The lack of rights within marriage that makes women basically "property" to the man is obviously central to this story, as indicated by the way in which Maria is imprisoned. There are a variety of ways in which this most disturbing of issues is addressed in the book. Women who are married loose control over their own bodies, and are required to submit to caresses to which their soul does not consent. One woman in the madhouse is, in fact, there specifically because she could not tolerate her husband's caresses. "she had been married, against her inclination, to a rich old man,... In consequence of his treatment... she had... lost her senses." (1.39) Not only is a woman prone to institutionalized rape, but she also has no right to require the man to remain as he was before they wed. Maria declaims bitterly of how her husband deteriorates into a brutal, drunken slob and yet she cannot legally leave him. When she does attempt to leave, finally, she is hunted down like stolen property to be claimed, or as an escaped slave. More-over, a woman's husband has the legal right to take anything which belongs to her, and so even an industrious woman (such as one of her temporary landladies) may tell stories of a husband who repeatedly drove her to the brink of starvation with his legalized thefts of her checks and savings. Women are legally disallowed the freedom to commit adultery and to divorce, and they are forced by law to obey their husbands in all things, regardless of his wisdom or intelligence.
Regarding all these issues Wollstonecraft's narrators speak out with anger and with recognition of the bigger issues at stake. This book's claim to being a feminist novel -- and quite possibly the most radical feminist novel of its time-- is based on the way in which it presents and deals quite seriously with these issues. Many books before and since have dealt with social injustices, particularly describing the problems with industrialization. Wollstonecraft is unique int he way in which she speaks of women's problems as a woman, and integrates the stories and complaints of many women into the sequence of events she portrays.
As for Jane Austen, her book Northanger Abby does very little to address any of those specific cultural problems, even though she was certainly aware of them. Her book deals mainly with virginal unmarried protagonists, so it is hardly a treatise on the marginalization of women within the married relationship. However, this is not to say that Austen does not address issues of inequality. There are two significant areas in which inequality is an issue within the tale: first, that the women are in all these cases dependent on the will of the men in their lives and cannot choose for themselves, and secondly that there is an overarching communication inequality which dictates how women may address men and respond to men within the boundaries of decorum -- an inequality which disallows the female full rights of refusal or of initiation of contact. Additionally, though its direct effect on the lives of the women involved is seldom made explicit, it is evident that the girls all live in a culture which is built on sexual inequality which (as Wollstonecraft explicates) leads to the treatment of the body as a commodity, and which limits the full scope of a girl's options.
It is this culture of inequality which assures that Catherine must be sent to Bath in the hopes that she will find a boy to marry, and which (in the end) dictates that she cannot marry Henry until his patriarch agrees. This culture associates shame with riding alone in a carriage, and thus she is shamed when the General sends her home. It is inequality which creates an environment where she must scheme to see Henry by befriending his sister or casually hinting about dancing, rather than confronting him with her desires. The degree to which the female characters must be subservient to the will of the men in their lives is of course a part of this sexist milieu, but it is to some degree also above it as a more significant infringement on personal liberties than the mere vagaries of courtship rituals and relations. While the characters themselves do not complain about it, the reader can clearly see the ways in which these girls are handed from one authority to the next till the very act of being left unhanded is considered a shame.
Catherine, for example, goes from her Father's command to Mr. Allen, and from him to the General, and eventually to her husband. In the meantime, one notices the continued theme of domination by males, as shown metaphorically at the balls where a woman is in disgrace or considers herself shamed if she is not under the command of a male. The wording used to describe appearing to be uncoupled while actually "engaged" sound remarkably as if the narrator were describing the state of being apparently pregnant with an illegitimate love child when one had actually been raped and was entirely personally innocent: "disgraced in the eye of the world, to wear the appearance of infamy while her heart is all purity, her actions all innocence, and the misconduct of another the true source of her debasement..." Likewise the way in which a woman "engages" herself to a man to danse becomes riddled with layers of inequality, "man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal... they belong exclusively to each other [though the man, as the scene makes obvious, can walk away]." The dancers, handed from man to man, seem to symbolize the way in which women are perceived as property to be traded rather than courted.
Austen also betrays inequality in the break down of communication that occurs between men and women, which Austen shows being stifled and broken by the woman's need to be submissive. For example, Catherine has great difficulty saying no to John Thorpe when he practically kidnaps her (keeps driving the buggy when she is screaming to be let down), or insists on dancing with her or talking to her when she has no interest in him. Isabella claims to have the same problem on occasion, but appears to be scheming enough to avoid it.
Jane Austen also has a certain positive feminism, which is quite unique in relationship to Wollstonecraft, in that it presents women not as positive equals of men (though Austen does occasionally imply that truth), but actually presents situations in which the protagonists consider men to be inferiors. They are referred to as the "fickle sex," and Isabella speaks of the importance of humiliating men in order to keep them in hand. Women and men are both shown having weaknesses which are unique to their sex, and also specific strengths, and to some degree this is an important aspect of Austen's thought.
In conclusion, both authors may be considered feminist writers to some degree, if only because they take for their subject common women in uncommon times, and try to portray their strength and power in those difficult situations. However, Wollstonecraft takes her feminism in a direction which Austen does not, using her best acrimony to argue for the equality of treatment which the inborn equality of the sexes has earned.
Gothic influence in Wollstonecraft and Austen
The novels which feature so prominently through-out Northanger Abby, with their legends of haunted castles and grim ghosts, graveyards and clamy hands in the dark, lovers raised from the dead, and other such extremities are prime examples of a contemporary art movement known as the Gothic. Gothic art ran parallel to and as a part of romanticism, and it heavily influence the writing both of Northanger Abby and of Maria's story. The primary elements of Gothic fiction are as follows:
dark and foreboding setting, extreme emotional experiences and prose, the optional presence of warped, genius, or antiheroic protagonists and antagonists playing a significant role, supernatural or freakish elements are likely to be present or at least hinted at (these elements may include magic, science, sentient environments or objects, religion, ghosts and monsters, madness and mutation, or any combination thereof), and a preoccupation with the morbid and with mortality. Gothicism also tends to have a set of specific but flexible attitudes towards its female characters -- these will be addressed in more detail in the next subdivision. In any case, the story may or may not have a "happy" ending, a "moral" to the story, or any "redeeming" features other than entertainment.
Using this definition, it is clear to see that Maria or the Wrongs of Woman is clearly a work of Gothic fiction, being entirely and perfectly suited to the genre. The forebodding setting of an insane assylum, particularly one…