Is Emma a Feminist Novel?

An essay by James Batchelor, Dickson College, 2008
While perhaps not in the modern sense of the term, aspects of Jane Austen’s Emma may be considered feminist, as the independent and erudite Emma somewhat defies social expectations of a woman living in the nineteenth century. Aspects of feminism, the advocacy of women’s rights and aspiration to equality with men, are made evident as Austen endeavours to dissolve the archetype that inhibits a woman’s claim to an equal footing in society with the opposite sex. The protagonist Emma Woodhouse is a strong character possessing a fortunate lifestyle with the luxury of independence. She is however a woman of both faults and virtues, such that in juxtaposition with particularly one-dimensional women, of whom Austen sets up to be pitied and belittled, she comes across as a rather feminist figure. The decision to either accept or refuse a marriage proposal is an empowerment of which Emma is fully aware, and so the concept of a woman’s rights in regards to matrimony are also put to question throughout the novel. This coupled with Emma’s tenacious determination to be the superior of all her acquaintance, including men, evince the want of equality between sexes which make Emma a classic example of feminist literature.

Emma’s level of power in the novel, although a rarity for women of the time, enables her to break away from the stereotyped image of the one-dimensional woman. The vulnerable situations of lower women such as Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax also evoke a certain level of pity, thus contrasting negatively against Emma’s fortunate independence from men. This is made evident by the following in reference to Miss Bates;

She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion.[1]

Miss Bates is here portrayed as a charity case, as she has no income or standing in society to support her. Similarly with Jane Fairfax, one cannot help but feel sympathy for her lack of control over her future; as she is faced with the prospect of becoming a governess, a profession of which she likens to the slave trade. This association is a rather bold one, as Austen blatantly exposes the poor range of options open for a woman of Jane’s stature. By stark contrast, Emma enjoys particular freedoms of which few women of the time could boast; "In most cases men held all the resources and women had no independent means of subsistence."[2] She is mistress of her widowed father’s house, in possession of a large fortune and at liberty to do just as she pleases. Her undeniably happy disposition even allows her to meddle in the affairs of others as she takes on the self-appointed role of town matchmaker. This may be considered a rebellion against the lack of meaningful input women had in society; her interference a guise for the liberation of such a sexist restriction. Although her sphere of influence may be seen as typically feminine, her true power lies within her independence from men. Her multi-faceted personality, inclusive of faults as well as virtues, allows her to grow away from the submissive stereotypes that have traditionally classed women below men. This is a power which characters such as Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax do not possess, and so one is made to feel positively about such a power when juxtaposed with the dire situations of those without it.

It was expected that women were to marry and be completely dependant upon a man in the nineteenth century. Contrary to this expectation, Emma declares that she will not marry;

I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; consequence I do not want, I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield.[3]

If a woman of the time had any power, it would lie within her response to a marriage proposal; to either accept or decline. This is a power of which is once again portrayed positively within the novel, as Emma encourages Harriet not to marry the farmer Mr Martin and to aspire to a greater match or indeed not a match at all. Despite Emma’s intentions in such an encouragement, the statement is clear; that a woman should not be inclined to marry just because it is expected from society. Although Emma does eventually marry, it is not the result of sociological pressures or material gain; but rather a true expression of love. Her somewhat feminist view in not marrying is therefore not contradicted in her eventual engagement, but rather strengthened; as the acceptance was not on the grounds that were typical to the nineteenth century. For it is her match, Mr Knightley, who gives up his house and moves to Hartfield, contrary to the traditional circumstances where the woman would typically give up all she owned for the man;

Most women had little choice but to marry and upon doing so everything they owned, inherited and earned automatically belonged to their husband.[4]

In such ways the novel digresses from traditional views on the subject of marriage, expressing feminist ideas for the time in which the novel is set.

It is within Emma’s competitive nature to seek to be the superior of her acquaintances; in particular her frequent quarrels with Mr Knightley, one of the highest men in society, map a dual battle between sexes. Each is stubbornly determined to be right in their ways, such as in the circumstance where Emma persuades Harriet to refuse a marriage proposal when Mr Knightley had already encouraged the match. In the following excerpt Emma still feels that she is the better judge of the two after their heated argument;

She did not repent what she had done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be.[5]

Women of the time would simply not have been allowed to argue with a man of Mr Knightley’s stature, as they were commonly expected to be meek and submissive; "Assertive women were bound to be punished for violating the natural order of the universe."[6] However in this instance, Emma is arguing with Mr Knightley as a man would have done; without a sense of inferiority and with an opinion equal to his in value and reason. Indeed Emma tenaciously seeks to be the superior to Mr Knightley in wit and intelligence. This is demonstrated in the following passage between Emma and Mr Knightley;

'To be sure- our discordances must always arise from my being in the wrong.’‘Yes,’ said he, smiling, ‘and reason good. I was sixteen years old when you were born.’‘A material difference then, ‘she replied; ‘and no doubt you were much my superior in judgement at that period of our lives; but does not the lapse of one-and-twenty years bring our understanding a good deal nearer?’[7]

Although upon realising her love for Mr Knightley Emma considers that perhaps he was right about everything, this cannot be seen as her conceding. Her eventual detection to the error in her ways is rather brought about through her own personal growth and through her coming to accept that there are consequences to her actions. Her overall assertiveness and the way in which she stuck to her opinion against Mr Knightley’s, contributively disrupt the stereotype that a woman should be submissive to a man.

Jane Austen’s Emma is in many ways a novel about society and its intricacies, as it explores one’s worth and the position in which they fall within the tiers of social order. To be a woman in the nineteenth century was, for most, to be at the bottom end of such a structure. Austen’s novel presents a woman who is of the highest rank of society, wealthy, and in possession of a lifestyle of near complete independence from men. Emma Woodhouse defies the social code which was embedded into culture of the time, and serves as a role model to those of her society. Her views on marriage are unusual, as she declares that a woman in a position such as hers’ should not be inclined to marry, even though women who took on such a view were usually frowned upon. As well as this, she acts as the social and intellectual equal of the highest men in society, including Mr Knightley; the most prominent man in Highbury’s social order. Emma may indeed be considered a novel centred on feminist ideals, as Emma Woodhouse represents a digression from the social stereotypes that have held back equality between sexes throughout history.


Austen, J 1947, Emma, Hamish Hamilton, London
Fortin, E, n.d, Early Nineteenth Century Attitudes Toward Women. Retrieved August, 2008.
Hall, L 2007, Jane Fairfax’s Choice: The Sale of Human Flesh or Human Intellect. Retrieved August, 2008.
Hartman, D n.d, Women’s roles in the Late 19th Century. Retrieved August, 2008.
Hurley, J 2001, Feminism in Literature, Retrieved August, 2008.
Myretta et al. N.d. Notes on Education, Marriage, Status of Women etc. Retrieved August, 2008.
Simkin, J n.d, Marriage in the 19th Century. Retrieved August, 2008.
Wojtczak, H n.d, Women’s Status in the mid-19th Century. Retrieved August, 2008.


  1. ^ Austen, 1947, p.382.
  2. ^ Wojtczak, n.d.
  3. ^ Austen, 1947, p85.
  4. ^ Wojtczak, n.d.
  5. ^ Austen, 1947, p64.
  6. ^ Fortin, n.d.
  7. ^ Austen, 1947, 99.