Do not assume women’s role in Western society has always been what it is today. There has been a major change in direction, both ideological and social towards equality between the sexes.
In the 19th c. women enjoyed little freedom because of the rigid code of sexual and social behavior gradually imposed by the bourgeoisie. Women had few perspectives in life except for marrying, raising a family and obeying their ‘masters’, first their fathers and then their husbands. They were not supposed to need an education since ‘submissiveness’ was their greatest quality and, to be sure, knowing too much would not have been of any help.
They were celebrated as ‘the angels of the house’, but this was not a choice and the house they were the angels of, belonged to their husbands, since, up to the end of the Victorian age, they could not keep their property after marriage.
The Enlightenment had brought about a new philosophy of life based on equality and democracy. It stated that all human beings are alike and so, also women. In theory, this would have made women equal to men in social status and money-earning power. In reality the few women who worked with men in workshops and factories got worse jobs and wages and they also had to work at home. Even elementary schooling was thought to be superfluous for women, let alone higher education.
In the early 19th c. some voices of protest were heard, as Mary Wollstonecraft’s with her ‘Vindication of the Right of Woman’; later on, at about mid-century, Florence Nightingale became a national legend for her work in hospitals.
Two colleges for women were opened and from 1882 they were all owed to own property after marriage.
By the end of Victoria’s reign, women were allowed to take a degree at twelve university colleges and study – but not take a degree – at Oxford and Cambridge.
They had been asking for the right to vote for decadesand in 1918 women aged 30+ got it.
Their role in literature slowly changed from subjects o f male dominated literary works to makers of literature.
They had been praised as Goddesses and Angels in the Courtly Love Tradition, they had been the heroines of Shakespeare’s plays but, in any case, they had been subordinated to the ethical, social and political values created by men in a male dominated society.
It is only with the works of Jane Austen, Mary Shelley and, later, The Bronte sisters and George Eliot (alias Mary Ann Evans) that women began to be described as intelligent, independent people often in contrast with the accepted ideas of their roles as wives, mothers and sisters.
At the turn of the century, the first truly modern female characters in English literature are found in H. James’s novels. He was Anglo-American and his characters are emancipated females whose portraits show the author’s great psychological realism. The narrator goes inside the character’s mind and it is from there that the reader sees how the female character changes both in relation to her husband/companion and in her personality.
In the 20th c. , the role of women in the family and in society, their psychological and intellectual characteristics and their relationship with men were amply debated.
The first phase of the modern consciousness of woman begins with a long essay by V. Woolf, ‘A Room of One’s Own’, a series of lectures the author herself delivered to a female audience at a women’s college on the subject of women and literature.
Woolf clearly presents her arguments: in the past, women had no existence save in the fiction written by men; even if a woman had the same gifts as a man, social disadvantages would prevent her from writing/performing any important activity. Woolf stresses the importance for women to gain economic independence and intellectual freedom; only then, maybe in a hundred years, Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister, who was as gifted as her brother, will be able to be born again and write great poetry.