Bronte's treatment of women in Wuthering Heights is unusual for the time period (1840s) and defies typical stereotypes. The female lead character, Catherine Earnshaw, is an unusually strong and assertive girl and woman, who does not conform to the stereotyped Victorian "angel of the house" persona. In other words, she...
Bronte's treatment of women in Wuthering Heights is unusual for the time period (1840s) and defies typical stereotypes. The female lead character, Catherine Earnshaw, is an unusually strong and assertive girl and woman, who does not conform to the stereotyped Victorian "angel of the house" persona. In other words, she is not sweet, submissive, deferential, or kind to those around her. She is also not a particularly likable character—though one sympathizes for her in being raised badly and for her deep love of Heathcliff. Unlike a typical female, she runs around the moors wildly and fearlessly; she alternates between bullying and manipulating Nellie Dean, and she does what she wants, rather than what the men around her want. For example, she decides to marry Edgar and does so not because she loves Edgar but because she wants status and security, which she can then use to help Heathcliff.
Cathy gets along in Edgar's household only because Edgar caters to her every whim, and when Heathcliff comes on the scene, domestic harmony rapidly deteriorates. In one memorable scene, Catherine locks the door and throws the key in the fire so that Edgar can't escape the beating she think he deserves from Heathcliff (this is not acceptable Victorian wifely behavior). When the break comes between Edgar and Heathcliff, Catherine goes on a hunger strike and makes herself ill rather than capitulate to Edgar's refusal to let her see Heathcliff. In fact, she arguably kills herself (lets herself die) rather than capitulate to patriarchy and give up Heathcliff.
She and Heathcliff hurl some memorable insults at each other amid the intensity of love they share at her deathbed, but she notably breaks with deathbed scene tradition. Rather than say soothingly Christian things to Heathcliff, which would be absolutely normal for Victorian literature, she instead wishes she would be tossed on the moors since she is unfit for heaven and hopes Heathcliff will suffer torments for having killed her. He accuses her of selfishness and of killing herself in marrying Edgar, but she manages to leave him mentally tortured for most of the rest of his life.
Nellie Dean is another assertive female character who lives by her wits, is unafraid of dysfunctional family life at Wuthering Heights, and takes matters in to her own hands at crucial moments, such as when she refuses to let Catherine know Heathcliff is eavesdropping on their conversation and refuses to tell Edgar how sick Catherine is at the end, believing Catherine to be manipulating the situation.
Bronte not only openly depicts women characters we are meant to sympathize with as selfish and strong willed rather than sacrificial and submissive, she also openly shows how crushingly cruel patriarchy can be towards women. Heathcliff openly crushes Isabella and, in one scene, repeatedly slaps the young Cathy. Victorian literature would assign such behavior only to villains, but Heathcliff is treated as a complex character and protagonist, not as a stereotypical villain.