A sudden fear takes root […] conversations I've overhead in my father's study—tales […] about the fate of an unescorted woman, overpowered by bad men, her life ruined forever. (2.10)
Chastity is a big deal in 1895, and a woman pretty much has to be a virgin in order to be considered marriage material. Whether she's "ruined" by choice or by force doesn't seem to matter much, which adds a whole extra layer of messed-up-ness to the mix.
Tom clears his throat. "What I mean to say is, did something happen to you? Did he…are you quite all right?" […]
"You want to know if I'm still chaste?"
"If you want to put it so plainly, yes."
Now I see that […] He's only concerned that I haven't shamed the family somehow. (3.43-46)
Even Gemma's own family is only worried about how she will look to the public, and how she will make them look as a unit—not whether she is suffering or needs support. This is a good example of cultural priorities in Gemma's world.
"An actress," Tom sneers, "What sort of way is that for a woman to live, without a solid home, husband, children? Running about like she's her own lord and master. She'll certainly never be accepted in society as a proper lady." (3.28)
As disturbing as this little speech is, it is historically how Euro-centric society has felt about what women should be allowed to do. Not everyone feels this way though, which is how Gemma comes to think of her bro as a jerk—she was raised to value herself more highly than her community did.
"[…] A man wants a woman who will make life easy for him. She should be attractive, well groomed, knowledgeable in music, painting, and running a house, but above all, she should keep his name above scandal and never call attention to herself." (3.32)
This is a pretty short summary of what Gemma is going to Spence to become, and what she feels she has to fight every day: losing her sense of self and becoming a robot with no desires but to make her husband happy.
"Spence has turned out many wonderful young women who've gone on to make very good marriages."
We don't expect much more from you. Please don't embarrass us. (4.52-53)
So Spence is a wife factory for the rich and famous, and young women are only valuable if they can become wives. Okay, so Gemma should leave her personality and wit at the door, since she clearly will not need them here.
"…While we can and will teach you the necessary skills to become England's future wives and mothers, hostesses and bearers of the Empire's feminine traditions, it will be up to you to apply yourselves with grace, charm, and beauty." (5.66)
All anyone expects of Gemma now is to act like the perfect porcelain puppet. Would you accept this fate? Gemma sure doesn't.
"[…] They would have been mystics and healers, women who worked with herbs and delivered babies. But it would have made them suspect. Women who have power are always feared," she says sadly. (12.15)
Miss Moore is an important strong female figure for Gemma and her friends, someone they look up to because she refuses to give her power over to men or society. She lives independently, educates herself, and values reality rather than illusion.
"She's lying back and thinking of England!" Pippa shrieks, invoking the phrase that every English mother tells her daughter about carnal acts. We're not supposed to enjoy it. We're just supposed to put our mind on making babies for the future of the Empire and to please our husbands. (13.119)
Women are so tightly controlled that they are not allowed to acknowledge the way they feel, not even when it comes to their bodies and reproduction. Ugh.
No one asks how I am or what I am doing. They could not care less. We're all looking glasses, we girls, existing only to reflect their images back to them as they'd like to be seen. Hollow vessels of girls to be rinsed of our own ambitions, wants, and opinions, just waiting to be filled with cool, tepid water of gracious compliance. A fissure forms in the vessel. I'm cracking open. (26.101)
Okay, so this is a majorly cool moment. Gemma sees the situation clearly and rejects the cultural treatment of women, choosing to go her own way because she values herself above what she can offer a man as a wife. It's some serious girl power.