Emma could be considered a feminist novel because it highlights the constraints faced by women in the small, fictional village of Highbury in the early 1800s. Emma, the main character, is wealthy, intelligent and attractive, yet because her father is a fussy hypochondriac, she has never once traveled from the aptly-named Highbury. Her claustrophobic existence has given her an inflated view of her own worth. While she claims to her friend Harriet that she is rich enough never to need or want to marry, in the end, she realizes she has almost no other options.
Jane Fairfax, possibly the true heroine of the novel, faces her own set of constraints. Beautiful, elegant and an accomplished pianist, she has been educated to be a lady, but she has no money. Her choices are marriage to a man who will accept her without a dowry or governessing, and while she compares governessing to slavery, she steels herself to it when it appears her engagement to Frank Churchill is in collapse.
Jane Fairfax's aunt, Miss Bates, is also a lady, but she has "sunk" from her former status as the rector's daughter and lives on an extremely limited income with her aged mother. She depends on the charitable gestures of other members of the gentry to survive, and she is forced tolerate the ridicule that accompanies being a single woman with no money.
The novel implicitly critiques the lack of meaningful options all these women face, and in doing so, makes a case for allowing women greater opportunity and autonomy.