Bridgerton: Penelope Is Facing a Dilemma Many Women Face — Career or Marriage

Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 306 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2024
Liam Daniel | Netflix
Liam Daniel | Netflix

* SPOILERS AHEAD*

We're fortunate enough to live in a time where women can have it all, right? Although Bridgerton is set in the Regency era, this season sees Penelope Featherington battling an internal conflict that the modern woman still faces today; deciding how to balance having a career and the traditional life of marriage and kids.

In a key scene between Penelope and her mother, Portia Featherington, before she is due to be married to Colin Bridgerton, the role of a woman in Regency society is spelled out clearly. Portia explains to her daughter: "You have managed to capture the affections of a man [Colin Bridgerton] with great name and means. You have the rest of your life to lie around and do nothing. But for now, until you walk down the aisle and settle into this marriage, your duty is to make Mr Bridgerton feel as if he is the most important person in the world. To cater entirely to your husband; his dreams, his wishes — at least in the beginning." To which Penelope questions: "What about my dreams?" Portia turns to Penelope with a bewildered look on her face. "What dreams? Ladies do not have dreams," she says. "They have husbands. And if you are lucky and you fulfil your role, sometimes what you wish for may come true … through him."

For Penelope, to be married to her one true love means she must give up her life's work as ghost writer, Lady Whistledown. As her mother said, as a woman, all her time and efforts must now be directed towards supporting her husband and eventual family. Obviously things have changed now, but even today traditional gender roles can place a significant emphasis on women being primary caregivers and homemakers. These cultural norms can create pressure on women to prioritse family over career, still. Although Penelope is trying her hardest to comply with her mother and society's expectations of a woman, the excitement and passion she gets from writing is hard to ignore.

In Bridgerton, the ton also has complex feelings about Lady Whistledown; they want to condemn her for spreading sinful, salacious, gossip but in the same breath, they also can't miss a single issue of her work. Lady Whistledown is "wrong" for being an unmarried woman who spreads gossip but also a "genius" for the way she is able to masterfully craft words together. Like Penelope's internal conflict, the ton are also struggling with where they ultimately stand on a smart career woman.

Bridgerton. (L to R) Luke Newton as Colin Bridgerton, Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 302 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2023
Liam Daniel | Netflix

In Portia's eyes, Penelope should feel lucky to have Colin who is financially stable and a love match, as she did not have the same. "You're lucky Penelope, do not take that for granted," she reminds her. But what if her outlook on her life is different? For much of Penelope's life, she was a wallflower. She hid in plain sight, collecting gossip and watching the movements of the ton. The only thing that truly gave her a sense of purpose and validation was through Lady Whistledown. Through writing, Penelope could truly be seen and heard and even though she is to be married, she is rightfully struggling with letting that go.

As a gender we have made enormous strides since the Regency era, but elements of Penelope's dilemma still rang true to me today. Is it a mere fantasy as a woman to be able to have it all? Even in 2024, the reality for most women is that it's hard to afford both.

As the cost of living crisis continues, data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that the number of live births in England and Wales fell by 3.1 percent in 2022, to 605,479. According to The Guardian, this was the "lowest number since 2002 and as a share of the population, at least as low as any point since the 1930s (as far as data goes)". In response to the figures, Pregnant Then Screwed (a charity dedicated to ending the motherhood penalty) warned that "procreation has become a luxury item".

Like Penelope's internal conflict, the ton are also struggling with where they ultimately stand on a smart career woman.

Even highly successful women today still have a fear about the impact starting a family will have on their future in the workplace and on their career. In May, Katherine Ryan's candid comments about motherhood made headlines. The comedian told Woman Magazine: "My children have enriched my life, they're such a blessing and I would never trade them for anything." But she honestly detailed how having them has changed her life. "I would be lying if I said they didn't ruin the life I had before. But I rebuilt a better one and that's fine," she admitted. "I would be pretending if I said that I could still do all the things that I could before and I think we're selling this fantasy of what motherhood means if we aren't honest."

Similarly, in March, singer Lily Allen opened up on how having children transformed her career. In an interview on the Radio Times podcast, Allen jokingly said: "My children ruined my career. I love them and they complete me, but in terms of pop stardom, they totally ruined it." Like Ryan, she was completely honest about the sacrifices you have to make as a woman for motherhood. She told the podcast: "It really annoys me when people say you can have it all. I chose stepping back and concentrating on them, and I'm glad that I've done that because I think they're pretty well-rounded people."

Balancing a demanding career with the responsibilities of raising children can be challenging. The time and energy required for both roles can lead to stress and burnout, making the decision of how to navigate both very difficult. But as Ryan said, the reality is that your life won't be the same, you just have to create a new one which can be just, if not more, rewarding.

"I would be pretending if I said that I could still do all the things that I could before and I think we're selling this fantasy of what motherhood means if we aren't honest."

Also, some women today simply don't want children and of course, they are still shamed for it. Oprah revealed in 2013 that having children was just too much responsibility and not one she felt equipped for. "If I had kids, my kids would hate me," she told The Hollywood Reporter.
"They would have ended up on the equivalent of the Oprah show talking about me; because something [in my life] would have had to suffer, and it would've probably been them." Unfortunately, some people online said that her choice to be childless was 'selfish,' but to many it's perfectly reasonable.

Bridgerton. Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington in episode 201 of Bridgerton. Cr. Liam Daniel/Netflix © 2022
Liam Daniel | Netflix

For Penelope, a realisation comes after she talks to famed dressmaker, Genevieve Delacroix, one of the few people who know about her true identity. "You know my favourite part about dressmaking? It's seeing the glow on a woman's face when she puts the dress on. I can't imagine ever giving that feeling up," she tells Penelope. She's right — whilst Colin's love gives Penelope a glow, there is nothing like seeing her locked in, cloak hood up and in Lady Whistledown mode.

After that conversation, Penelope goes home and starts burning old issues of Lady Whistledown. Whilst this should be symbolic of her leaving her dreams behind, she keeps her quill and notebook in her room. Deep down it's not about Whistledown, it's about her passion for writing and being seen as an individual through words. When Colin mentions writing a book about his travels across the world, Penelope (without thinking) offers to edit the novel. Even if Lady Whistledown is no more, Penelope's desire to write and be a woman with dreams and aspirations is ultimately greater.

Aaliyah Harry (she/her) is the associate editor at PS UK. She writes extensively across lifestyle, culture and beauty. Aaliyah also has a deep passion for telling stories and giving voice to the voiceless. Previously, she has contributed to Refinery29, Grazia UK and The Voice Newspaper.