The novel Little Women by Louisa May Alcott is an enduring story of four sisters and their journey into adulthood. It is a coming-of-age story that is steeped in history and change. Many issues were explored in the novel, however, none were as important as the issue of gender at the time the novel was written, the nineteenth century. The portrayal of gender by Alcott was slightly different than that of reality in the late nineteenth century; Alcott portrayed the March sisters, especially Jo, as women are in the 21st century.
Little Women was written in the 1860’s. During this time, women were subservient to their fathers or husbands. They were to be kept in the house, keeping a tidy and happy home. The novel is a work in the “domestic” genre, however, the novel strays from the normal gender identities of the time. Alcott portrays the life of women in the 1860’s as “fun.” In Alcott’s story, the March sisters were allowed to be active and were educated. They worked instead of staying in the home, however, they did mind their manners when in public.
From the beginning of the novel, it is evident that the March sisters were not satisfied with the world in which they lived. Jo dreams that she will be a rich and famous writer, Amy dreams that she will become a fine artist, and Meg dreams that she will live in a house full of luxurious things and that everyone will love her. Jo even wishes that she were a boy. Despite these dreams, the March sisters exist not yet in the real world, but in the world of their family, which was headed by their mother. In their house, being a woman was powerful, and the March sisters brought this experience with them into the outside world, the world of men.
It was clear in the nineteenth century that women had a lower status. When a woman was married, the control over her was passed from her father to her husband, who could do with her as he wished. Women were not treated as man’s equal, however, in Little Women, the March sisters were taught to be strong and to use their talents. Jo followed this advice and became a writer, despite it being a “man’s world.”
The success story of Jo can be likened to that of women today. As Jo was taught, women in the 21st century are urged to make something of themselves. They are encouraged to go to school, even higher education, and create a career for themselves. Unlike in the late nineteenth century, less emphasis is put on marriage and family today. More and more women are putting off getting married and starting a family; a career comes first.
A woman’s focus on a career can be attributed mostly to the woman’s suffrage movement. During the 1860’s and 1870’s, suffragists interpreted the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments of the United States Constitution as giving women voting rights, however, others disagreed. It would be a valid argument to say that Jo March was a suffragist; her character was concerned with women’s rights. Jo’s determination to become a successful woman lends evidence to this theory.
In the novel, emphasis was put on modesty, both in actions and clothing. In the 1860’s, women’s clothing included bodices and full skirts. Most clothing, including that of the March sisters, were made by hand. Dresses had tight waists with long, flowing skirts. None of the chest or midriff was exposed. The dresses women wore were also long-sleeved. For evening, women wore fancier dresses, complete with lace. Arms and shoulders were bare, and the top of the dress was low-cut. The dresses were still long and somewhat modest.
Today, clothing is more revealing, and is socially acceptable. Women can be seen in tops that show off the arms and chest, and in pants that reveal the leg. For evening wear, women’s dresses range from long and frilly to short and skimpy. It is also acceptable for women to wear dress pants, a fashion that was not acceptable in the 1860’s.
Appearances were extremely important for women in the nineteenth century. Long hair was common during this time; it was a sign of femininity. If women cut their hair, it was due to necessity, not because of fashion. This is evident when Jo cut her hair for cash in order to send her mother to see her wounded soldier father. Jo’s mother and sisters cried, “Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.” Around everyone, Jo acted like she did not care, however, later she cried about cutting it. Short hairstyles are acceptable for women today. It is no longer believed that a woman’s femininity is held in her hair, however, most women still have long hair.
Anger was not supposed to be a part of a woman’s behavior in the nineteenth century. When Amy burned Jo’s stories, stories that she wrote over a course of three years, Jo was so angry with Amy that Jo said she would never forgive Amy. Their mother sympathized with Amy, saying that Jo’s kindness will overshadow her anger. Even though Amy did something terrible, Jo is not the victim, Amy is. This scene tells women that women are not supposed to have negative emotions. Negative emotions such as anger are a normal part of every human being’s life. Today, women, along with men, are encouraged to share their feelings, no matter if they are positive or negative.
Women’s behavior was closely monitored, especially in public. In Alcott’s story, when at a party, the March sisters were to be on their best behavior, however, they still retained their sharp tongues. For example, when Meg went to Vanity Fair, she met Laurie, the neighbor boy, at the party. Meg’s friends dressed her in the finest dress, and Laurie scoffed at Meg when he saw her, saying that he did not like “fuss and feathers” and that he liked her better in her own, plain clothing. Meg then said, “You are the rudest boy I ever saw.” and walked away from him. It was most likely improper of Meg to say such a thing to a man. The March sisters were taught to have an opinion and they were very much outspoken; this is a quality that one finds in the 21st century woman, not the nineteenth century woman.
Today, a woman can match wits with a man in social settings. Men and women have more in common than they did in the nineteenth century; both men and women have the same experiences, whereas in the nineteenth century, men experienced life outside the home while women experienced life from within the home. Despite these differences, manners and feminine politeness have withstood the test of time.
Much has changed since the time when Little Women was written, however, some of the values have been retained. The March sisters were ahead of their time, although the gender roles of men and women have been separated to this day. Both men and women have careers, but some women still favor being housewives and mothers, and yet other women have the best of both worlds. Much has been learned from history, and much has been accomplished for women since the nineteenth century. Women in the 21st century now have the right to choose the life that is right for them.
– “19th Century Hairstyles”, Hairfinder, <http://www.hairfinder.com/hair/1800shairstyles.htm>, 2009, (accessed 18 April 2009).
– Alcott, Louisa May. “Little Women” in Little Women Louisa May Alcott, eds. Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2004.
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– Foote, Stephanie. “Resentful Little Women: Gender and Class Feeling in Louisa May Alcott”, College Literature, 32.1 (Winter 2005), pp. 63.
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