On Radio 4's Today program Paula Byrne said that Jane Austen was a subversive feminist and I nearly swallowed my own fist. I get where Byrne's coming from - she's got a book to promote - but we really need to stop calling Jane Austen a feminist.
There's no arguing with the feminist content of Austen's novels. The plight of the spinster and women's inability to earn money take centre stage throughout her books and she devoted entire novels to the damage that only allowing sons to inherit does to a family. Issues like poverty, discrepancy in education and the dangers of childbirth, all modern feminist concerns, are an Austen staple. She completely breaks with the social mores of the times and allows Lydia Bennett to have sex outside marriage and instead of ending up as a TB ridden cautionary tale she gets a dashing husband and a telling off by Darcy (rubs thighs.) But just because Austen favoured the independence of Miss Elizabeth Bennett that does not make her a feminist.
The other side of the argument tends to be that because she did a lot for women she must be a feminist. Nope. Yes she is still one of the only female writers to show up on most university reading lists outside the dreaded "women's writing" modules. Yes she's soon going to be the only women on a banknote who is there as a result of her achievements rather than because of who her dad was (sorry Queenie). But the fact that her books have stood the test of time does not mean we can clutch her to our No More Page 3 t-shirts and claim her for the sisterhood.
As every feminist knows; feminism in an incredibly loaded word. If you're lucky you'll have lots of friends who are feminists and your parents will be feminist and everyone will generally understand the concept of feminism and give you three cheers of love and support. But probably not. Because most feminists in this country don't come from a family of feminists and they don't have that support which is why saying you're a feminist is a big fucking deal.
Saying you're a feminist is to say that you believe that most women are oppressed, that the white, male privilege enjoyed by most of the people who hold power in this country should be overthrown. Feminism is wreathed in misunderstanding and negative stereotypes, saying you're a feminist is not the same as saying you're a Northerner or in Marketing or an Environmentalist. It's generally viewed as quite antagonistic and a lot of people will take it as a sign that you want to have a debate about rape apologists at 8am instead of reading your copy of Persuasion and blocking out the rest of the Northern line.
It doesn't make sense to label other people as "feminist" because that takes away half the power of the word. Feminism is taking a stand and saying you're not ok with the way that women are discriminated against and that you want to take an active part in that fight. It is a positive, proactive label to give yourself and applying it to someone who'd never even heard of the concept is about as effective as screaming "fuck you the patriarchy!!" at an empty roll of toilet paper.
It's very tempting to claim Jane Austen for the tribe. One of the easiest ways to stop someone staring at you in horror, fearful of a bra burning rampage, is to point out all the nice reasonable feminists out there. Ada Lovelace! Miss Piggy! Mae West! Maybe Jane Austen would have called herself a feminist if she'd had the chance. But she didn't and it's not up to us to slap that label on her. Ultimately it's not going to further our cause as feminists to start labelling famous women who can't confirm or deny that they were feminists. We need to concentrate on converting more living women to feminism, not co-opting the dead.