Growing up in a small, predominantly white town meant growing up looking down on feminism. We were taught that feminism was just a “movement of women complaining about their lives and hating men.” I didn’t want to be a feminist in high school— it was social suicide— and I was already considered a “bitch” for speaking my mind. Truthfully, I didn’t even consider the fact that I may be a feminist until my sophomore year of college when I had taken a class on 19th century English Literature. We had been reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and the class had to have a discussion about what we had read in the Zoom chat. Now, I am very good at recognizing when I piss someone off with something I say, and boy did I piss this kid off— I had written something so simple as, “as she should,” and suddenly I’m a feminist who hates men and doesn’t know a thing about society.
For those of you who don’t know, Jane Eyre is a 19th century novel about a fictional character named Jane Eyre. The novel follows Jane through five different stages of her life: her early childhood at Gateshead, her education at Lowood, her time at Thornfield, her retreat to Moorhead, and her return to Rochester at Ferndean. However, for me the novel was never really about Jane herself, but about Bertha, Rochester’s estranged wife. Bertha does not show up often in the novel because the novel was only shown through Jane’s eyes, and Jane hardly knew about her. But, her character has a special place in my heart for reawakening my love for literature.
Bertha is seen as a villain in Jane Eyre but really to me, she is just a symbol of how a woman of her time was treated. She was originally a Creole woman from Spanish Town, Jamaica. In a plan to consolidate their wealth, Bertha and Rochester’s father’s arranged a marriage between the two of them. This woman disintegrates into madness soon after their wedding. Bertha loses her sanity when she is forced to marry Rochester loses her free-will. However, by turning Bertha into property of Rochester, he trapped himself as well. After she loses her sanity, Rochester moves them back to Thornfield and locks her up on the third floor, assigning Grace Poole as her keeper. Rochester is in constant watch as Bertha tends to get out and wreak havoc on him (this is usually where people start to think she’s a villain and where I started wondering whether or not I was reading it wrong). To me, Bertha is trapped in a foreign country where she knows no one and she’s stuck with someone who dehumanized her and confined her in an attic. But, just by being there Bertha puts Rochester in a prison of his own making; she’s a living representation of all his sins and wrong doings. He is so ashamed of her that instead of telling the woman he falls in love with, Jane, the truth, he blames everything on Grace Poole, by lying to Jane. He tells Jane and all of his other employees that everything Bertha has done was due to Grace Poole’s declining mental health. Rochester places blame on everyone but himself, as he is a man who feels he can do no wrong. Instead of owning up to his sins, he blames the ongoing events that happen at his house on another woman. Even after Bertha makes several attempts to end his life, he still keeps her in the house so he can control her. Eventually, the only way for Bertha to escape his control is to burn down the house with everyone inside, effectively killing herself and taking Rochesters eyesight with her. Just the type of poetic justice he deserved as he couldn’t see any of the wrongdoings he did anyway.
Bertha was only seen in the turning point of the novel, but to me she was my awakening. In fact, I loved and still love the fact that she burned the house down, however, one of the men in my class did not like the fact that I loved her doing it. Here’s where the simple “as she should” comes into play: apparently it’s “toxic femininity” to think something so cruel should have been done to the “poor man who was already stuck with an insane wife.” This man who I had never even met before had a field day trying to mansplain why it was toxic of a group of women in my class to think Bertha was iconic in the Zoom chat. I had never even identified myself as a feminist up until that point, so the idea of “toxic femininity” to me was laughable. He was no better than Rochester, he referred to Bertha as an animal instead of the woman she truly was. Whenever any of the other women in our class tried to argue the feminine reasoning behind her character, he shut us all down. It got to the point where the professor had to ask us if we were all right privately because of how rude he was being. He wasn’t only dehumanizing Bertha, he was trying to dehumanize all of us as well for sympathizing with her. After our Zoom class ended that day, I had been added to a group chat with a few girls in my class on instagram, and apparently that boy in my class had a habit of mansplaining to women who show their intelligence. Honestly, looking back at it he was laughable. He was just another man scared of a woman’s intelligence. The group chat and the drama in class died down but my thoughts on the novel did not.
I wanted to find out everything I could about the novel and Charlotte Brontë which eventually led me to the Wide Sargasso Sea. The Wide Sargasso Sea is a feminist prequel to Jane Eyre written in 1966 by Jean Rhys. It follows “Bertha’s” life before the events of Jane Eyre— I say Bertha with quotes because her real name in Wide Sargasso Sea is Antoinette Cosway. Rochester takes more than just her sanity away from her, he takes her whole identity from her as well. Within the novel, Antionette never felt like she fit in with anyone as she was balanced and bounced around between the white and the black community during her childhood. When Rochester takes her own name from her, he takes the only sound piece of identity she has ever had. It made my blood boil reading it; I was genuinely disgusted with his actions before I remembered it was just fictional characters. While they may be fictional characters, they didn’t feel that way to me. Antionette/Bertha’s story opened up my eyes to the fact that there are real women out there that face the same thing, or worse, every day. No one had thought to teach us about things such as the #MeToo movement or any of the women’s rights movements in the 60’s/70’s. I was getting mad over how a book character was being treated, but I couldn’t give real women my sympathies because I was taught that I didn’t need to. I was taught to believe that feminism wasn’t a real concept, and if it was, it was a “toxic concept.” When you look up the Wide Sargasso Sea, the words “feminist” prequel pops up. Yet, I loved the novel. Feminism was supposed to be a taboo word, but the thing is, I loved something that was connected to it. I had to reteach myself the meaning of feminism.
I wondered if I could even claim to be a feminist. I learned that feminism was more than just wanting equality and hating men. To me, feminism is and will always be about wanting the right thing. Instead of sneering at movements that were labelled previously as “toxic femininity,” I learned to look at feminism for what it truly is: finding justice for women who otherwise would not get it. I learned that not wanting to be objectified and treated unfairly is not something to look down on, but that it’s okay to fight for the right thing even if people might label you as a “bitch” or a “toxic feminist” for it. While feminism is a movement that campaigns to bring about political and social change on the sexist way woman are treated, I learned you can be a feminist without actively campaining and going out in the field to fight for change. I had no idea. I was always told to be a feminist you had to go to protests and shout from rooftops about it. Everything I had ever learned up until this point about feminism came from the frustrated scared men in the world who were afraid of no longer being in charge, or the women who were too afraid of the men in charge.
When I realized that, I had learned that maybe I had been a feminist all along and that’s probably why I was labelled a “bitch” in highschool. I was always a loud advocate for what I thought was right in highschool, and I had gotten shut down for it plenty of times. Even if it was advocating for better treatment of the kids in the foster care system, I was always shut down, despite being the only one in the class whose family members were foster parents. I have met over 20 children in my life who have suffered in the foster care system, but because I am a woman I got shut down by all of the men in my class, including the male teacher who called me an “arrogant antagonist.” I had to learn to just bite my tongue when I should have been learning that it’s okay to be considered a feminist, that it’s okay to be considered a bitch when you’re fighting for what you believe in.
In society, it appears that you can do nothing right. If you are a woman who does not consider yourself a feminist, you may feel as if you are an embarrassment to your gender. If you consider yourself a feminist, sometimes it may feel as if you’ll be judged for it by every man ever. At least, that’s how I felt. I was actually nervous writing this that I’d be judged for it on all sides for either being twenty-years-old and not knowing about feminism, or for actually accepting the fact that I am a feminist. I’m not really nervous anymore. Growing up, there were no women in my life who would advocate for other women. There is no need to be embarrassed about trying to educate myself so someday I can advocate for them myself.