Unlike most ladies, Mrs. Mompellion did not scruple to toil with her hands. (2.2.41)
Elinor is far from your average upper-class lady. From the beginning, we can tell that she's too freethinking and intelligent to accept her society's stereotypes of feminine behavior.
There was something in her that could not [...] see the distinctions that the world wished to make between weak and strong, between women and men, laborer and lord. (2.2.42)
Both Anna and Elinor are aware of the skewed power dynamic between men and women. Their reactions to this realization varies, though. While Elinor righteously stands up against prescribed gender roles, Anna is far more hesitant to confront them head on. As we'll see, it takes a plague for her to become more direct in her approach.
I knew how easy it is for widow to be turned witch in the common mind, and the first cause generally is that she meddles somehow in medicinals. (2.2.50)
It's no coincidence that women are the ones usually accused of meddling in the dark arts. This is because the society depicted in the book sees powerful women as instantly suspicious. Pssh, they think, how could a silly woman gain the power to heal people without high-fiving Satan first?
"We do not even know the name of the wise woman who first laid out these beds, but the garden thrived here long before we came to tend it, and it will go on long after we depart." (2.3.11)
Anys portrays herself as part of a long line of herb-loving medicine women. We're not sure how literally we're supposed to take this idea, but it certainly provides a powerful symbol of her rejection of gender roles. Anys and Mem both defy their society's expectations for them, and as a result, they have formed a very different type of community outside its walls.
I saw them that afternoon through Anys's eyes: shackled to their menfolk as surely as the plough-horse to the shares. (2.3.26)
The more time Anna spends with Anys, the more she leans toward her friend's perspective. Why should she repress her sexuality? Why should she expect some man to take care of her? Anna reckons with these questions in an intimate way.
"Why would I marry? [...] I have something very few women can claim: my freedom." (2.3.24)
In another example of her forward-thinking ways, Anys sees marriage as a property arrangement that benefits men yet subjugates women. How does that benefit her? Well, if you ask her, it doesn't.
"All those ancestors who stared at me from their portraits when I was a girl [...] I wonder what they'd say about their descendant if they could see her now?" (2.10.68)
They'd probably be shocked that their descendant has become a weekend miner, first off. What's more, Anna and Elinor are transgressing social norms by doing work that is exclusively performed by men. And guess what? It pays off. These two are the most dynamic duo this side of Batman and Robin.
"I wonder if you know how you have changed. It is the one good, perhaps, to come out of this terrible year." (2.13.15)
Elinor is proud of how much Anna has grown as a woman over the Year of the Plague. She's gone from a nervous widow to a self-possessed leader. Quite the shift. Although she might wish that this had happened in a less traumatic way, she's grateful for her new lease on life.
"For I see that you've changed somewhat since Sam Frith passed. I think you like to go and come without a man's say-so." (2.3.21)
Anna is more of a feminist than she lets on. She's intelligent. She's independent. She's brave. As it happens, her society doesn't think that women should be any of these things. Our girl will have to confront that fact sooner or later.
"That man was a ship's barber; he pulled teeth and amputated limbs. He knew nothing of women's bodies. But you do know. You can do this, Anna. Use your mother-hands." (2.7.52)
This passage merges Anna's innate maternal nature with her emerging feminist sensibility. She doesn't have to reject her "feminine" side in order to be a liberated woman. She can have both.