Set in the early 20th Century, Downton Abbey is well situated to tackle a variety of gender themes. It is early enough that women’s rights were largely absent, still a vigorous source for dramatic conflict, yet it is late enough that the debate is active and open. In this way it can make these issues front and center through the show’s narrative. Almost every recurring female character is burdened in one way or another by the gender constraints of the time. It shares some similarities with the BBC/HBO co-production Rome in the way that series displayed the soft power of women in a society that on the surface was dominated entirely by men.
Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith): As the elder woman of the house, Violet is in many ways the most conservative woman, the most willing to defend the current state of gender relations. This could make her a rather regrettable character but the script, and Maggie Smith, won’t let her be that. Violet may not be on the front line pushing for political rights for women but she’s damned well going to stand up for the women in her family. There’s a certain cowardice to only stand up when those you care about are at risk, but at least she’s not such an ideologue as to put her broad views before her family. From scheming to assure that Mary retains the inheritance to ultimately defending Sybil’s choice of husband, Violet is there when it counts.
Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern): Cora represents a slightly outsider view, being American. Though America had its own restrictions on women’s rights at the time, its aristocracy was not as firmly entrenched and thus she doesn’t always see class lines as distinctly. Much like Violet, her primary role is the defense of her daughters.
Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery): Lady Mary suffers from two main conflicts that drive a large portion of the drama on the show. Starting from nearly the first scene of the show, the inability of Mary to inherit the family estate is of critical importance. If she were male, there would be no drama because she would have the right to inherit, but as it is, they have concern not only of retaining some control of the Crawley wealth but even the wealth Cora brought with her. So weak is the plight of the woman that her independent wealth is wholly absorbed into her husband’s. As a result of all this, financial concerns are ever present in Mary’s potential romantic life.
Considering how businesslike marriage is for Mary, it may be no surprise that she lets herself go into a flight of passion with the exotic Mr. Pamuk when he visits from the Turkish Embassy. This one evening would have reverberations through the rest of the series as we are assured that premarital sex is not something to be taken lightly, at least not if you are a woman. Non-virginal brides may not be considered scandal-worthy these days, but there’s still enough obsession with feminine purity to go around.
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael): Poor Edith. Both plainer of looks (though in the style of the entertainment business she’s still rather beautiful) and less charismatic of personality than both her sisters, Edith is an often overlooked figure. Though this is a society that seems to appreciate its women feminine, Edith is proof that society will shun you just as much for being too feminine as for being not feminine enough. She’s too passive and too obliging. This does become an asset amid the masculine chaos of wartime as her feminine compassion provides a particular service to the wounded soldiers that no one else seems willing to provide. Interestingly, one moment where Edith breaks with a feminine norm, and the expectations of class, and learns to drive and assists on one of the farms on the estate is also one where romance treads nearest.
Edith’s other main role in the story is the classic one of rivalry between sisters. Edith lost her first real love to Mary and the needs of the estate before losing him on the Titanic. This pain rebounds into Edith’s lack of discretion related to Mary’s own scandal followed by Mary’s reaction that may have cost Edith the shot at marriage. The way they are set up to compete is ultimately destructive for both of them, as often happens in a society that primes women to compete with each other rather than cooperate.
Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay): While the other women of Downton vary in their level of progressivity, it is Lady Sybil who is most radical. As a member of the aristocracy, there is some expectation that the family would support the Tories, but she more than anyone else is ready for a future where the class lines are broken down. She displays this most forcefully by choosing to marry their chauffeur, who wins her over with his political passion. This is no act of mere rebellion but rather an indication that at the end of the day, the heart rarely abides by what is socially acceptable or convenient.
Though nursing during the war is a perfectly respectable occupation for a woman, it is class that makes Sybil’s efforts more taboo. Much like Matthew Crawley is largely forced to abandon his law practice, Sybil runs into the expectation that a member of the aristocracy is expected to do little more than be aristocratic. One might lend token support to one cause or another, but a fully fledged career is out of the question. That this particular conflict isn’t related to gender is curious since so often stigma against work is gendered.
Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton): Isobel Crawley is an interesting character, coming on the scene as the mother of the new heir to Downton. We never hear too much about Matthew’s father and Isobel’s forceful personality seems to reflect someone who had no husband around to push her into a distinctly female role. Solidly middle-class until Matthew became heir, she worked as a nurse. Arriving at Downton, she quickly sets upon the hospital to help, coming into conflict with Violet. This sets up a classic conflict of status versus skill layered over their natural rivalry over the direction of the estate. Her training does give her a certain over-confidence that is more often associated with men, falling short in the face of ignorance to concerns specific to the local community.
Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle): Compared to the other upstairs women at Downton, Lavinia is distinctly unrealistic or at least uncomplicated. She is a perpetually giving of herself. Even though there is a chemistry between Matthew and Mary obvious to everyone, she is endlessly kind to her rival. This kindness is such that it kind of bothers Mary; it would be so much easier for Mary if she didn’t like the woman who made matters with Matthew more difficult for her. Lavinia’s willing to marry Matthew even when it means a life as nursemaid, with no sex and no children (though in modern times this would call for a monogamish arrangement). Ultimately, she’s willing to die to avoid getting in the way. Even more than Edith she represents a certain saintly super-femininity and like Edith, it ultimately prevents her from securing male affection. As an archetype, she is a somewhat interesting character, but as a character in a story, in theory, about real people, one appreciates a little more shades of gray.
– Erik Bondurant