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The Women of Downton Abbey

The PBS series' take on rising feminism gives boomers something to relate to

By Chris Hewitt | February 12, 2014

When innocent Mr. Bates stewed in prison while his wife, Anna, figured out how to spring him in season three of Downton Abbey, it was a neat metaphor for the series' attitude toward gender: The men twiddle their thumbs while the women get things done.

On paper, the men may have the power, upstairs and downstairs. But as the series has advanced to 1923, its female characters are becoming aware that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a Model T.

In season four, it is control of Downton Abbey itself that brings the show's feminism to the forefront.

(MORE: 20 Questions for the Silent Star of 'Downton Abbey': The Castle)

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who has already seen her father fritter away one fortune (her American mother, Cora's), insists that her voice be heard on the management of Downton so he can't fritter away another fortune (the one the family gained access to when Mary wed Matthew Crawley, a distant relative who was eligible to inherit simply because he was a man).

Like hundreds of millions of women today, it turns out Mary is pretty good at calling the shots.

The era's flappers, jazz music and suffragist rallies will remind viewers of more modern equivalents — free love, rock 'n roll and the fight for equal pay for equal work. The PBS show's feminist theme is a good reminder of how the past lives in the present, which is part of the series' enduring appeal.

(MORE: A '60s Activist is Back in the Trenches Again)
 


The Dowager Countess as Blooming Radical?

Lady Mary may be the most visible feminist on Downton Abbey, especially since the season three death of her suffragette sister, Sybil. But the truth is she only needs to look across the Granthams' silver-laden dinner table for role models, starting with her quick-witted granny, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, in the role that has won her two Emmys).

Violet may seem to be a relic from a long-ago century — she would have been born about the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837 — and her job may appear to be little more than stopping by to eat beef Wellington and gaze with disapproval at her granddaughters' bosoms. But there's more to the Dowager Countess than a snazzy title.

In fact, even though she certainly wouldn't call herself a feminist — Violet once tartly insisted her granddaughters wouldn't need opinions until their husbands told them what they were -- she may be one without even knowing it.

The Women Must Rise

Violet's focus is always on family and, faced with the vexing lack of male heirs, she has been relentless in her insistence that the women of Downton must step to the plate.

This season, that has meant admonishing the grieving widow Mary to "choose life" by returning to active participation in the future of the estate and even quietly accepting the sexual freedom of the younger generation.

The sense is that the Dowager Countess is not a feminist because she cares about politics but because, when faced with circumstances such as granddaughter Lady Edith making decisions about her own future, it is simply just for women to have the same freedoms as men.

Speaking of Edith, she's not only the sole regular on the series with an actual job outside of Downton. She has also become the series' most progressive thinker.

The Controversial Storyline

Downstairs, too, feminism is rearing its yet-unnamed head, particularly in the controversial season four storyline of Anna, the ladies maid who was raped by a visiting valet. The show has been criticized for Anna's withdrawal and shame, almost as if she believes she caused the assault. But that response feels period-appropriate for 1922/23 while giving Downton Abbey a chance to look ahead, as well.

It's a tactic Downton Abbey and Mad Men both use: accurately representing the periods in which they're set, but also encouraging us to measure their pasts against our present.

When Anna confides in her supervisor, Mrs. Hughes, Anna's words and actions may be disturbingly pre-feminist but Mrs. Hughes' response points to the future: She assures Anna that it's not her fault and encourages her to think of the valet's possible future victims. As a result, Downton Abbey is simultaneously true to its era and to a future time when Downton heiresses will take back the night.

Downton Abbey has walked this past/present line successfully all of this fourth season and, in the process, has addressed the key issues facing feminism today — which, according to a recent story published in The New Statesmen, are division of domestic labor, the media, the glass ceiling, social inequality and violence against women.


Violence Against Women

The series does especially well on that first item. Upstairs, of course, nobody does any work but, downstairs, duties are evenly divided between men and women. And, even if Mr. Carson is supposedly in charge, season four events — such as Mrs. Hughes' subtle engineering of Carson's choice of where to take the servants for a holiday — make it clear that Hughes is the one calling the shots (the issue of equal pay is hard to talk about on a show where no one ever seems to get paid for anything).

(MORE: What Miss Utah Should've Said About the Pay Gap)

Meanwhile, Lady Edith is blazing trails as a female journalist and fighting for women's voting rights (full suffrage would not come to England until 1928). Isobel Crawley (the late Matthew's mom) fights for the rights of the poor and overlooked. And Mrs. Hughes makes a case that violence against women can only be addressed if it's spoken about and fought against.

The show's method of dealing with Anna's assault suggests that this is a storyline that will continue to preoccupy the characters in season five, debuting in 2015.

So, undoubtedly, will the idea that well-behaved women seldom make history, Or, as Lady Edith puts it in season four, "I sometimes think we should make more scenes when something really matters to us."

Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country. The Dowager Countess would be appalled by his ignorance of which fork to use when.

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