There were a few middle-aged and even elderly women in the train, their silver-wiry hair and wrinkled faces, scourged by time and trouble, having almost a grotesque, certainly a pathetic, appearance in such a jaunty situation. In a true view, perhaps, there was more to be gathered and told of each anxious and experienced one […] than of her juvenile comrades. (2.9)
The club-walking group of women includes both young women, like Tess, and old women. Again, Hardy wants to collapse the distinction between past and present, old and young – all of those women are together in the same group, performing the same ancient ritual festival to springtime, so the distinctions of age hardly matter: they're all women.
The club of Marlott alone lived to uphold the local Cerealia. It had walked for hundreds of years, and it walked still. (2.6)
The women's club in Marlott is a holdover from the ancient springtime rituals of the pagans – which is why Hardy references the "Cerealia," or festival to the Roman goddess Ceres, who was the goddess of the earth, and agriculture, and all growing things. Yes, our word "cereal" comes from the name of the Roman goddess Ceres. Springtime festivals in honor of the earth goddess were the especial responsibility of women, because those festivals were all about new life and seeds, and nurturing – all things associated with femininity and motherhood.
So Tess and her female friends are being associated with this long and ancient lineage of women that is even older than the D'Urberville connection on her father's side of the family. After all, the spring festival and the worship of the earth goddess go back way before 1066, the time of the first Sir Pagan D'Urberville. So again, this passage dissolves the distinction between the contemporary and the time-out-of-mind ancient.
Phase I: "The Maiden," Chapter Eleven
Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. (11.63)
We looked at this passage in the context of the "Fate and Free Will" theme, but it's very important to the theme of femininity, as well. First of all, the narrator uses words that denote delicacy and fragility to describe Tess's body – "tissue," "gossamer," and "snow." (Gossamer is a poetical word for the dew-covered cobwebs that appear on grass in the early morning). This seems strange, given that at other points in the novel, he describes her as strong, healthy and robust – even able to defend herself physically on occasion (take, for example, the scene in which she almost shoves Alec off his horse at 11.20). But here, in The Chase, as Alec takes advantage of her relative helplessness and their isolation, Tess is described as "sensitive" and delicate – she seems temporarily, at least, to have lost her ability to defend herself.
This description seems to be an effort by Hardy to pin the blame of her rape firmly on Alec, despite the complaints of contemporary critics that Tess could have done more to ward him off – Tess is asleep when he finds her, and Hardy's choice of words makes Tess seem even more delicate and vulnerable than she was. It's also interesting to note that while Hardy associates femininity elsewhere with "fullness of growth" (5.63), in this passage, it's her delicacy and "sensitiv[ity]" that makes Tess seem more feminine.
Phase II: "Maiden No More," Chapter Fourteen
It was impossible for even an enemy to feel [that Tess was unattractive] on looking at Tess as she sat there, with her flower-like mouth and large tender eyes, neither black nor blue nor gray nor violet; rather all those shades together, and a hundred others, which could be seen if one looked into their irises – shade behind shade – tint beyond tint – round depths that had no bottom; an almost typical woman, but for the slight incautiousness of character inherited from her race. (14.24).
Hardy just loves describing Tess's physical appearance. Her mouth, her eyes, her – ahem – "womanly fullness." This description of her eyes makes them seem almost supernatural: they just go on and on. Why describe her eyes in this way? They're not just "bedroom eyes." They show how complex her character is. She's unusual, and her complexity is what makes her unique.
[The women] were the most interesting of this company of binders, by reason of the charm which is acquired by woman when she becomes part and parcel of outdoor nature, and is not merely an object set down therein as at ordinary times. A field-man is a personality afield; a field-woman is a portion of the field; she has somehow lost her own margin, imbibed the essence of her surrounding, and assimilated herself with it. (14.10)
Once again, the narrator suggests that women can become one with nature. Women have some inherent, natural quality that allows them to "assimilate" themselves with "outdoor nature," that men lack. This passage hearkens back to the earlier scene describing the women's club-walking at Marlott (2.6), which was just a modern form of the feminine celebration of the nature goddess, Ceres. There's a connection between women and nature that is an inherent aspect of their femininity.
Phase III: "The Rally," Chapter Sixteen
Their large-veined udders hung ponderous as sandbags, the teats sticking out like the legs of a gipsy's crock; and as each animal lingered for her turn to arrive the milk oozed forth and fell in drops to the ground. (16.26)
If you're thinking that this is kind of a disturbingly sexual description of cow udders, you're right. Nature and fertility are just overflowing onto the ground here. Tess followed the cows into the gate, and arrived when they did, so she's kind of associated with them. Tess, as Hardy has repeatedly assured us, is a very "womanly," (i.e., curvaceous) girl. She, too, seems to just ooze fertility. If you think we're pushing the point, check out the "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" section.
[W]omen whose chief companions are the forms and forces of outdoor Nature retain in their souls far more of the Pagan fantasy of their remote forefathers than of the systematized religion taught their race at later date. (16.16)
Again, women are connected with old, primaeval, Pagan religion, and "outdoor Nature," while men are (implicitly) connected with the "systematized," man-made religion that came later.
Phase III: "The Rally," Chapter Twenty
He called her Artemis, Demeter, and other fanciful names half teasingly, which she did not like because she could not understand them. "Call me Tess," she would say askance; and he did. (20.10-11)
Angel thinks Tess is some kind of "Every Woman" – some ideal fantasy of femininity. So he calls her the names of Greek goddesses. But she doesn't like being generalized like that – she can't understand those names, and they detract from her unique individuality. She just wants to be called Tess, and understood for herself.
She was no longer the milkmaid, but a visionary essence of woman – a whole sex condensed into one typical form. (20.10)
In the early morning hours, Tess's beauty seems other-worldly to Angel. They're the only two people awake on the farm, and he can imagine that she's the only woman in the world. And so he condenses every thought and fantasy of what all women are or ever could be, and projects that ideal onto Tess. In other words, he's making her his ideal woman.
Phase IV: "The Consequence," Chapter Twenty-Seven
She was yawning, and he saw the red interior of her mouth as if it had been a snake's. She had stretched one arm so high above her coiled-up cable of hair that he could see its satin delicacy above the sunburn; her face was flushed with sleep, and her eyelids hung heavy over their pupils. The brimfulness of her nature breathed from her. It was a moment when a woman's soul is more incarnate than at any other time; when the most spiritual beauty bespeaks itself flesh; and sex takes the outside place in the presentation. (27.4)
We look at this passage for the "Sex" theme, because it's pretty darn sexual, but it's also important to consider it in light of what it's doing with the theme of "Femininity." After all, the narrator is making a generalization about all women here – he's suggesting that a woman is less spiritual, and more bodily, when she's just woken up than at any other time. The implication is that women normally have some kind of balance between the physical and the spiritual. But that balance isn't constant. We've seen this with Tess in other passages: sometimes her beauty seems almost unreal, and sometimes she seems totally human. This is one of the totally human moments.