Linderman Library opened the fall exhibition “Jane Austen and the Rise of Feminism: Women Writers as Agents of Change” on July 18 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death.
The exhibit, which will remain open until Dec. 23, is part of a larger collection of events, including a Jane Austen reading group at the Bethlehem Public Library and a Jane Austen film series at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinema, located at the SteelStacks. Both events lead up to “Jane Austen at 200,” a one-day symposium which will take place on Sept. 22 in the Global Commons.
“One of the important things about these events is that we have worked really hard to reach out to our larger Lehigh Valley community,” associate English professor Michael Kramp said.
The symposium and exhibit aim to demonstrate that the study of literature is not something taking place only at the university level. With topics ranging from racial justice to science fiction, the exhibit targets not only scholars but also those who may be looking to expand their knowledge.
“What is interesting about Jane Austen is that she crosses audiences,” Kramp said. “We will have some academics, and we will have a large amount of community members who are interested in Austen and are coming to learn more.”
Kramp said Austen works for this exchange because she is such a beloved author.
“Her work reminds us that literature has a public and democratic purpose,” Kramp said.
Kramp, along with the Office of Interdisciplinary Programs, began organizing the symposium in the fall of last year. The idea for the exhibit was then born in early spring, prompting humanities librarian and doctoral student Heather Simoneau, graduate student Katie Hurlock and the Special Collections Department in Linderman Library to begin the process of putting the exhibit together.
“We wanted to do more than just put a book in a case,” Simoneau said. “We wanted to make the exhibition a tool — a way to analyze an issue.”
The exhibit is spread out among the main reading room, the Cafe Gallery and the Bayer Galleria and displays Austen’s works along with those of her predecessors and contemporaries — women whose writing lay the groundwork for the feminist movement.
Hurlock, a second-year masters of English student, said featuring other women writers in addition to Austen was part of the plan for the exhibit. Hurlock wanted to point out the importance of the feminist themes that can be found throughout the works of these female authors.
The exhibit is meant to focus on an image of Austen that deters audiences from the idea that she is simply a romance novelist.
“So many of her novels are about marriage, but at the same time, she had amazing social justice themes in her work that are often minimized,” Hurlock said.
The exhibit displays works of female authors from across cultural backgrounds and social classes, such as Phillis Wheatley, Mary Wollstonecraft, Louisa May Alcott, Pandita Ramabai, some of whom either inspired or were inspired by Austen.
Hurlock, who completed the majority of the research and writing for the exhibit, said most of the female authors displayed in the exhibit have been forgotten and rediscovered over time. She said many of them still have not gained notable recognition for their work.
“Part of our project has been to uncover some of that history,” Hurlock said.
Jane Austen’s life and works are being commemorated all over the world this year through lectures, conferences and film series.
“It’s important to look at what came before you,” Simoneau said. “Looking back at the history of any movement and being mindful of those struggles ensures that we move forward and not just stop or slip backwards.”
Even 200 years later, Hurlock believes there are lessons to be learned from Austen’s feminist commentary.