A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.

This passage demonstrates how strongly a woman’s marital status and class could affect her reputation and society’s perception of her intelligence and likability. A woman of a lower class who failed to marry and have children would have been considered pitiable by her peers. Her poverty combined with her lack of family would have made her a very inferior creature in the eyes of society. Emma’s description of this single woman matches common stereotypes of older unmarried women that still prevail today: bitter, silly, unfeminine, and unlikable. On the other hand, wealthy women would have enjoyed some privileges that poor women did not – their wealth would often protect their reputations from being ruined should they choose a more alternative lifestyle, which is why Emma believes she can remain single. That said, Emma’s certainty of her safety in this matter may be a bit naive. During this era, women of any class ran the risk of judgment, loss of reputation, and even ostracization should they fail to comply with gender expectations.

Till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed, till they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after.

Emma speaks these words lightly to Mr. Knightley, attempting to convince him that Harriet has a chance of marrying well, but there’s a sharpness lurking underneath the surface. Emma believes that men are not at all interested in a woman’s intelligence or education, but care only for looks when selecting a bride. Of course, she’s not entirely correct, as Mr. Knightley explains that many men are looking for women with sense, and after all, Harriet’s beauty is not enough to snag the attentions of Mr. Elton, Mr. Churchill, or Mr. Knightley. However, during this period, women were prized mostly on two qualities: their physical beauty and their social or class status. Women were not considered equal partners to their husbands, so their intelligence, education, and capabilities beyond homemaking were not prioritized in the matchmaking process. Happily for Emma, she ends up with a man who appreciates her mind as well as her body, but many women were not so lucky.

The contrast between Mrs. Churchill’s importance in the world, and Jane Fairfax’s struck her; one was every thing, the other nothing.

Emma reflects upon how class can affect the destinies and power of women, recognizing that the unlikable Mrs. Churchill’s opinions and demands will always – while she’s living – have more sway than Jane’s. Jane is educated, intelligent, rational, and talented, and she deserves the kind of freedom and power that Mrs. Churchill possesses, but her family’s money is gone, and her life options have been greatly reduced. Jane must find a way to support herself, and for women of her time, one of the only paths that allowed a middle-class woman to make her own money was to work as a governess. Fortunately, Jane’s marriage to Frank saves her from any future financial trouble, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that her intelligence is being put to good use. If Jane had the resources of a modern woman, her exceptional talents would have given her far more options.

Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation–but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more.

Although Emma claims to stand up for women, she cannot always grasp the plights of women who are not as wealthy as she. Mr. Knightley admonishes her for insulting Miss Bates because he feels it is not morally right for a wealthy woman like Emma to insult a poor woman who has lost practically all her money and social standing during her lifetime. The tragedy of Miss Bates’ situation is made greater by the fact that she is powerless to stop it. Women in this period were not educated in business or financial literacy, and there were precious few jobs open to them. As a middle-aged woman, Miss Bates would be too old to learn the skills necessary for governessing or seamstressing, and much of her time is spent caring for her aging mother. She must rely entirely on her past wealthy connections and the kindness of her social circle – without them, Jane would never have received a good education, and the family would lack food and resources, which the Knightleys and Woodhouses provide with ease.