By Nadine Blank
As a fairly new country with nearly no literary standing in the world, America was due for a classic feminist tale for readers of all ages. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women checked all the boxes as far as nineteenth-century American questions went, addressing issues like economic dependency on men, conflicts between being independent women and docile wives, and compromise versus submission. Some feminists such as Judith Fetterley argue that while the Civil War was going on in the novel, the main character Jo was facing her own Civil War regarding her place in America. Using the novel as an idealized platform for her own life, Alcott explains her ideas of feminist struggles in American culture in the 1800s.
One step further, Angela Estes and Kathleen Lant argue that Jo is Alcott’s doll of sorts, allowing her to experience her own conflicts in an out-of-body context:
“For Jo is an experimental heroine through whom Alcott can explore the tensions of female experience in nineteenth-century America: between being a dutiful member of women’s sphere and being an independent, self-reliant woman” (103).
These spheres do not always intersect, as Jo learns in “Chapter 27: Literary Lessons.” When faced with a decision of waiting to publish her book the way she wants it or publishing a cut-down version for a cash advance she can spend on her family, she explains her line of thinking:
“Fame is a very good thing to have in the house, but cash is more convenient, so I wish to take the sense of the meeting on this important subject” (7).
Jo’s thought process is not a feminist one, but that is not to say it is bad. In fact, in the nineteenth century, this thought process would have been considered womanly and motherly. This is part of the conflict that Jo grapples with; her existence as a “little woman” does not always fit with her existence as a writer. Alcott herself most likely felt this way and used the novel as an outlet for her frustration of the limitations of nineteenth-century American feminist progress.
Sita and Sarita, Cecilia Beaux c. 1921
The arts were a large feminist influence in the nineteenth century and beyond, and many female artists, like Alcott, used their art as an outlet. Cecilia Beaux was an art student in Paris in the late nineteenth century, and she developed skill and focused on painting women as more than just objects of beauty. The woman pictured is her cousin, Sarah Allibone Leavitt, with a carefully crafted expression of intelligence. Beaux enjoyed this piece so much that “she made a second painting for her ‘own satisfaction when the original went to France for good.”
The concept of the “little woman” seems to be a self-conflicting feminist viewpoint, which is why it works so well in a book that Alcott loads with feminist vs. traditionalist discord. Alcott and her characters themselves are living through unsolvable mixed feelings. Fetterley assumes that this is the ultimate message of Alcott’s novel:
“Our attitude, moreover, is not the result of feminist values imposed on Alcott’s work but the result of ambivalence within the work on the subject of what it means to be a little woman. Certainly this ambivalence is itself part of the message of Little Women. It accurately reflects the position of the woman writer in nineteenth-century America, confronted on all sides by forces pressuring her to compromise her vision” (Fetterley 382).
Jo and most likely Alcott’s dilemma is two dueling pressures: feminist demands and womanly demands. Alcott experiences this as a writer and puts Jo into situations like this as a writer and breadwinner:
“So Jo was satisfied with the investment of her prize money, and fell to work with a cheery spirit, bent on earning more of those delightful checks. She did earn several that year, and began to feel herself a power in the house, for by the magic of a pen, her ‘rubbish’ turned into comforts for them all” (6).
On the one hand, Jo is making her own money doing something she is passionate about, something that many women in the nineteenth century were unable to achieve. On the other hand, she is selling out with sensationalist stories that she knows will sell in order to earn this money, which goes against her plea for independence. In the end, there is no right answer, and what Alcott may be toying with in this as well as the very title of the book is a concept that may even be appreciated in today’s feminism. Alcott’s book may be a prime example that being a feminist and living a feminist life might not mean that a woman’s every action must be a feminist act. Little Women eliminates the unhealthy expectations and guilt of conflicting ideas when pursuing something less than liberating and outlines an accepting pro-woman lifestyle, no matter how a woman may choose to live.
Fetterley, Judith. “”Little Women”: Alcotts Civil War.” Feminist Studies 5, no. 2 (1979): 369. doi:10.2307/3177602.
Alcott, Louisa May. Chapter 27: Literary Lessons. In Little Women.
Estes, Angela M., and Kathleen Margaret Lant. “Dismembering the Text: The Horror of Louisa May Alcotts Little Women.” Childrens Literature 17, no. 1 (1989): 98-123. doi:10.1353/chl.0.0430.