In each case, marriage for the woman has less freedom than for the man. After all, the woman cannot even properly (as Elinor evidences) express her deep-seated affection or attachment to a man, unless he has first approached her. A woman cannot initiate love, and this in itself debases her freedom of choice. This omnipresent element of Victorian culture is present in Wuthering Heights as well, when one sees that Cathy considers marrying Linton partly because "if Heathcliff and I married, we should be beggars...And he [Linton] will be rich, and I shall like to be the greatest woman of the neighbourhood, and I shall be proud of having such a husband." (Bronte) of course, she also expresses love for him, but the sort of love that is far inferior to her feelings for Heathcliffe.
This issue of inequality in marriage leads naturally to a very serious issue in all of these books, which is the inequality of men and women in the area of sex. It is a fact of nature that men are (generally) able to physically overpower women, and that the male sex organs lend themselves to penetration and dominance in a way that a woman's more internal anatomy does not. However, it is considered by many today (and through-out history) to be a mark of moral rightness that a woman maintain integrity of her body and be allowed equal choice in lovemaking and sexuality. However, two out of these three books deal with some form of rape-like activity against one of the female characters. In Tess of the D'urbervilles, Alec forces himself on the heroine in her sleep, as she "had dreaded him, winced before him..."
In Wuthering Heights, Heathcliffe forces himself violently on his young wife so that she immediately learns to dread him, crying out "a tiger or a venomous serpent could not rouse terror in me equal to that which he wakens," though his actual physical torments of her are left to the imagination, one gathers that he is a sadistic lover and husband.
Yet rape is not the only inequality in sexual matters between the genders. Just as serious is the inequality in what is expected of the genders in terms of chastity. This is very clearly evidenced in the story of Tess. When Angel admits that he has had an affair with an older woman in the past, he is merely making a casual confession. When Tess, for her part, admits that she was sorely taken advantage of by a bad fellow, Angel rejects her completely. Tess, for the loss of her virginity, pays with dear suffering through-out her life. Angel and Alec both never pay in the slightest for their dalliances, except where Tess' suffering touches theirs.
A similar case may be seen in Sense and Sensibility, in which the indiscretions of the girls, casual as they are, may be seen as very dear while the indiscretions of males may be forgiven. This is perfectly clear when the Colonel describes how his niece got into a bad situation with Willoughby. The latter, of course, came away from it quite unscathed while the girl's involvement became an emergency situation. Of course, in comparing the three books in this regard one sees significant differences. Hardy's book highlights the hypocrisy of judging a woman more harshly, when she has less power than a man to control her fate. Austen's book tends to focus more on the affects which prudery and restrain have on all parties, whereas Bronte displays a hero and heroine who seem to have no real restraints or shame. In Wuthering Heights, there is a great deal of sexual equality between Cathy and Heathcliffe, and even between Cathy and Linton, despite the fact that significant sexual inequality exists between Isabelle and Heathcliffe, and despite the fact that Linton tries ineffectually to control Cathy. The strength of Cathy's character is such that it very much overcomes the possible sexual weakness of her gender in the story.
In conclusion, it is evident that all three stories both explicitly and implicitly deal with issues of gender status, in their own way. It is interesting to note that the book which most completely argues against the double standard and the unequal treatment of women was written by a male novelist, while the female novelists either refrained from focusing on gender differences (in the case of Bronte) or treated them with lightness, sarcasm, and a sense that they represented universal problems (in Austen). One must wonder if the female authors did not sense their unequal status, or if --as seems more likely-- they were fighting to overcome the perception of themselves as inferior "effeminate" artists by refusing to deal very seriously with women's…