Louisa May Alcott and Womanhood: A Summary of My Findings

I had originally wanted to look at Louisa May Alcott’s relationship with children. I wanted to know why a woman who has never had children of her own focused so much on childrearing in her novels. However, as I progressed into my research, I found that this was only part of a bigger issue. Therefore, I shifted my focus onto her attitude towards gender.

This new angle was much more interesting, as it was something that Alcott struggled with her whole life. As a child, she accepted her father’s definition of ideal womanhood:  gentle, passionless, and self-sacrificing. However, although Alcott accepted this view, she could not live up to it. She was strong, determined, ambitious, and passionate, all characteristics the time period considered manly. For society and her father’s sake, Alcott tried for years. When she finally realized that she will never succeed, she turned to fiction. She created the character of Jo March from Little Women to be her fictional alter ego and allowed Jo to grow from an awkward tomboyish teenager to a poised affianced lady. Thus, in stories, Alcott found a place where she could, through Jo, become the woman her father always wanted her to be.

However, over the years, Alcott found more distance from society’s expectations as she grew into a more stable and mature adult who thought for herself. This change is reflected in her writings, in which she starts to develop her own ideal womanhood. Because of this slow searching for her own beliefs, there’s a gradual expansion of the woman’s sphere in the Little Women saga. By the time Jo’s Boys was published, Alcott was proposing her own ideal for womanhood:  someone who is a blessing to everyone around her by living an honest and productive life.

The biggest difference between Alcott’s ideal womanhood and society as well as her father’s is the latter placed an extremely high premium oh motherhood and the former does not. The Victorian influence on even American society expected women to not only be submissive but also do it as wives and mothers. However, by the time Alcott was writing Jo’s Boys, she had decided that for her, the ideal woman could choose whatever life she wanted as long as it involves helping others and striving for a purer self. Whether a woman does so in the home or in a profession is of no concern for Alcott.

However, while this facet seems simple, there are other complications. The biggest was that although Alcott accepted both the housewife and the career woman, she did not believe it was possible for a woman to have both the way men do. Her female characters either all gave up their hobbies or passions when they got married or stayed single their whole lives. In contrast, John Brooke keeps his accounting job and has three children; Professor Bhaer opens a school where his nephews and sons attend; and Laurie works at his grandfather’s firm and still maintains a close relationship with his daughter. Thus, although there is a definite expansion of the woman’s sphere in the Little Women saga, Alcott ends the books on a note of uncertainty. Just how much equality is possible, she asks. Can a woman have everything?

Comments

  1. rjdirisio says:

    It’s interesting to take a step back and observe how Alcott’s coping mechanism to fit in impacts us today; many people turn to fiction or the internet in order to create, experience, or live vicariously through different personalities. Alcott’s strategy as an author is an impeccable one as well. She is so far removed from being Jo March, yet she is able to create her due to social standards. If one is surrounded by so much pressure all the time, it is easy to mold oneself into it. Since she resisted, she decided to use that pressure to her advantage, and for that, I praise Alcott.

  2. Ebi Doubeni says:

    I really like the part you mentioned about Louisa May Alcott being told by men she should have characteristics similar to a submissive woman that in my opinion has a hard time expressing their opinion. Then she transformed as an adult to something that is completely the opposite. I can completely relate to her because my father is very traditional and old fashioned about his opinions about how woman should act. However I was like Alcott and saw the importance of being a strong determined woman who had goals.