Inequality of Women

Hey guys. I’d like to briefly discuss how I think the female characters of Emma, particularly the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Emma Woodhouse, symbolically represent the societal inequalities of women in British society during this time.

In British society during the late 19th century, women (for the most part) obviously didn’t have the same rights, privileges, status and money as their male counterparts did. Consequently they usually had to rely on their own families or husbands (if they married) for financial backing, and ultimately, a future. As a result, their options were nonetheless limited.

Emma Woodhouse, on the one hand, is unique in that she possesses the looks, brains, status, and money; because of her wealth, she has what most women around her don’t: financial independence. Jane Fairfax, on the other hand, possesses these same personal traits too, except wealth. Because of this, as well as the consequently limited options women had with regard to work at the time, she is seemingly incapable of supporting herself independently. In order to ensure a future for herself, she must marry—or become a governess, a common occupation for women during this time.

As another example, Harriet Smith is similarly faced with equally limited options—she must either work at Mrs. Goddard’s school or get married. Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston get married at the beginning of the novel, but only because Miss Taylor worked as Emma’s governess initially. Because of the relationship between Emma’s wealth, her ability to act independently—also having the choice of whether or not to marry—and the lack of wealth and consequential reliance the other women in the novel had on marrying (or working), Jane Austen, I believe, uses this to represent the societal inequalities women faced in British society during this time.

Interestingly, Jane had come from a financially well-off family; because she published anonymously and could not claim her novels publicly, she had to rely off of her family. Like Emma Woodhouse, she also did not get married. Do you think Emma Woodhouse is Austen’s portrayal of herself in some way?


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4 thoughts on “Inequality of Women

  1. nathan farkas

    I think another remarkable aspect is that these characters seem to have this income from an estate wherein the men do not have to be working in the same respects that we work nowadays.

    Regarding inequality: the dependance of the women in the world Austen presents, on economic stability of another does support the fact that women do not have the same opportunities afforded to them. This limited access does create concern for many characters in Austen novels. Differently than males however once married, a woman could presume a level of docility and domestic tranquility as long as the work her husband or his investments continues to pay. Granted woman can’t be assumed to desire domestic life, nor can they be acceptably forced to assume these roles in the past 3 centuries, however this does represent a certain enviable ability (especially for a 21st century man who enjoys domestic life 😉 )

  2. Kimberly Sciacca

    I agree with what you said about the symbolic relationship between Emma and Jane and economical status. I think that it’s definitely trying to show how if you’re a well off woman, that can financially support herself then there is just simply no need to marry. (Besides love, like Emma states in volume I)

    I wondered why it was so easy for Emma to befriend Harriet, who was beforehand of lesser status than Emma in almost every aspect, than it was to befriend Jane, who just isn’t as wealthy as Emma.

    I believe that in someways Emma is a reflection of Jane Austen, there is certainly sometimes a narcissistic view of entitlement on behalf of Emma, but like Professor Tougaw had said in class, there are other times when Emma gets turned around in the text by either another character, or the narrator itself, to see that she is not perfect, and sometimes she is just wrong.

  3. davidginsberg

    Mike’s thesis is an interesting one and one that did not come immediately to mind upon reading. A lot of women seemed to depend on the potential of marriage in order to live comfortably. However, there are a couple of exceptions.

    Emma, as Mike states, is independently wealthy. Mrs. Goddard is a Mistress at the boarding school. I can’t recall if Mrs. Bates or Miss Bates have a job but they don’t have a man in the house so I’m guessing they’re financially independent.

    As Mike states, there’s undoubtedly a dichotomy between Emma’s independence due to her wealth and that of Harriet and Jane, who aren’t as well off.

    Looking at the money conversion chart, it’s shocking to see how many pounds a bride’s family had to pay to the groom. The book mentioned that some grooms would get between 10,000 and 30,000 pounds. Imagine being paid between 330,000 and 1 million pounds just for marrying someone today. Granted, I’m sure these families were wealthy but it’s still a lot of money.

  4. Jason Tougaw

    You might be interested in a chart that converts monetary value during Jane Austen’s life into comparable sums in British pounds today (published on the blog “Jane Austen’s World”:

    It’s difficult to translate values from a very different economy into equivalent sums in our own, so take these as rough estimations. Still, they’ll give you a sense of the wealth associated with various characters and classes–including Austen herself. She earned about 684 pounds from the publication of her novels.

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