Introduction | Education | Sensibility & Virtue  | The Female Body | Marriage | Women Writers


Marriage1818 Engraving, "Charlotte Meets Leopold." Romantic feminists argued that marriages founded on love were vulnerable to temporary attraction and transitory passion.
During the Romantic Era, the state of marriage illustrated women’s continued inequality in society. For instance, women still lacked legal equality once they entered marriage due to coverture, or “The condition or position of a woman during her married life, when she is by law under the authority and protection of her husband” (OED). In later decades women would make great strides to gain legal recognition. During the late eighteenth century, however, Romantic feminists voiced more practical concerns rather than judicial ones. Before the nation could acknowledge women as equals, husbands must first accept their wives as true partners in marriage. Feminists, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, located one of the sources of inequality in women’s own behavior and the artificial methods they employed to gain husbands. Women had been taught to use beauty and love to attract husbands; however, beauty and love are temporary states, according to Wollstonecraft, and do not establish a solid foundation for an enduring marriage.

In the Romantic era, beauty and so-called good manners were the principal means by which to attract a husband. Rarely encouraged to devote any time to building strong characters, women invested the majority of their time perfecting their physical appearance. Conduct manuals and advice columns instructed women to use these feminine charms to lead men into marriage. However, such superficial strategies did not secure their husbands’ attention permanently. Thus, husbands tended to look elsewhere for novel charms, and wives practiced the art of coquetry to continue gaining attention from other men. Feminists argued that, in those marriages founded on appearance, attraction waned right alongside the beauty, and so, instead, women should seek a lasting equality of the mind. Early nineteenth-century novels, such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813), reflect this concern, arguing for a deeper equality in romantic relationships. Elizabeth Bennett modeled for women a strong, feminine character, who gained respect based on her sharp mind and principled behavior, eventually winning over the coveted Mr. Darcy.

Marriage1818 Engraving, "Princess Charlotte's Wedding." An enduring marriage should be built on warm regard and “fellow feeling.” Marriages based on friendship allow the woman to be a much more effective “helpmeet.”
Romantic feminists criticized even those women who married for love because, in late eighteenth-century terms, passion and an excess of emotion primarily defined love. Wollstonecraft argued that the “romantic wavering feelings” of love could only lead to an inconstant attachment (146). In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811), Marianne Dashwood suffers heartbreak in her too passionate relationship with the emotionally reckless John Willoughby. She eventually learns to love the honorable Colonel Brandon and develops a relationship based on mutual regard and “fellow feeling.” Wollstonecraft argued that friendship rather than love would result in genuine and lasting regard, creating truly “affectionate wives and rational mothers” (71). She further asserts that “Friendship is a serious affection; the most sublime of all affections, because it is founded on principle, and cemented by virtue” (145). These principle concerns of love and fellowship in the early years of the Romantic era first established women as equal partners in their husband’s eyes. Gaining this important ground support allowed feminists to argue for more legally recognized equality in marriage in later years.

Kat Powell

Select Bibliography

“Charlotte Meets Leopold.” 1818 or before. Engraving. Wikipedia. Web. 13 Apr. 2012.

“Coverture.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford English Dictionary, 2012. Web. 1 Apr. 2012.

Favret, Mary A. and Nicola Watson, Eds. At the Limits of Romanticism: Essays in Cultural, Feminist, and Materialist
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.

“Princess Charlotte’s Wedding.” 1818. Engraving. Wikipedia. 13 Apr. 2012.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Women. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008.