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Around the time period of the Civil War, women in the U.S. had few rights but many expectations placed upon them. Women could not own land, vote, or sell property. Instead, society expected them to care for their families by cooking and cleaning, with little to no say in the finances of the family and the political battles happening around them. During this time, many women also began to work long hours in factories to support their families and in various war efforts in addition to their domestic roles. In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott used four sisters based on herself and her own female siblings to demonstrate the gender roles and expectations of many nineteenth-century girls on the verge of womanhood during and after the Civil War. She showed how, although the women knew their expected role in society, they often took a feminist approach and disagreed with society’s limitations.
All of the female characters in Little Women have distinct personalities and interests similar to those of many women in the time period. Since their family has recently lost a majority of their money, the sisters attempt to make due with the little that they have. With their father away at war, their highly religious mother, Marmee, looks after the girls. As her role of a mother requires, Marmee exemplifies the character of a kind and collected woman. She behaves in a way consistent with how society expected women to act in the Antebellum era, the time before the Civil War. Her daughters, however, begin to show characteristics of post-war women who embraced independence and long for a life outside of the domestic one. The article “Women in Antebellum America” states that, “Women and men had very clear, separate roles based on their gender, with the common belief that the differences between the male and the female were natural and essential. Women were expected to be religiously pious, morally pure and physically delicate. They were taught to obey their husband and had to adhere to the system of coverture, which stripped married women of all of their civil identities” (para. 2). In Little Women, Marmee demonstrates just that. Throughout the novel, she remains cheerful and motherly while modeling religion and the importance of being domestic to her daughters.
Although Marmee never lets it show, she reveals that she does have a temper to conceal when comforting her daughter after an outburst. Marmee says, “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it, and I still hope to learn not to feel it, though it may take me another forty years to do so” (107). The anger Marmee has suggests she is not satisfied with who society dictates she must be, but she knows she has no choice but to conform and behave as a polite, agreeable woman.
Marmee is not unlike many women of the time period who yearned for independence from their tedious domestic roles and lack of rights. While some women were known to support suffrage movements, a majority held their tongues and continued to be seen as the good wives society encouraged them to be. Authors of the time even published books teaching women how to be wives and good housekeepers (Women in Antebellum America, para. 2). By admitting to her ongoing anger within, Marmee proves that even the best wife may have been capable of masking her true thoughts of her role in the home.
Each of the four sisters has a different personality, and Jo, a middle sibling, is the outspoken tomboy. Jo, who shortened her name from the more womanly Josephine, is the sister who protests the Antebellum era expectations of girls most aggressively. The self-proclaimed “man of the family” when her father is away, Jo has no patience for the idle interests of the other women in her family. With her strong feminist beliefs, Jo hates the idea of marriage and desires to be a successful writer. Alcott used Jo to challenge the specific gender roles determined by society in several different ways. One way she did this was by having Jo behave in the exact opposite way of young girls. For example, Amy, the youngest sister, criticizes Jo for constantly using slang words. In response to this, Jo begins to whistle. Amy says, “Don’t, Jo. It’s so boyish!” Jo replies that this is why she does it, and then refers to her sister as a “niminy-piminy chit” (5). Jo refuses to conform to the ladylike behavior of her sisters, and would rather have been a boy than follow the strict expectations of young women. She again confirms her dislike of anything feminine by saying, “It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games and work and manners! I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa. And I can only stay home and knit, like a poky old woman!” (6). Jo protests the female gender role enough to wish she were fighting in the war, an activity reserved solely for men.
Jo’s disagreement with society’s expectations of women continues throughout Little Women as she challenges the belief that women should not do men’s work. Also, unlike most women who know to conceal their tempers, Jo is consistently outspoken and declares her anger to those around her with no desire to be known as a sweet, agreeable woman. As Jane Tompkins argues, “American women simply could not . . .[rebel] against the conditions of their lives for they lacked the material means of escape or opposition. They had to stay put and submit” (qtd. in Parille 34). The tight constraints other women felt from society did not apply to Jo, who got away with her rebellion of gender roles and expectations by claiming the label of a tomboy.
Jo again fails her womanly duty by rejecting the marriage proposal of the wealthy neighbor boy, Laurie, and claiming she only saw the love-stricken man as a friend. After Laurie declares how long he had loved Jo, she refuses the practical marriage match most financially unstable women of her time would have welcomed without thought by saying, slightly embarrassed, that, “I wanted to save you this. I thought you’d understand…” (479). To Jo, the obligation of marrying a suitable, age-appropriate man after years of poorness did not interest her. Instead, she would rather remain poor and unmarried than to agree to the rules of a man with whom she was not in love. Jo’s refusal to marry Laurie again proves her lack of desire to conform to the norm of society that would encourage a woman to marry a man in order to raise her social status and wealth. Jo seeks true love or no love at all.
While Alcott did highlight the rejection of gender roles through Jo, she demonstrated perfect examples of nineteenth-century women through her sisters. Meg, for example, views Jo’s behavior as shockingly improper. She begins her domestic life by marrying the man she loves and starts having children – just as society expects her. She is married, has children, and becomes a housewife without questioning the predetermined gender role of nineteenth-century women. Meg’s only fault is her obsession with wealth and her greediness, which results in jealousy towards her friends with nice dresses and houses. The second sentence of the book reads, “‘It’s so dreadful to be poor!’ sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress” (1). Meg wants nothing more than to return to the wealthy state the family was in before the war. Contrary to Jo, Meg desires wealth so she can purchase feminine items such as fancy dresses and an elegant mansion. However, she accepts the situation and attempts to deal with it in as womanly of a way as possible. In Little Women, Meg is an example of how many women of the time accepted their role in society as a mother and wife with few complaints or objections.
To some extent, Alcott wrote Little Women as a representation of her own life, casting Jo as herself. Many of the unruly characteristics present in Jo were also seen in Alcott growing up. In her article “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott,” Karen Halttunen writes, “In contrast to her docile sister Anna, whose temperament was much like her father’s, Louisa was demanding, noisy, and even violent [. . .]” (235). Louisa and Jo were both unladylike, outspoken, and temperamental. “Despite her father’s best efforts, Louisa May Alcott continued to display the faults that he cataloged on her tenth birthday as ‘anger, discontent, impatience, evil appetites, greedy wants, complainings, ill-speakings, idlenesses, heedlessness, rude behavior’” (Halttunen 237). Alcott, just like Jo, refused to conform to the gender expectations that society dictated. When she wrote Little Women, she created a character similar to herself to challenge these gender expectations. To many women in the nineteenth-century, Jo was more than likely a relatable character, although many of them did not have the audacity to announce their disagreements as openly. Jo’s spunky behavior in contrast to her sisters’ feminine personalities represented life in the Alcott household. Her three sisters were womanly and fit into their “father’s utopian domestic ideal,” similar to the three sisters in Little Women (Halttunen 233). In Little Women, Alcott recreated her own family in a fictional family to show the gender expectations of the time and how she refused to follow them.
Little Women examines the strict societal gender roles of women in the nineteenth-century. By creating sisters with differences, Alcott showed readers examples of well-behaved women and an example of one who refused to follow the rules, modeled after herself. From tomboyish, outspoken Jo to sweet and motherly Meg, Alcott painted a realistic portrait of the different types of women from the time period. Little Women is a classic novel that shows how gender roles can be widely accepted, but can also change when rejected and challenged by a few stubborn individuals.
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. New York: Signet Classic, 2004. Print.
Haltunnen, Karen. “The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott.” Feminist Studies. 10.2 (1984): 233-254. JSTOR. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.
Parille, Ken. “’Wake up, and be a man’: Little Women, Laurie, and the Ethic of Submission.” Children’s Literature. 29 (2001): 34. Project Muse. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
“Women in Antebellum America.” Questia. Questia, 2014. Web. 9 Nov. 2014.
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