During the 19th century, the expectation for women was to marry, take care of the children, and run the house. Women were not seen as being equal to men, and they were not respected as human beings who had their own opinions and desires. In her two essays, “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony” and “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books,” Fanny Fern addresses the limitations and expectations placed on women at that time, and she criticizes men for not respecting and valuing women the way they should.
In “Aunt Hetty on Matrimony,” Fern addresses how marriage was more or less the only option available to women, as well as how it was not the wonderful life girls were brought up to think it would be. Additionally, she criticizes women for wanting to be married and allowing themselves to become trapped by the men in her lives. For example, she says that marriage “is the hardest way on earth of getting a living, you never know when your work is done” (1795). Such a statement serves as a warning to young women who have been raised to have finding a husband be their sole goal in life and who believe that marrying well will bring them security and status. Marriage was something girls grew up looking forward to, thinking it was something wonderful, but really it was just a lot of work, and, as Fern shows, the work they did was futile because, no matter how much they did, they were never finished.
Furthermore, Fern says, “O, you may scrimp and save, and twist and turn, and dig and delve, economize and die; and your husband will marry again, and take what you have saved to dress his second wife with; and she’ll take your portrait for a fire-board!” (1795), which shows that when a woman died (as many women did back then in childbirth), her husband would simply move on and choose another wife, who would get everything the previous wife had worked so hard to earn. This suggestion that a husband would just move on and choose another wife shows how many men back then didn’t really value their wives and how one woman was just as good as another, so that it was more of an inconvenience when their wife died (because they’d need to find another wife) than actually a source of grief.
Fern knows that women have been conditioned from birth to desire marriage, and have been told by their mothers what a wonderful goal it is for a young woman. As she exclaims, “But, what’s the use of talking? I’ll warrant every one of you’ll try it the first chance you get; for, somehow there’s a sort of bewitchment about it” (1794). Girls at that time grew up believing that being married is the best thing that could happen to them, and so, they are anxious to marry as soon as they are old enough, not realizing what they are actually getting themselves into. Far from the wonderful fantasies girls had regarding marriage, Fern asserts that, for women in the 19th century, marriage was like a prison and was a miserable existence for a woman. She reveals how women lost their freedom and individuality upon marriage and how they became subject to their husband’s will. Married women back then hardly had any time for themselves and were reduced to servants instead of free-thinking women. They suddenly became their husband’s property and could no longer make decisions for themselves.
In “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books,” Fern continues her critique of how belittled women were by men in the 19th century. She addresses the double-standard how women are criticized for writing novels that deal with romance and relationships, but men don’t receive any criticism for writing about the same subjects. As she points out, “Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants, and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels?—of Dickens, of Thackeray, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to female pens, most astute and liberal critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? and if it could be so recognized, would it find readers?” (1799-1800). Fern shows that the lack of respect men had for women even extended to how they viewed books by female authors. She also asserts that male authors often wrote about the same subjects as women do, yet they didn’t get any flak for it. Furthermore, Fern brings up a good point about whether people would recognize a novel as a novel if it didn’t include romance (and, even if it did, would it appeal to readers). Readers expect certain things in a novel, and if those things are absent, such a book won’t sell well. Fern is saying that women writers were simply trying to make a living and if they were writing “fluff” it’s because that’s what sells, and if they are going to be criticized for that, then male authors should be criticized too because they write what sells as well.
Fern also argues that men cannot complain that books written by women are about romance, marriage, etc., because that is what men have reduced women’s experiences to. As she states, “Courtship and marriage, servants and children, these are the great objects of a woman’s thoughts, and they necessarily form the staple topics of their writings and their conversation. We have no right to expect anything else in a woman’s book” (1799). Women, like men, write about what they know, and in the 19th century, all women knew revolved around courtship, marriage, children, and housework. So, if men insist on confining women to such a limited existence, then they really do “have no right to expect anything else from a woman’s book” because they are preventing women from experiencing or knowing about anything else, and how are women supposed to write about something they know nothing about? By depicting how limited the subject matters are that are featured in women’s novels, Fern shows how restrictive the lives of women were, and how they were prevented from experiencing all of the things men were able to.