Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Covert Feminism of Little Women

Louisa May Alcott is most famous for her very popular Little Women, her many other novels dwarfed by it success. It is being constantly adapted and referenced in popular culture - Joey even reads it on an episode of Friends. Even while the novel is still beloved by many readers, it has acquired a reputation for saccharine sentimentalism. Yet, the novel, despite the demands of conservative male publishers, retains the stamp of Alcott's feminism, even if today's social and sexual mores somewhat obscure it.

While readers today may see nothing out of the ordinary in Marmee's encouragement of her daughters' artistic aspirations, at the time the book was published this was quite radical. Marmee, like Alcott's own mother, wishes her daughters to be able to support themselves and to form strong, independent characters, free to choose either marriage or a career according to their desires. Jo's ambition to be a writer was at the time an essentially masculine aspiration and most of the great female novelists, including Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and George Eliot (actually Mary Ann Evans), of the 19th century would use male pseudonyms at some point in their careers. Most young women of the time would have been taught that any artistic talents they had were mere "accomplishments," ornamentation that would render them more attractive to potential husbands. Not so with the March girls.

While readers and Alcott's publisher demanded that Jo marry, Alcott herself was resistant to the idea. She herself never married and she did not see this as a failure - quite the contrary. Jo, like Alcott, wanted a career, with the money and independence that goes with it, and she also, like Alcott, wanted to support her parents, an impossibility if she were to marry given that a married woman's earnings belonged to her husband. In fact, men of the time could legally do anything to their wives short of murder.

Jo's decision to refuse Laurie may disappoint romantics, but her choice is even more radical than most readers of today realize. The idea of romantic love culminating in marriage was a fairly recent one and marriage for women was still by necessity more about money and security than about love. Jo understands that she and Laurie are fundamentally unsuited. He loves luxury, high society, and fashion and he expects her to shoehorn herself into such a life; she could care less about such frivolities and isn't willing to change her character for others. But Laurie isn't just offering her a life of luxury. He's offering to care for her impoverished parents and sisters, something which Jo has been anxious to do since she was a teenager. Jo's refusal is a triumph of self-respect and mature thinking over what would be the easiest and likely most disastrous choice she could make.

When Jo does marry, she marries Professor Bhaer, a much older, impoverished, and not particularly good-looking man, who shares her interests and her values. He respects and supports her as a writer; Laurie, on the other hand, sees her "scribbling" as a hobby, a financial venture only due to necessity. (Laurie is even jealous of her writing before the possibility of a romance arises.) Alcott may have been pressured into marrying off Jo, but she does have her make a wiser and less romantic choice. Jo and Professor Bhaer are partners, both working as teachers in the school they start, both eventually becoming highly involved parents, sharing responsibilities rather than dividing them. This was not a normal scenario.

For the young women reading Little Women when it was first published, the March girls were relatable and attractive role models, women who valued their self-respect and moral integrity over money and position, self-sufficiency over helpless contingency, and partnership over compromising dependence. Women may have far greater freedom to choose a profession or a spouse today, but Alcott's feminist values are still just as relevant for us here and now.


  1. Do you have a preferred movie treatment? I've seen three, and I find each one lacking in some important way. Maybe it's just not film-able? Ellen

  2. I like all three of the feature length adaptations (not counting the two silent versions, which aren't available). But I agree, none of them quite matches up. I think that the 1949 version is the most faithful to the book.

    I think part of the difficulty of filming Little Women is how intimate the story is - the films rely heavily on the adaptations made for the theater, particularly in terms of Jo's relationship with Professor Bhaer and Amy's trip to Europe. Plus, all three seem much more heavily influenced by the politics of the time of production rather than than the 1860s and 70s.

    My ideal cast, taking actors from all three productions would be: June Allyson ('49) as Jo, Jean Parker ('33) as Beth, Kirsten Dunst ('94) as the young Amy and Joan Bennett ('33) as the adult Amy, Trini Alvarado ('94) as Meg, Mary Astor ('49) as Marmee, and Christian Bale ('94) as Laurie.

    I'm sure there will be more adaptations to come!