Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Downton Abbey and the Dramatically Shifting Roles of Women

[spoiler alert – I do make some references to season 4 for those who are behind on the series]

I am equally fascinated by the upstairs and downstairs ladies of Downton Abbey. I adore Lady Mary and identify with the steadfast, loyal Anna (perhaps because I have a bit of a crush on Mr. Bates). I sigh over Edith’s personal tragedies and cheer for Isobel Crawley’s plucky (if somewhat naive) spirit. I smile at downtrodden Daisy and admire the restless, compassionate spirit of Sybil. And where would the show be without the Dowager Countess – the delightfully grumpy matriarch with her sharp, witty tongue?

The writers of the PBS series Downton Abbey have created an array of fascinating and complex female characters, perhaps the best array of female characters I have seen for a long time on television. They face personal trials and a changing world. They fight and stick together.  They challenge and change and grow and stretch. They make mistakes and pick themselves back up. They fail and try again.

The show reaches into different generations and across economic situations. We meet women at the lowest ranks like Ethel Parks, the maid gone wild who bears a child out of wedlock. Out of a job and dumped mercilessly by the father, she is left to support her little one in any way she can. She is not an admirable character, but even the coldest heart cannot feel completely unsympathetic toward her plight. In that time, and even sometimes now, there was no place for women in her situation. There future was a downward spiral. Even in the show, her only real solution is to give up the child.

It was in Isobel Crawley, Matthew’s mom, that I saw, again and again, the changing attitude of women toward their own gender and their role in society. Women decided that it was time, past time, for them to get involved – to help others – to change the world for the better. The show portrays this in the upper-middle class Crawley and in the privileged daughter of the estate, Sybil.

As the war begins, neither woman can stand by and watch. They feel they must do something – anything – to help. Sybil trains as a nurse. She wants to “do something!”  Isobel urges the opening of the Downton estate as a refuge for recovering soldiers. Her maid, catching the spirit, opens the Crawley home as a soup kitchen for the returning wounded and poor. The generous and impulsive spirit of these women breaks tradition and pushes social boundaries.

In Lady Edith, we see the spark of need for women to have their voices heard. Up until that time, women voted by influencing their husbands’ opinions. To speak aloud, to voice one’s personal and political opinions, was really unheard of. But Edith begins to write, first a letter to the editor and then a column. Her position in society opens doors, and it would not be long before women became political journalists and commentators.  It would not be long before they earned the right to vote. These women changed who we are today.

People have had mixed emotions about Lady Edith’s unwanted pregnancy in Season 4, perhaps an even stronger reaction than they did over Ethel's similar predicament. I was surprised that some thought it inappropriate for the time period. After all, her struggle on whether or not to keep a child born out of wedlock is as old as time. The burden, it seems, generally falls to the mother and her company of women. Notice how influenced Edith is by her grandmother and aunt. Their opinions weigh heaviest on her heart.

As someone who just finished writing about women in turn-of-the-century America, I find it fascinating to learn a bit about their English counterparts who lived during the same time period.

Across the pond and even the globe, we are a shared womanhood indeed, fighting similar struggles, learning difficult lessons, and working to articulate an honest voice, to do our part.
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