Louisa May Alcott: More than a Little Woman

Nov 5th, 2019 | Category: Book Reviews, Columns
By Sandra Doering

More than 150 years ago, Louisa May Alcott’s most famous book Little Women hit the bookstores and was immediately embraced by critics and the general population of those who loved to read family stories. To its credit, the book has maintained its popularity and since its publication Little Women has never been out of print. In a very rare incidence, this book has truly stood the test of time so much so that it has actually changed genres. When originally published in 1868, it was considered contemporary realistic fiction. But now, it remains an example of exemplary historical fiction highlighting the life of a family left behind while the father is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women based on her own life and experiences. She, herself, had three sisters and her mother was often left to run the household with very little money because her husband was either unwilling or unable to support the family. Her father, a philosophical dreamer and frustrated transcendentalist, never seemed to be able to translate his lofty ideas into workable plans. When he was in his forties, he basically gave up trying to make a living (Acocella, 2018). This would affect Louisa’s outlook on life and her perceived responsibilities dramatically. In her twenties, Alcott took on the burden of providing for her family and did so until her death in 1888. 

In order to understand Louisa May Alcott as more than a 19th century little woman, it is necessary to examine some of the major influences she encountered and unique characteristics she exhibited from an early age on. 

An Unconventional Early Education

Louisa was not formally educated; rather her parents, and the many intellectual friends they had, served as her teachers. Such philosophers as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson frequented the Alcott home. Each of these philosophers espoused Transcendentalism; believing that all people should have the ability to advance in society and have the same rights. This included the belief that race and/or gender did not prohibit anyone from rational thought (Wion, 2015). “Though there were multiple things Louisa gained from transcendentalism, one of the most important was her beliefs on women’s rights and women’s roles” (Wion, 2015. p. 15).

Louisa’s fascination with Thoreau began when she was a young child. Thoreau would often visit the Alcott home. Louisa was entranced by his connection to nature. Thoreau educated Louisa in observation and nature and those lessons lasted a lifetime (Wion, 2015). Louisa also revered him as a man of kindness and honest character, something to which she strove her entire life. 

Margaret Fuller was also a prominent figure in Transcendentalism who fought for women’s rights. She believed that women were just as capable as men. Fuller argued that women needed education and a voice in the world. 

Fuller proved that women were capable of being the supporters of men and therefore should have just as much right as them. Not only was this right natural, it was owed them. These messages were not overlooked by a young and impressionable Louisa. (Wion, 2015, p. 17) 

Fuller was unique and strong in her choice to select freedom and a voice over domesticity (Elbert, 1984). Louisa possessed this strength of character as well and found a way to fight for both domesticity and freedom in her life (Wion, 2015). Later on, Fuller did marry and have a child. In the end, Fuller found both her freedom and her family. Louisa also found some balance, though without marriage.

Another important transcendentalist to both Fuller and Louisa was Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was a good friend of the Alcott family, many times serving as their benefactor by giving Bronson Alcott work, money and property (Reisen, 2009). Louisa was deeply influenced by Emerson’s thoughts on love, self-reliance, and women’s rights. “Emerson believed in the equality of the sexes and fought for freedom for women in terms of education” (Elbert, 1984. p. 41). Louisa used Emerson’s philosophies and writing to plot out her own future.

Her own parents also influenced Louisa’s early education. Her father, Bronson, had no formal education. Instead, he taught himself and lived his life based on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (Gura, 2007). Bronson Alcott used Bunyan’s novel as a life guide for himself and in the teaching of his four daughters about life. Bronson was creative and intelligent. However, his writing was poor and he had very little success translating his lofty ideas into workable realities. What success he did have was typically stopped either by bad luck or his inability to hold down a job (Wion, 2015). Although Louisa loved her father and recognized his creative and lofty ideas as admirable, she never ignored the fact that her father failed to support his family. So, eventually, Louisa began to take over his role as caretaker of the Alcotts (Wion, 2015). It could be that one of the reasons she did not fit traditional gender norms is because she had to take up her father’s role in the family.

Louisa’s mother, Abigail Alcott, was born into the wealthy May family. She had more advantages than most young girls and was allowed to pursue knowledge and education. However, as she grew to adulthood, she was expected to stay inside the home and complete her gendered chores (Elbert, 1984). This influenced her choice to accept the sexual division of labor in and around the home. But, “she also believed that women should command men’s respect for women’s rights in her own sphere” (Elbert, 1984, p, 52). Abigail believed she had a say in what happened to her house and to her family. She also believed she “had a right to be a part of intellectual conversations within her home as well” (Wion, 2015, p. 20). Furthermore, when the girls were still children, it often fell to her to work outside the home to provide for the family when her husband failed to do so. Even though Abigail took better care of her family than Bronson did, she was often ill. This is when Louisa would have to step up and take on many of the domestic responsibilities. Although Abigail tried her best, she was not able to run the household without help from Louisa. And so, it was through her mother that “Louisa learned to value the domestic sphere, but to still challenge the roles of women; it was through her parents that she observed non-traditional gender roles” (Wion, 2015, p. 21).

Work Outside the Home

“Work is such a beautiful & helpful thing & independence so delightful that I wonder [why] there are any lazy people in the world” (Alcott, 1872, p. 168). All her life, Louisa believed that work was required and that doing nothing was unacceptable. Perhaps because of her father’s inability to support the family and her mother’s frequent illnesses, it became her mandate to work in every job she could find in order to support her family.

While she loved writing and storytelling from a very young age, she couldn’t rely on that to make her living at first. Consequently, she struggled to find her place in the working world where she often refused to fit into the cultural box expected of women of her day. Although women did work at this time, it was not the same for them as it was for men. Women went to work only if it was necessary. “When women did work, it was because for one reason or another, the men in the family could not provide support” (Stansell, 1987, p.12). For Louisa, it was easy to imagine taking on jobs traditionally assigned to men. However, it was not easy to find those jobs in the mid-1800s. Women were limited to certain professions and Louisa explored a great many of them. She was a seamstress, an actress, a governess, a teacher, a nurse, and finally a writer. It wasn’t until she was able to support her family with her writing that she finally found her niche in the working world. However, all of her other jobs leading up to being a writer had profound effects on her view of work and the world in general.

Louisa’s attempts to support her family started with the usual jobs for women. Stansell (1987) writes that when women did work outside the home, it was common for them to work as domestics and in other professions that were all extensions of the home. While Louisa did not particularly want to do these jobs (since she was already doing them in her own home), she is quoted as saying “I’ll put my pride in my pocket and go out to service” (Alcott, 1873. p. 16). Louisa even attempted to be a teacher when her sister received another job and needed a replacement. Teaching did not suit her at all because it simply was not what she wanted to do. 

When the Civil War started, Louisa wrote in one of her journals “I’ve often longed to see a war, and now I have my wish. I long to be a man, but as I can’t fight, I will content myself working for those who can’ (Alcott et al. 1989. p. 90). She was an avid abolitionist and a big supporter of the Union and felt her services could be used as a nurse to the men who were fighting. She assumed this role very well and when she wrote about it in her journal, her letters home, and her fictional retelling of her experiences she was honing her skills as the writer she would become. She published an account of her time as a nurse that did indeed bring her success as a writer. This book Hospital Sketches (1863) was a fictional story of a nurse who is ministering to Union soldiers. There is no doubt that this book was semi-autobiographical in its origin. Louisa’s account of nursing life allowed the public to see secondhand what the war and what a hospital were like at that time. Hospital Sketches was met with great enthusiasm. “Louisa had shown the true reality of a Union hospital” (Wion, 2015, p. 33). It was realistic fiction of its day.

After she had to leave the battlefield hospital because of ill health, she returned home to recuperate and reflect on what she would now do to support her family. Although she thought working was the only way to truly have a successful life, she was frustrated with her jobs and was searching for more (Wion, 2015). She wrote in her journal saying, “I am trying to turn my brains into money by stories.” (Alcott et al, 1987, p. 14). After the success of Hospital Sketches, she began to believe that writing could be her way to support her family.

Alcott started out by writing lurid sensational stories, publishing these stories under the name A.M. Barnard. These stories supplied her with the money to support her family before she achieved financial literary success. “In 1863, Louisa wrote her first thriller and continued to turn out lurid stories in exchange for a solid income” (Wion, 2015, p. 36). In many of her thrillers, she wrote about women who were “devious, temperamental, manipulative and even diabolical” (Wion, 2015, p.37). This could have been because she could not herself step out of the boundaries she was limited to because of her gender. Through her characters, she was able to vicariously live the life she sometimes wished she could have.

In contrast, in the literature published under her own name, like Little Women, her characters did their duty, got married, had children and were respectful and respectable women. Although these characters often pushed their boundaries, in the end they found their way to the perfect 19th century view of women. 

A.M. Barnard could write about women who did not have to fit into these roles and could even be the villain in the story. While these characters were not limited by their gender, Louisa was, which is why she used a pseudonym to publish stories. A.M. Barnard supplied the Alcott family with financial support, but these were not the stories that brought Louisa literary fame. (Wion, 2015. p. 38)

It was in 1867 that Thomas Niles of Robert Brother’s Publishing requested that Louisa write a book about girls. She needed the money so she got to work. She was not excited about writing the book, so chose to draw upon her experiences with her own 3 sisters. Many have said that Little Women is indeed semi-autobiographical and that the character Jo is the embodiment of Louisa herself. Originally the book was published in two parts. After the success of Part I in 1868, Louisa gained some excitement for her work. She began work on Part II and finished it very quickly, publishing it in 1869. With the publication of Little Women, Louisa had finally succeeded as an author and truly was the breadwinner of the Alcott family. 

Stepping Outside of Gender Barriers

Louisa May Alcott spent her whole life questioning the normative gender roles for women. Even as a young child, she never quite fit into the expected norms for little girls. She stated of her childhood “no boy could be a friend till I had beaten him in a race, and no girl if she refused to climb trees, leap fences, and be a tomboy” (Cheney, 1889, p. 30). She was a wild and free spirit who did not follow traditional gender roles. She liked nothing more than playing boy’s games and wanted to do boy’s work and have boy’s manners.

As her home education continued among intellectuals and transcendentalists, her philosophies concerning women’s rights continued to grow. These ideas about blurred gender roles were further developed when she saw her mother having to take over the leadership of the household when her father could not or would not be the patriarch of the family. 

When Louisa became old enough to help her mother by taking on all types of jobs, she continued to face gendered struggles. She wanted to have the independence that would have been hers if she had been a boy. In her novel Work: A Story of Experience (1873), her main character, a young lady named Christie states her position that is directly from the mind of Alcott as she struggled to find suitable work. “I’m old enough to take care of myself; and if I’d been a boy, I should have been told to do it long ago. I hate to be dependent; and now there is no need of it, I can’t bear it” (Alcott, 1977, p. 2).

In her own life, Louisa wanted independence so she could help support her family. In order to do that, she had to go to work outside the home. She held many domestic jobs, which she absolutely hated, and when she tried to find other jobs that interested her more, she found a woeful lack of opportunities and jobs for women. When she did finally find some success with her writing career, she tried to support women in every way she could. 

Louise fought hard for women’s rights to be independent and even to vote. She understood that women were caught between two worlds when they worked outside the home: they wanted to have a life in the public, but they also wanted to make sure their families and their homes were well taken care of. Louisa herself felt this tension most of her life. Although she left home for work, she would also keep a close eye on her responsibilities to her family’s financial and emotional needs. Throughout her adult life she remained burdened by the need to provide for her family. In this way, Louisa became the matriarch, and in many ways, the patriarch of the family, fulfilling her parents’ roles and establishing stability for the Alcotts. This is why she knew women were capable of so much more than they were given (Wion, 2015).

Her Choice to Remain Single

“For most women at the time, marriage was the ultimate goal. Some women, who were fighting for their independence in the public sphere, were searching for a life without marriage” (Gorsky, 1992, p. 19). Louisa found herself in the group of women who wanted a life without marriage. It was the last thing she wanted. She saw marriage as “another string that held back her freedom and independence” (Wion, 2015, p. 43). 

Even though Louisa remained committed to supporting her family and did believe that women had a responsibility for taking care of the home, she advocated for a life outside the home and chose to remain single her whole life. This does not mean, however, that she did not have to take on the roles of a married woman at times. In fact, when her sister, May, died, Louisa gained custody of her niece, Lulu. Caring for Lulu required that Louisa develop her motherly instincts in order to meet her needs as a young woman. 

Louisa was not just a mother to her inherited niece; she also became a second mother to her nephews. Her older sister, Anna, lost her husband in 1870. Louisa stepped into his place to help care for her nephews. This is when she began to see herself as a father figure to the nephews. As Louisa and Anna adapted to the shared responsibilities of caring for Lulu and the two boys, they began to take different roles. Anna took on the role of mother to all three because Louisa was often gone from the home to write or take care of other business. Louisa stepped outside of the gender roles and fathered the children being responsible for their discipline and financial support. Lulu reported in an interview with Madelon Bedell in her later years “I respected Aunt Louisa but I loved my Darling Aunt Anna” (Bedell, 1980).

When writing her family stories, she did have to forfeit some of her beliefs in order to meet the market demand and sell the books. The vast majority of her characters ended up married and attuned to their roles as keepers of the home. Yet even though Louisa had to follow these guidelines, she did it on her own terms (Wion, 2015). In one of her books entitled Work (1873), she writes of the main character, Christie:

Women who stand alone in the world, and have their own way to make, have a better chance to know men truly than those who sit safe at home and only see one side of mankind. We lose something; but I think we gain a great deal that is more valuable than admiration, flattery, and superficial service most men give to our sex. (Alcott, 1873, p. 268)

Through this character, Christie, Louisa puts forth a belief that women needed to learn how to stand on their own. She believed this allowed them to develop better relationships with men. In this way, she is highlighting the concept that independence is more important than marriage. In Little Women, she quoted Marmee as saying: “Right, Jo, better be happy old maids than unhappy wives, or un-maidenly girls, running about to find husbands” (Alcott, 2004, p. 84). This reflects Louisa’s belief that women should not sit back and wait for love, and to be content if it never comes. Jo, Louisa’s counterpart in Little Women, puts it this way: “An old maid-that’s what I’m to be. A literary spinster, with a pen for a spouse, a family of stories for children…” (Alcott, 2004, p, 342). 

In Part I of Little Women, Louisa never saw Jo as the marrying type, but her readers had a different idea. She wrote in her journal: “girls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life” (Alcott et al, 1989, p.167). Most thought Jo should marry Laurie, the next-door neighbor. But while Louisa did give in and have Jo get married at the end of Part II, it was not to Laurie. Instead it was an unconventional love for a professor who challenged her intellectually and encouraged her to follow her own goals
and dreams.

More than a Little Woman

When you take the time to really study the life of Louisa May Alcott, you cannot help but be amazed at the multifaceted roles and responsibilities she had to fulfill. Instead of giving in to the gendered boundaries that were placed on women of her time, she questioned them and found her own way of meeting those boundaries. She did support a woman’s role in the home, but saw so much more that the woman could do to support her family. She did not believe that a woman had to get married to fulfill her role in society. In fact, she believed that staying single gave her more rights in society because she would not have a husband to overshadow her in the public sphere. At the same time, in order to sell books many times she had to give her characters a traditional role of wife or mother. However, she put her own twist on those characters by often giving her heroines unconventional partners. Louisa broke through the cultural norm that men had to be the financial provider for the family by taking over that role and becoming the patriarch of her family. Starting at an early age with the many transcendental philosophers who influenced her education, she fought for the rights of all women, all people and took many steps to surpass the cultural lines that tried to limit the opportunities available to women and other marginalized populations in the United States. Louisa May Alcott truly was more than a little woman!! LEJ

References

Acocella, J. (2018). Ladies choice. New Yorker, 94 (25). 75-80.

Alcott, L. M. (2004). Hospital sketches. Edited by A. Fahs. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Alcott, L. M. (2004). Little women or, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy: Authoritative text, backgrounds and contexts criticism. Edited by A. K. Phillips & G. Eiselein. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

Alcott, L. M. (1977). Work: A story of experience. New York, NY: Schocken Books. Originally published 1873.

Alcott, L. M., Myerson, J. & Shealy, D. & Stern, M. (1989). The journals of Louisa May Alcott. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Alcott, L. M., Stern, M., Myerson, J. & Shealy, D. (1987). The selected letters of Louisa May Alcott. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.

Bedell, M. (1980). The Alcotts: A family biography. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

Cheney, E. D. (1889). Louisa May Alcott: Her life, letters and journals. Boston, MA: Roberts Brothers.

Elbert, S. (1984). A hunger for home: Louisa May Alcott and Little Women. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Fuller, M. (1845). Women in the nineteenth century. New York, NY: Greeley and McElrath.

Gorsky, S. R. (1992). Femininity to feminism: Women and literature in the nineteenth century. New York, NY: Twayne.

Gura, P. F. (2007). American transcendentalism: A history. New York, NY: Hill and Wang.

Reisen, H. (2009). Louisa May Alcott: The woman behind Little Women. New York, NY: Picador.

Stansell, C. (1987) City of women: Sex and class in New York 1789-1860. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press.

I wish to give special thanks to the following for providing the conceptual framework for this article:

Wion, C. (2015). “Nothing is impossible to a determined woman”: Louisa May Alcott and nineteenth century gender roles. (Unpublished master’s thesis). San Diego State University.

Sandra Doering, Ed.D., has been teaching undergraduate and graduate literacy courses for almost 35 years in the Concordia University System. Her main passion is the use of children’s literature as a tool in helping children learn to read and write. She presently serves as Chair of the Department of Literacy and ECE at Concordia University, Chicago.

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