In Searchlights on Health: Light on Dark Corners (1895), a popular Gilded Age guide to health and sexuality, the authors caution male suitors to consider what they love in their brides-to-be: “Do you love her because she is a thoroughly womanly woman; for her tender sympathetic nature; for the jewels of her life, which are absolute purity of mind and heart; for the sweet sincerity of her disposition; for her loving, charitable thought; for her strength of character? because she is pitiful to the sinful, tender to the sorrowful, capable, self-reliant, modest, true-hearted? in brief, because she is the embodiment of all womanly virtues?” In describing what men should look for in a bride, the authors of Searchlights tidily sum up the ideals of femininity that were prevalent when Little Women was published. On top of this assumption that women were to embody these feminine virtues was the notion that women were naturally meant to belong in the home (this was often referred to as the “Cult of Domesticity”). Women in the late nineteenth century, and in particular feminists like Louisa May Alcott, questioned these popular notions regarding how women were supposed to behave and what role they were meant to occupy in society.
The notion of what truly constitutes feminine behavior (and, by extension, feminine virtue) is addressed in Little Women primarily through the defiant and tomboyish antics of Jo. Not content to be strapped into a corset and full of writerly ambitions, Jo parades around the March household in a pair of dashing leather boots, penning romances and poems by the dozen. The fact that Jo is ultimately a sympathetic and triumphant character (and not, say, a cautionary tale of what might go wrong if young ladies don’t act in feminine ways) underscores Little Women’s quietly revolutionary idea that there are many ways to be female, and that no one way of being female is more valuable than any other.
There’s also the question of how important men are in the lives of women. Part 1 of Little Women finds the March family fatherless and left to their own devices while Mr. March is off at war. Although the March girls find a kind of surrogate father in the form of their wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence, the book seems to point out that women are able to get along with a greater degree of independence than the gender norms of the time might have people believe. The question of whether women belong solely in the home is also called into question, particularly through the many moneymaking exploits of the March girls.
This isn’t to say that the Marches are outright gender revolutionaries – Mrs. March is eager to see each of her daughters married well (though she does mention that it would be equally acceptable if they remained single), and the March sisters (perhaps with the exception of gender-bending Jo) nonetheless strive to embody feminine ideals of beauty and virtue. This is just to say that the book toys with gender norms of the 19th century, and strives to emphasize that women are human beings complete with thoughts, desires, creative genius, vices, and virtues, and that they are capable of accomplishing and embodying more than the patriarchal gender roles of the 19th century allow.
The Role of Women ThemeTracker
The Role of Women Quotes in Little Women
“I don’t believe fine young ladies enjoy themselves a bit more than we do, in spite of our burned hair, old gowns, one glove apiece and tight slippers that sprain our ankles when we are silly enough to wear them.”
“Work is wholesome, and there is plenty for everyone. It keeps us from ennui and mischief, is good for health and spirits, and gives us a sense of power and independence better than money or fashion.”
Jo’s breath gave out here, and wrapping her head in the paper, she bedewed her little story with a few natural tears, for to be independent and earn the praise of those she loved were the dearest wishes of her heart, and this seemed to be the first step toward that happy end.
“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”
“No, it’s mine honestly. I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short.
“I’m not ambitious for a splendid fortune, or fashionable position, or a great name for my girls. If rank and money come with love and virtue, also, I should accept them gratefully, and enjoy your good fortune, but I know, by experience, how much genuine happiness can be had in a plain little house, where the daily bread is earned, and some privations give sweetness to the few pleasures.”
“I remember a time when this hand was white and smooth, and your first care was to keep it so. It was very pretty then, but to me it is much prettier now, for in these seeming blemishes I read a little history. A burnt offering has been made to vanity, this hardened palm has earned something better than blisters, and I’m sure the sewing done by these pricked fingers will last a long time, so much good will went into the stitches.”
Meg looked very like a rose herself, for all that was best and sweetest in heart and soul seemed to bloom into her face that day, making it fair and tender, with a charm more beautiful than beauty.
Neither silk, lace, nor orange flowers would she have. “I don’t want a fashionable wedding, but only those about me whom I love, and to them I wish to look and be my familiar self.”
It wasn’t at all the thing, I’m afraid, but the minute she was fairly married, Meg cried,” The first kiss for Marmee!” and turning, gave it with her heart on her lips.
“My lady,” as [Amy’s] friends called her, sincerely desired to be a genuine lady, and was so at heart, but had yet to learn that money cannot buy refinement of nature, that rank does not always confer nobility, and that true breeding makes itself felt in spite of external drawbacks.
Wealth is certainly a most desirable thing, but poverty has its sunny side, and one of the sweet uses of adversity is the genuine satisfaction which comes from hearty work of head or hand, and to the inspiration of necessity, we owe half the wise, beautiful, and useful blessings of the world. Jo enjoyed a taste of this satisfaction, and ceased to envy richer girls, taking great comfort in the knowledge that she could supply her own wants, and need ask no one for a penny.
“Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones, for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive. If you’d remember that, and practice it, you’d be better liked than I am, because there is more of you.”
“I can’t love anyone else, and I’ll never forget you, Jo, never! Never!” with a stamp to emphasize his passionate words.
“What shall I do with him?” sighed Jo, finding that emotions were more unmanageable than she expected. “You haven’t heard what I wanted to tell you. Sit down and listen, for indeed I want to do right and make you happy,” she said, hoping to soothe him with a little reason, which proved that she knew nothing about love.
“Oh yes!” said Jo, and he was quite satisfied, for she folded both hands over his arm, and looked up at him with an expression that plainly showed how happy she would be to walk through life beside him, even though she had no better shelter than the old umbrella, if he carried it.
“Ah! Thou gifest me such hope and courage, and I haf nothing to gif back but a full heart and these empty hands,” cried the Professor, quite overcome.
Jo never, never would learn to be proper, for when he said that as they stood upon the steps, she just put both hands into his, whispering tenderly, “Not empty now,” and stooping down, kissed her Friedrich under the umbrella.
Touched to the heart, Mrs. March could only stretch out her arms, as if to gather children and grandchildren to herself, and say, with face and voice full of motherly love, gratitude, and humility…
“Oh, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”