American Literature Post 1865
October 13, 2014
Little Women: Breaking Female Gender Role Stereotypes
The mid to late 1800s saw a surge of authors hitting on the subject of women’s roles in American society. Writers such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Virginia Woolf helped pave the way with their groundbreaking works Herman and Orlando, respectively. Another central figure in this emergence of equality was Louisa May Alcott. Although her most popular works at the beginning of her career were actually dark horror-type stories, she soon emerged as a prolific author of works for young men and women. As one who felt herself to be suppressed by conventional societal standards, Alcott gave a new and independent voice to women. Her most famous novel which subtly and sometimes not so subtly defied standard gender roles and defined the difficulties women of her generation faced in this regard is Little Women (Alcott).
Upon initial perusal of the book, “Modern readers are inclined to dismiss (Little Women) as little more than a sentimental novel of nineteenth century idealism.” (Curtis, “Little Women: A Reconsideration) Most first-time readers can easily dismiss the novel as being a sweet story about a sweet family with little to nothing to say to us today. According to Mary Jo Salter, author and senior lecturer in Emily Dickinson for Mt. Holyoke College, Little Women holds as much of a good reason to be read today as in the 19th century. (Salter, “Louisa May Alcott’s American Girls”) Gender stereotypes are still alive and present, and Little Women offers a glimpse of the fight to shed said stereotypes in its early stages; it is a lesson that can still be learned today. This is perhaps why Little Women is still read today and not simply a pretty book to put on one’s shelf.
We see this theme of breaking from traditional female roles from the very beginning when the novel opens with the four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy, discussing their struggles to survive with their mother while their father is away at war. All the girls but Amy have jobs in order to help support the family. Jo spends a good portion of the first chapter complaining about how hard it is to be female, and how she wants to be a boy, free to spread her legs comfortably and use slang and play ball and not have to be “proper” all the time. Once Marmie, their mother, gets home, they begin a discussion about their roles as women. Marmie encourages them to become educated and “interesting”. She tells them it is “better to be happy old maids than unhappy wives.” (Alcott, 126) This attitude is completely the opposite of a contemporary fictional mother, Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame, who is actually a satirical figure hell-bent on getting all her daughters married off to rich men as quickly as can be. Marmie also is shown to be against corsets as she feels they confine women’s bodies and are not natural. This was, for the time, highly controversial and considered indecent by most of society; Alcott dwells on this theme in several other novels as well. Unusual for her time, Marmie shows very clearly a freeing view of how women should be, and Jo shows readers both old and new how confining emotionally it can feel to be a woman.
The book moves on to show us the struggles each of the sisters has in attempting to define her proper role in life. Beth chooses to be the dutiful daughter, duty at the time meaning a woman’s primary purpose is to care for immediate family. Meg follows traditional pattern and marries young and starts having children, but she is also an ardent supporter and help to her husband’s career. Amy struggles between her desire to make a career of her art and also trying to be that dutiful daughter and then wife, serving her parents and then her husband. Amy is an example of a very feminine woman who still maintains a strong sense of self, being “an independently talented woman; a more meaningful literary type