In the days of Jane Austen, a young woman was defined by her accomplishments. In order to win a husband, a woman must know how to play the harp or pianoforte, draw or paint a picturesque scene, read French and Italian, sew, dance, dress well, speak eloquently and write with a clear and hand. These many skills were appreciated by prospective husbands as they thought that an accomplished wife would be good at caring for him and entertaining his friends, although she frequently quitted them after the goal was achieved. Today however, young women seek accomplishments as a way to build life skills and arm themselves for the battle of equality. If a modern woman wishes to be respected by both genders in the modern world she must have a university education, financial independence, basic table manners, a satisfactory level of physical fitness, a want and ability to deliver her opinion confidently and have control over her emotions (one must never cry at work). Bonus accomplishments include knowing how to cook and complete basic home, car and computer maintenance. A woman is expected to be able to take care of herself; therefore, she typically continues exercising and attaining accomplishments after she is married. On first inspection, the times seem to have changed quite a bit, though women still see an importance in being accomplished, they value different sorts of accomplishment, work for different goals and set different end points for learning and using their skills. However, we do still bear a resemblance to our Regency Era counterparts; we both prize self improvement through education, and self control through etiquette for the purpose of presenting ourselves well to society.
Today, any exploration into the worlds of art, music or languages is commendable, but not necessary to be respected as a modern woman. The accomplishments that a modern woman aspires to are of a more internal nature. Where our female ancestors were once afraid of becoming too intelligent, and therefore undesirable to men, we now compete to master our skills better and faster than the men. This is so that we can stand a chance of being respected by ourselves. We seek to satisfy ourselves before we aim to impress a man, endeavouring to achieve greater person goals than simply becoming a wife.
In a time when a wedding day is not the culmination of a life’s work, women have many other reasons to strive to better themselves. We may learn to cook, sew and speak additional languages, but it is so that we can fend for ourselves, secure a rewarding career and then marry an equally accomplished spouse, if we should choose. Two hundred years ago, there was only one reason to study in your father’s library and practice on the pianoforte: to win a handsome and successful husband. Today, however, every woman has a plethora of different reasons to study at university and improve their skills.
As you can see, these updated goals surpass the old endpoint of marriage and extend into the rest of a woman’s life. A woman of high status in the Regency Era had no reason to continue with her accomplishments after marriage, the race had been won. Our lives, goals and identities, however, do not end at marriage. Even with a man to take care of us physically, financially and emotionally, we feel today that it is important to continue using and developing our skills and talents so we can reciprocate and take care of our husbands when they need us.
Though the types of accomplishments acquired have changed, the value placed on disciplined knowledge remains the same. Education was not achieved in the same way or on the same matters in Jane Austen’s day, but it was important for a young woman to be well-rounded by being well-versed on many subjects, as it is today. A woman did have the ability, if she so desired, to receive an extended education, and although it would hurt her marriage prospects, she could even use that education to build a career. Let me remind you, this is the path that Jane Austen chose.
Just like the women of Regency England, a modern woman can lack the respect of her peers, despite having several impressive accomplishments, if she does not know how to behave in public. A young woman shouting across a room or a mother jabbering on about money and gossip in Jane Austen’s time has been replaced by the modern young woman getting too tipsy to exit a car without flashing her fun bits to the world. It does not matter in which time period any of these women live, or how well they can sing and dance; the fact of the matter remains the same, they will never be respected.
All women, from Jane’s day until the present day, have understood the importance of how they present themselves in public. It was why our corseted counterparts practiced for the day they would come out into society and it is why we construct the perfect Facebook identity. We are both striving to represent the ideal; they wanted to show the men that they would make a perfect wife whereas we want to show the world that we are perfectly capable of working and playing in it. The ideal may have changed, but our desire to conform to it certainly has not.
The women of today may look, talk and think differently from the women of the Regency Era but they do not act or behave any differently for it. Ladies of both time periods have sought to become accomplished to better themselves and their station in life. Although the nature of the accomplishments aspired to, the reason for achieving them and the end point of their usefulness has changed, women still value education, self control and self presentation. Whether they want to be a wife, a writer or a C.E.O., woman have always seen the value in educating themselves and mastering multiple domains so they can be the best at what they choose to do. Women have not entirely lost the virtues of modesty and temperance that were paramount when Jane Austen was writing. However quaint and distant these virtues seem now, remember that we all know it is wrong to flaunt and brag about our successes. The importance of putting one’s accomplishments forefront is still observed by women today – when was the last time you introduced yourself and announced that you once failed a big test? As it was two hundred years ago, playing the role you worked to secure and assuming the identity granted to you by your success are the prizes of being a modern accomplished woman.