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Posted at May 27, 2020
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Feminism Now and Then: The Coquette and The Laugh of the Medusa Book Comparison and Review

The eighteenth-century period is a time of significant change for women, both politically and socially, of living. During such a period, the women had to take on responsibilities that were majorly house related. It was the women who had the duty to care for the household needs, managing servants, and so on.  Generally, the woman had very little freedom and rights, something that put them under significant oppression by their patriarchs. The concept of patriarchy refers to a situation and institutional setting through which the male control over the women and children was common. All power and authority during such a time ultimately belonged to the men.  Therefore, it is upon such a basis that this paper will assess and analyze the challenges that the women faced during the eighteenth century. It will address the issue of social pressures and its role in defining the fate of women in a patriarchal society. It will further address the impact of internalized male projections of women on their life. Despite the fact that The Coquette and The Laugh of the Medusa were published nearly two centuries apart, they both reflect on the social challenges faced by women and how such constraints impact their fate. 

The 18th century period was a time of social inferiority complex for the women.  For instance, women were not allowed to be involved in political aspects or own any property in society.  The above ultimately deprived them of the right to express their own opinion in matters regarding the right of ownership. The women at the time were part of the man’s property. Therefore, this meant that they could continue to live as subordinates of the men in the community.  Besides the oppression of their rights as humans, the women were further not allowed to have ownership and yet remain submissive to the patriarchs.  

Furthermore, these women did not have access to education (university); they did earn wages and salaries that were not equal to what the men made.  Worse still, it was not acceptable for a woman to report any case of domestic violence against them.  Penalties and punishments on any woman who showed signs of radicalism and argumentative was a corrective measure.  These penalties were profoundly humiliating by nature in the public space.  The challenges that women faced were very had to impact on their social, political, and economic wellbeing.  The education of the women was under the shadow of the man. Many of the women did not know, and those who were poor were sadly very illiterate.  The charity schools established were for the boys and the girls of low social class.  At the age of 15 or 16, the girl child education would cease since this was the time to prepare for marriage. 

Keeping the women out of social matters such as politics implied they could not express an opinion. The idea in this is that women are inferior to men, and since the patriarchs assumed all authority in the community, then allowing the women to participate in the political affairs would deprive them of their jurisdiction.   To keep them away from any strong positions was a tactical decision made.    

Among the ideas presented above includes the denial of the right to education.  Since the women of the period only had the responsibility of taking care of the family as well as accomplish domestic work, there was sacrificing of the girl’s formal training.  The idea here is that they as illiterates who could not use any of their knowledge to make any achievement in society. To describe the overall state of women at that time, Hannah Webster author of The Coquette, used the following description: “Can you, who have always been used to serenity and order in a family, to rational, refined, and improving conversation, relinquish them, and launch into the whirlpool of frivolity, where the correct taste and the delicate sensibility which you possess must constantly be wounded. 

In the times of marriage, girls did not have ownership of any land in the family.  Therefore, all families sought to marry off their children only to families that had land and other properties. Such was mostly for the benefit of the family and not the young ladies that had been married off. The challenge that came out of such an arrangement is that a woman at the time of marriage did not have the liberty to end a marriage that was not moving on well. The reason for this is that at the time of marriage, the girl more or less obtained as a property for the man, and he had all the control over her. 

The women were objects of the men in the community.  Since they were meant to be submissive to their husbands, it was their duty to submit to the men who married them. For instance, submission is reflected when Eliza Wharton is forced to marry her late husband, Mr. Harly. It is evident that his death is a sign of freedom because he was never a man of her own choice. Mr. Harly being a man of worth, and substantial merit was the perfect choice for Eliza’s parents. Therefore, The Coquette reflects upon the theme of marriage in the 18th century as an activity that was meant for the benefit of parents.   

The emphasis on the role of domestic duties for the women implied that they were dependants rather than outward-looking and self-dependent. The above ultimately excluded the women from taking part in any form of writing that would contribute towards making history and culture. Furthermore, there was a challenge to the women in such a way that low social status significantly impacted on their creativity and innovation.  Keeping them under the shadow of the patriarchs meant that these women took away their right of expression.  The right to expression did not matter whether physical, oral, or written. As Hélène Cixous, author of The Laugh of the Medusa, said “I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man. So only an oblique consideration will be found here of man; it’s up to him to say where his masculinity and femininity are at: this will concern us once men have opened their eyes and seen themselves clearly.” 

During such a period, any woman who was not yet married had the liberty to own some property. However, this would change the moment such a woman was a married person.  She would now become the property of the man. Becoming married further implied that such would be lost to the husband or left to other cooperative groups. Losing control over property ownership was intended to establish sufficient authority over such a woman. 

Making the women live as dependants of the men limited their capacity and capability. As Hannah explained: “The mind, after being confined at home for a while, sends the imagination abroad in quest of new treasures; and the body may as well accompany it.” They had to keep the back seat and a condition that did not allow them to utilize any of their potential of innovation or even creativity. To them, it was clear that only the men could develop any family improvement and community progress. 

The women were primarily as less than fully human or inferior to the men in the patriarchal society. Additionally, the women were untrustworthy, especially in cases where they reported situations that involved the misconduct of the men. They had several roles that they played in the community, especially in the domestic field.  The girl or lady in this period and time was taken to be a subject of double oppression in society. Such was very common, especially at the time of marriage, where the girl’s father or parents used her as a tool for collecting wealth. The impact of such was majorly felt hardest by the young lady or girl who had no choice in the affairs.  Therefore, the double oppression resulting from the parents and the potential husband who pays the dowry consequently influenced a lot of things around the life of a woman.  She could not reject or even express her own opinion simply because she had no moral authority. 

As it is mostly the practice of the century, all women had no say, and they were left to live as properties of the men who married them. Hence such left the women considering their husbands as to the only capable people in the society. Such a tendency of submission to the men ultimately forced women to become enemies to one another in the community. Such cases were evident in situations where women condemned any moral misconduct by the males.  It instilled among them that such an act was disgraceful and, therefore, unethical in society. To them, a woman was simply part of a man’s property, and she did not have any opinion in the community.  

During the century, the idea that was developed by making the women inferior was gender inequality. At the time, only the men were superior sex, and it was only the decisions that they made mattered in society. A woman was not important, especially in public as per the then standards. Their duties only lay and ended in domestic work and responsibilities. 

Additionally, the other idea that is present here addresses the tendency of control, oppression, and exploitation of the women by the men (patriarchs). It shows the view that the men had towards women.  For instance, Mr.  Stanford in his letters to his friend Charles shows that to him Eliza is just a ‘coquette’. He does not have an interest in marrying her but simply he thinks she is a woman who lives of tempt and tease men and therefore his duty is to avenge this.  This makes it clear that during the 18th century, women were looking as objects of pleasure and affection for the men.   

The social setting that regarded the women as people who did domestic activities characterized them as passive individuals in society.  They had the role of looking after the family, which was their only god-given duty in the community. The mother was, therefore, the keeper of the house and caretaker of the moral conduct of all those who lived within the home.  In the family setting, the children often found numerous challenges while growing up.  It was, therefore, the duty of the woman to give birth to as many children as possible in the hope that some will survive the hardships. Those who survived would be the one that took up the responsibility of helping out in the family. For example, a mother would give birth to an average of about eight children with the hope that some would survive the stages of early childhood.  Consequently, such situations resulted in cases of high mortality rates in society. For instance, life expectancy ranged from 39 to 40 years.  The speed at which children died in this era was at around 12 to 13 percent, especially during the early stage of life.  Such deaths were by factors such as birth traumas, accidents, diseases, and so on.  

The fact that the patriarch made all the significant decisions in the family kept the women in situations of financial distress and hardships. As per Hannah: “happiness is by no means the invariable attendant of wealth.” The man had all the authority to determine the kind of job that his wife would do, and even where to work was entirely the choice of the patriarch.  This patriarch owned all the property in the household, and ultimately the money and finances were under the control of the man.  The children, together with their mother, we’re supposed to obey and respect the decision that had been taken by the man of the household. However, much the women had the freedom to work; they did not enjoy any of all the benefits that the men had in the community.   

Throughout the 18th century, the women disbanding to the community of the confines of the domestic spheres.  They were strictly discouraged from having access to any form of legal representation, political opinion or expression, and other rights such as economic freedom.  They were the only sources of men’s’ happiness and joy. They further regarded to be of two significant stereotypes, among which included the sexualized seductresses, chaste, virtuous mothers or wives. The century implied that the economic, social, and legal statuses of the women were too highly restrictive. Such would limit them to their domestic roles, thereby pushing them out of the public environment and setting.  Their opportunities for profitable jobs and responsibilities were diminished, and therefore the only available option was their domestic work.    

A woman had no value in the community.  She was only supposed to attend to her God-given duty of giving birth and taking care of her family.  To the men, this was not meant to be their role. They only commanded respect from both the mother and their children in the household.  The women were simply a category of minors in both the family and society. For instance, it was only the man who could determine the type and nature of work that his wife would.  Without his permission, then this was not allowed or acceptable.    

From the work written by Cixous, the increasing tendencies of oppression that the women have suffered over time are capable of effective redress.  The author urges women to overcome this type of inferiority and submissiveness to men. They were supposed to break the silence on their own if they were to achieve any difference.  According to the writer, the women in the eighteenth century had their freedom under the male pressure and oppression for an extended period. On the sad note, this was not about to change for any better. As Helen insisted: “Men say that there are two unrepresentable things: death and the feminine sex. That’s because they need femininity to be associated with death; it’s the jitters that gives them a hard-on! for themselves! They need to be afraid of us.”  Therefore, their fate largely and entirely was dependent upon their self-realization. 

The preceding periods of the 18th century had rendered the women had no moral right or authority of expression in the community.  As Helen explained: “Such a display of forces on both sides that the struggle has for centuries been immobilized in the trembling equilibrium of a deadlock.” They were dark, passive, and dangerous times of society. It is this type of exploitation that always enraged them against each other. Therefore, this type of social mistreatment and appearance constantly taunted them in the community. The beating of women in the society that was not condemned significantly held the women in the position of subordination. In such cases, domestic violence on the women also had underlying impacts on their health as well as their mental state. Therefore, for the women of the 18th century, life only mattered to the men (patriarchs).  The women, on the other hand, had little or no say in the affairs of the community and society. Such a trend, however, started to improve at the end of the century. Till the present date, the women need to step up and overcome such kinds of social mistreatment.  They need to realize their capabilities if they are to overcome the past dark periods. The idea that is presented by this author is that women still have the capacity and ability to change the recent events of oppression. As Helen stated: “Now women return from afar, from always: from “without,” from the heath where witches are kept alive; from below, from beyond “culture”; from their childhood which men have been trying desperately to make them forget, condemning it to “eternal rest.” Women need to realize their potential and utilize their expertise for a better society. 

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