In Search of Progress: Female Academics after Jane Eyre
Charlotte Brontë’s novel about a female educator, Jane Eyre, was published in 1847. This current paper asks: what progress has been enjoyed by female academics since Charlotte’s day? Although women are no longer disbarred from academia, there is international evidence that women in higher education experience gender discrimination both as students and academics. This paper therefore borrows from Jane Eyre to define “progress” as the recognition that women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer” (Brontë, 2006, pp. 129-130). It questions the extent of this progress by asking ten female academics working in four UK universities to respond to quotations from Jane Eyre read in conjunction with recent media stories about education and gender. Some participants claimed that women may be antagonistic towards female academics who defy notions of domesticity, while other participants appeared resistant to the idea that discrimination exists. This paper argues that, together, these beliefs normalise career stagnation as the “natural” outcome of women’s alleged biological preference for non-agentic behaviour and risk isolating women who are wounded by discrimination. This study suggests that progress requires the universal rejection of culturally imposed limitations to the exercise of women’s faculties.
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