“I hate to hear you talking so … as if women were all fine ladies instead of rational creatures.” (Mrs. Croft to her brother, Frederick Wentworth, in chapter 8 of Persuasion)
Although Jane Austen may not seem progressive to a modern audience, certain aspects of her stories would have been considered downright revolutionary in her day. Nothing more so than her depiction of women as “rational creatures.” Not that she didn’t also write female characters who little deserved the title. But, by and large, the women who inspired the love of her heroes and earned the devotion of her readers (then and now) are those who were well read, intelligent, and possessed a good deal of common sense.
What’s revolutionary about that? In Jane Austen’s day, women were not only non-persons legally and socially (except as extensions of their fathers or husbands), they were generally considered vastly inferior creatures unworthy of higher education and incapable of higher thought. So, to call a woman rational was a clear contradiction in terms. To insist that she had the same capacity for reason as a man was a strongly feminist and highly controversial stand.
Jane Austen was no political activist. She didn’t protest in front of the Parliament building or burn her corset in the town square. Her novels rarely even alluded to world events or governmental affairs. She instead made her case for recognizing the rationality of women with subtle strokes of her pen. Her strong female characters and her respected body of work speak volumes for her.