the working class category (Hipka 51). Margaret is also able to talk Thornton into giving her a job which he later gives to her. However, despite the ability of women to work in the same positions as men, the wages for women remained relatively low. There also existed more restrictions for women, some of which are present to date. Masonry is still considered to be primarily men’s position.

Formation of liberation groups and campaign groups by women was also a major advancement after the industrial revolution. In the mid 20th century, women began to take an active role in voting for political leaders. Margaret in North and South appears to have the ability to form a liberation group. She helps calm down the rioting workers at the factory (Weyant, 72). Women have equal knowledge and information as their male counterparts so they are able to choose their leaders. Women can think on their own and no longer need to hide their intelligence and opinion. Austen is one of the authors, who present the inability of women to give their opinions prior to the industrial revolution in their works (Hipka 26).

After the industrial revolution, women show the ability to be the providers for their families. Previously women were to wait for men to look for the food while their role was to prepare the meals. Men were charged with the role of providing for the family. In North and South, Margaret provides for the father and the rest of the family; she is able to toil and moil to ensure that the family is comfortable (Weyant 24). Bessy Higgins is another example of a strong woman who can take care of the family. The death of her husband does not stifle her and she continues to live her dream. She belongs to the working class and earns her wages to take care of the other family members (Olsen 71). The situation is different from the case in Northanger Abbey where Isabella is a center of men’s attention; she wishes to marry a rich men so she does not have to struggle to make ends meet..











Economic necessity and demand could have been one factor that contributed to the emergence of most women looking for work outside their homes. In North and South Margaret migrates form the South to the North in search of greener pastures (Monogue, 52). She believes that life in the North could be better. She faces difficulties in settling down in the North. In the two novels, the protagonists emigrate from one place to another. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine emigrates to stay in the Baths and later moves to the Abbey (Weyant 73). This also plays a huge role in her developed. She ceases to be naïve and it is in the Baths that Henry teaches her the importance of airing out her mind. Margaret, on the other hand, has to escape complicated circumstances; in the process she learns a lot of things and becomes more socially active.

Therefore, industrial revolution provided women with the opportunity to put the skills they used to apply in their homes into factories. Many textile and clothing factories employed the skills of women  they developed  doing similar roles in the home environment. With the multiple inventions of machinery and advancement in technology, women found it easier to work in factories (Olsen 65). Work for children and women had faced with lots of rejection from social reformers; it is seen on the example of  Catherine’ gothic dream which displeased many people including Henry Tinley. Many people were not pleased by her achievement. General Tinley also sends her parking when he releases his fortune. The society was totally against progress of women.

Both Northanger Abbey and North and South are purposely meant to breach the gap between social classes. Austen’s Northanger Abbey particularly seems to criticize the upper class people. For instance, wealth of General Tilney family does not positively affect their relation to people (Zlotnick, 92). Eleanor, the only daughter falls a victim of his father’s wrath. She suffers in the hands of her father before being liberated by the husband. General Tilney is a true believer of the social norms which stipulate women to be less intelligent compared to men.  Austen’s novel is related to her real life experiences; her life in the 17th century is a clear depiction of the female submission prior to the industrial revolution (Zlotnick, 104). Most industries were male dominated while women had no place in the public domain including politics. Gaskell’s novel also revolves  differences between social classes. The main character, Margaret appears helpless and has no way out especially with the ailing mother; though later she learns to easily fit into the new society. She easily interacts with people in the working class and eventually marries Thornton, the mill owner’s son.

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As elaborated above, the industrial revolution played a huge role in shaping the future of women in the society. Prior to the industrial revolution, women are dependent on men and having marriage as a main goal in life. In Northanger Abbey, women like Isabella, Mrs. Allen and Eleanor among others appear to desperately seek for marriage. They believe that it is only marriage that can give them a secure lifestyle. Catherine is the only character who struggles to be independent. The society appears to oppose the notion of women having equal opportunities with men at work place. This continues to change progressively, as women cut through the traditional beliefs as shown in North and South. Women like Margaret and Higgins tend to take active roles in life, taking care of their families is no longer enough for their social establishment.  Women also participate in strikes and they are equally fearless along with the male counterparts (Olsen 72). Even with equal working opportunities with men, women still face huge restrictions and heavy supervision from the males. Margaret attempts to calm down the strike and she is injured in the process.  The evolution of women has continued to take place even way after the industrial revolution (Olsen 81). Women have continued to establish themselves politically, economically and socially which may eventually equal their opportunities with men.

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