Womanhood and Marriage in "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott

Marmee’s Lessons Put into Historical Context

Term Paper, 2021

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0



Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Historical Background
2.1 Womanhood
2.2 Marriage and Motherhood

3 Marmee’s Lessons
3.1 Lessons on Womanhood
3.2 Lessons on Marriage and Domesticity

4 Conclusion

5 Works Cited

1 Introduction

Since its publication in 1868, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, together with its second part Good Wives one year later , has enjoyed tremendous success, especially among young readers. Known today as an “American classic, if not the seminal classic novel of American girlhood” (Cartmell and Simons 78), it has spoken to young girls’ hearts in the way it describes American family life and what it meant to be growing up female in the nineteenth century (Saxton 5). Throughout the last 150 years, the novel has continued to be important to girls and young women, providing a moral framework and important life lessons: “Reading the book has been a rite of passage for generations of adolescent and preadolescent females of the comfortable class. It still elicits powerful narratives of love and passion” (Sicherman 247). An important part of what made the book so popular was surely its realistic depiction of girlhood and family life. Alcott’s stories have been praised by numerous sources as portraying stories and characters true to life (e.g Clark; Sicherman; Saxton). In the early days, some people even found it too realistic to be interesting and worth reading as it lacked any fantastic elements (Sicherman 261).

Being classified as a “bildungsroman” by some scholars (Sicherman 257), Little Women offers lessons on womanhood, motherhood, and marriage not only to plentiful readers throughout generations, but first and foremost to the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth. Marmee, the matriarch of the family, teaches her four daughters how to behave as a young woman, how to care for others, and how to completely give up themselves for others, especially their husbands and families. Even though some of her views might seem surprisingly modern and sometimes even feminist, she is a woman of her day and encourages her daughters to abide by society’s rules. This paper aims to investigate the ideals of society in the nineteenth century regarding womanhood and marriage, and then show where these concepts can be found in the lessons Marmee gives on how to be a woman, a wife and a mother.


The versions of Little Women and Good Wives used for this paper are the editions published by Vintage, London, 2012. For better readability and orientation, the book titles will be shortened to LW and GW and chapter numbers as well as page numbers will be given in the short references.

2 Historical Background

First, to better understand where Marmee’s ideals and lessons derive from, one must look at the societal norms of the time the novel was written, namely the nineteenth century.

2.1 Womanhood

Society in nineteenth-century America (and mostly also Europe) was divided, “[m]en and women occupied different and separate, if complementary spheres” (Rowbotham 6). This “doctrine of separate spheres . . . assigned each sex a proper set of roles” (Tomasek 241). While men were part of the public, political, economical sphere, women were to occupy only the “private sphere of home and family” (241). Marriage and domesticity were the key aspects of a woman’s life (Lord 32, Tomasek 241-42); Rowbotham even claims that “[w]hile a man needed a career to justify and bolster his masculinity, being a woman was a ‘career’ in itself” (12). She further explains that for girls and young women, the highest goal was “to become a professional good wife and mother” (12).

While people disagreed on the exact dimensions, most Americans agreed that women should be true and good, they should be “proper”. What these terms actually included was heavily dependent on which circles and beliefs people associated with. However, there were “a few common themes” that seemed to be shared by all: “proper women ought to be particularly moral, religious, and nurturing” (Cutter 4-5). Tomasek mentions that women were supposed to “remain gentle, nurturing, and untouched by the contentious arenas of business and politics” (242).

However, the idea of a proper woman went even further. Cutter draws on Barbara Welter’s original text on “True Womanhood” to define a “true or proper woman” as “pious, pure, submissive, and domestic” (6). While the first two define a woman’s moral and virtues, the latter two define her limited area of actions: “the ideology advised women to submit to male authority” (6), operating only in their domestic area of the home. They were supposed to create the ideal family and home, making it a safe place for the man to return to after a day’s work in the dangerous and wearing public sphere (Rowbotham 12; Lord 32-33).

In this context, Rowbotham mentions the expressions “Angel in the Home”, “Household Fairy”, and “Home Goddess” as terms for how ideal women were typically portrayed in stories for girls (9, 11, 15). The fantastical vocabulary points to the rather unrealistic and virtually unaccomplishable ambitions that girls and women had to aspire to. The only way to achieve such high goals was through setting aside and forgetting all individual wishes and emotions (19). As Cutter explains it, women had to be “willing to sacrifice their own interests to care for and protect others” (5). A woman was expected to deny any personal goals or feelings and concentrate fully on those around her, and these “ideals of self-control” were “drilled into girls” (Censer 11) from a very early age on.

Although societal rules were designed to restrict women and their area of influence (Cutter 7), they actually were given a fairly important role: they not only had to “provide[] the cement which held the home together” (Rowbotham 18), women also performed as the main care givers and educators for the children; they had to “quietly and privately instill virtue in their husbands and children, appealing to their emotions and convincing them to be virtuous, not through rational discussion but through love” (Cutter 9). Women were believed to be more emotional and therefore better equipped for child rearing and teaching than men, so these tasks naturally fell to them. Cutter calls this “redemptive womanhood”, focusing on women’s ability to redeem others through nurturing, religion and self-abnegation (7). She further explains, “[t]his ideology of redemptive womanhood asserted that women were actively responsible for the moral and religious health of America and that only women could sustain the nation's virtue or redeem its sins” (8). In other words, women were encouraged to promote their moral and religious values and create an upright future society, thus playing an important role in the creation of the country (Cutter 8; Lord 32). Through raising the future generations of Americans, they did have a much larger influence in and on society than was generally acknowledged. Yet, the image of the submissive, private, self-denying housewife still prevailed.

2.2 Marriage and Motherhood

As mentioned before, being married and being a wife and mother were the highest goals in a girl’s life. In fact, getting married marked an essential, if not the most important, step in an adolescent’s development from childhood to being an adult. By getting married, a young woman moved from depending on her parents to leading her own household and performing in the adult world (Lindenmeyer 31). Marriage represented an accomplishment, “an emblem of adulthood achieved” (Auerbach 8). Lindenmeyer shows how important reaching this new phase of independence from her childhood home was to a young woman: “[m]arriage by the early to mid-twenties was the overwhelming choice for most young people. Many females became mothers while still in their teens” (32). Marriage was seen as an important part of a woman’s life; it was not thought complete without a man, and looking for an eligible match would be the most important task for her and, usually, her mother (Matus 60). Through marriage, a woman was detached from her dependence on her family.

However, marriage did not free women from all dependencies; in fact, quite the opposite was the case. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, ideas of coverture were popular. People of this belief “rather conventionally regarded married women as ‘one’ with their husbands” (Matus 60). Legally, a woman lost all her rights by getting married, all her property became her husband’s, all her earnings or inheritance likewise. Her legal actions were limited, she needed her husband’s approval for virtually anything, from voting to negotiating contracts (Ablow 10). This concept of husband and wife becoming one coincides with the biblical idea of the two becoming “one flesh”, and even the story of Eve who was made out of one of Adam’s ribs, so she is actually a part of him (Ablow 11).

The laws and society’s rules being as strict as they were, it might come as a surprise to find out that divorce could in fact be legal, even in the nineteenth century. It was not always granted, however, although numbers rose after reformed marriage laws were introduced in the second half of the nineteenth century (Lindenmeyer 34). Generally, throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, new, modern ideas about marriage developed, for example the belief that “[f]amilies were to be built on the love between man and woman” (Camfield 15). This idea was new and opposed the prevailing concept of arranged marriage, it was “associated with individualism and the decline of familial authority” (Borneman 32). Young women and men were beginning to look for their own partner for life, looking for love and for happiness instead of being forced into a relationship that their parents had selected. This development was also represented in the literature of the time: “[e]ssentially, true love was shown to be inextricably linked with genuine respect. Both were necessary if a marriage was to have a chance of being happy and successful” (Rowbotham 46).

However, marriage was still the prevailing goal for women and girls. Not marrying was hardly an option. Auerbach even goes so far as to talk about the “alternatives of marriage or death” (9). Not to be a married woman meant not to be a woman at all. Independence could only be achieved by men, “ideological definitions equated independence with masculinity, . . . In order to be independent, women had to do the impossible – they had to be men.” (Tomasek 242). Tomasek also points out how this idea was picked up by Alcott in her novel: Jo, the only March sister striving for real independence, does so through being a tomboy, i.e. behaving in typically male ways and aspiring goals and concepts usually reserved for men (e.g. LW 12; ch. 1; 362; ch. 21). Sicherman explains that this was a common theme in the nineteenth century: “[b]eginning in the 1860s, tomboys were not only tolerated but even admired – up to a point, the point at which they were expected to become women.” (255). Sooner or later, girls had to grow up and loose their boyish ways, eventually they had to get married.

While writing the second book, Alcott herself felt society’s pressure for girls to marry, and she was appalled by it: “[g]irls write to ask who the little women marry, as if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life” (qtd. in Sicherman 251). Even though she herself was a fierce proponent of women deciding for themselves whether they wanted to marry or not, she eventually gave in and added the love stories for the girls, each one of them getting married expect early deceased Beth. Alcott tried to fight her publishers on the topic, being very upset that “my little women must grow up & be married off in a very stupid style” (qtd. In Cartemell and Simons 87), but as Sicherman (251) and Tomasek (255) observe, it is hard to imagine the books finding the same success and love among female readers of the nineteenth century without the marriage plot. She tried for a small compromise by having the girls marry for love and not for money or other material reasons, and by describing “the sisters’ marriages as complementary ones in which women and men share child-rearing duties” (Tomasek 255).

3 Marmee’s Lessons

Marmee is depicted as the model mother and wife who puts her family and their wishes and needs first. Her values and her need for a family become obvious when looking at the response she gave to Aunt March’s offer to adopt one of the girls after the family had lost all their money: “[w]e can’t give up our girls for a dozen fortunes. Rich or poor, we will keep together and be happy in one another” (LW 66; ch. 4). As a loving mother, Marmee tries to pass as much knowledge on to her daughters as she can to make sure that they will lead a happy life. Through her lessons, it becomes apparent that Marmee has been influenced by the social ideals of her day. Her highest goal is to turn her daughters into proper, happy, preferably married little women.

3.1 Lessons on Womanhood

When investigating Marmee, her teachings and her life, the first thing that comes to mind is how she and her husband obviously operate in traditional separate spheres: while Mr. March is away at war supporting the Army as a chaplain, Mrs. March takes care of the home and the four little girls in it, turning it into a perfect home and her daughters into perfect little women, i.e. girls aspiring to be perfect women and housewives one day, for her husband to come home to. While she “gave [her] best to the country [she] love[s]”, she should honor her husband and her country and “watch and work to keep his little daughters safe and good for him” (LW 140; ch. 8). And she does work really hard to make good girls out of her daughters, teaching them all the lessons that young girls need to know to become proper women in a society filled with rules on what it means to grow up female such as morality and self-sacrifice. Throughout the books it becomes clear that this is not only a matter of choice, that they should not only volunteer to become lovely little women, but that they indeed have to in order to survive. Fetterley stresses this point: “[i]f the covert messages of Little Women suggest that the acquisition of the little woman character is less a matter of virtue than of necessity, so do they suggest that woman’s acceptance of the domestic sphere as the best and happiest place may be less a matter of wise choice than of harsh necessity” (34).

Saxton calls the March family “a morally wakeful family, self-consciously engaged in turning out submissive, self-denying females” (xiii). She further explains, “Little Women provides a vision of the struggle to achieve ideal womanliness, with its rewards of moral satisfaction, cessation of interior discord, and the discovery of a species of Zen peace in self-sacrifice” (5). Fetterley names “unselfish devotion” as one of the main character traits of Marmee (29), who is “the model of self-effacing domesticity” (Tomasek 249). This theme of self-sacrifice can be found all throughout the novel. Compliant with society’s expectations, Marmee gives herself away to care for her children, she puts her own feelings and wishes last. Saxton even calls her “the mother everyone needs: selfless, available, with no life of her own beyond her family . . . who was learned to derive her satisfaction solely from the satisfactions of others. She has no conflicts or desires of her own” (4-5). Marmee passes these lessons on to her daughters, “including the lessons of submission, inferiority, repression, and self-deformation” (xiii). This, according to Marmee, “is required of a respectable woman” and is the key to happiness in life (Watanabe 701).


Excerpt out of 18 pages


Womanhood and Marriage in "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott
Marmee’s Lessons Put into Historical Context
University of Erfurt  (Anglistik und Amerikanistik)
19th Centruy Children's Classics
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women, Womanhood, Marriage, Marmee, Historical context
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2021, Womanhood and Marriage in "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/1126263


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