Friday, 30 March 2018

Little Women as a piece of feminist literature for young girls

Hello there, lovely readers! I hope that March so far has been kind to you (can’t quite believe it is over!)
Over here in Belgium, it’s been very much up and down, snow and spring weather alternating and making it impossible to feel settled in the season, leading most of us to stay inside and grumble away under our blankets. The flowers are slowly starting to blossom, but our moods haven’t yet caught on, I feel.

However, today’s post is not about the weather or about the month March at all, and instead, I would invite you to join me on a little trip to an entirely different kind of March. That is, the March family, from the literary classic “Little Women”, a childhood favourite of many a woman.

Recently I’ve decided to pick it back up in a bout of nostalgia, and since this re-read had such a great impact on me, I suggested the idea of a blog post to Belle, who was very excited about the whole idea; so here I am. For those unfamiliar with the book (or series of books), Little Women was written by Louisa May Alcott, and published in 1869. It follows the childhood and growth into adulthood from four sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy), and their little pilgrimage into becoming well-rounded adult women. 

Little Women has often been compared to having the same importance and influence for girls as Huckleberry Finn for boys, and it’s been a popular novel since its publishing date, all the way to our current time.

Now when I read this, I was instantly intrigued.

  • What is it about this novel, that girls are able to relate to the characters even 150 years later?
  • Why are girls voluntarily reaching out to this book - some grabbing it from mother’s shelves, some finding it in the library, some being gifted it
  • Devouring it the same week
  • What does this tell us about girls and literature? 

A lot of big questions, that I would love to hear your opinions about if you’d like to share them in comments.

It was with these questions that I took up the book and started reading. What I instantly noticed, was the lack of men in the first part of the book. The father was off to fight, there were no brothers or male family members around, and it was just their little core family with their house help, Hannah, that we meet at the start of the story. There’s the offhand mention of male characters, but it’s never a focus of the plot until the neighbour’s grandson Laurie comes into play. And even then, he’s brought in the book with the little wink of him being “an honorary member of their little (women’s) club.” I think we can already find part of an answer to one of the questions, being that the story starts with only women.

As a girl, it’s so lovely to be able to sit back and read about all these characters that you can relate to, without them having to stand up against the male characters. Another thing is that the gender roles of the girls are often questioned and lamented about. Variations of “what I would give to be a boy and be able to run free like that!” are strewn about the book, and offer little chuckle-worthy moments because these thoughts are recognisable even now, for many girls still do feel the limitations of their gender from a young age.Of course, the story is still quite moralising, there are plenty of “young women should…” or “is supposed to”, and I don’t think we can glance over this because it’s an important part of her book. 

However, I do think Louisa has cleverly taken established gender roles, and written her characters thinking and discussing them, not just fitting themselves into the box that society has made for them. I think she would have had to, to make this book an appropriate read for young women at that time. No proper all-American father is going to want his proper little all-American daughter to read about rebellious girls destroying the system!

But in between the lines of proper ladyhood, are girls reading and educating themselves, even when they didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, girls are writing and creating, travelling, learning about the world as well as about people, house and home. Rereading it as an adult woman, I think a lot of the original charm is gone, because we have all experienced gender roles and the damage they can do, and to have them portrayed as wholesome and good, is just very, very exhausting. For young girls, however, the opportunity and hope that jumps off every other sentence, the reassurance that women are capable, skilled, worthy of loving and being loved, can lay a foundation of self-love that allows them to look with a critical eye at the world around them.

“If girls back then didn’t just have to submit to these ideas, why would we?

 Of course, Little Women has chunks of it that are quite outdated, etiquette and formalities that are so foreign to this day and age, and we can’t forget the intense presence of religion in daily life that is sometimes a bit hard to swallow. But it is a gentle way of introducing critical thinking into young minds and combined with a conversation about the story and the topics, I think it doesn’t only make for a soft and pleasant read, but also for a good educational piece of literature. I am at the same time amazed and a bit disappointed that a book from 1869 has a more critical approach to womanhood than a lot of contemporary (popular!) literature. I am definitely pleased that I got around to re-reading it because it offered me a great insight in why this book shaped me so much as a young girl, all the way to the adult I am now.

 Also, we can’t deny that Jo March is a lesbian.

 I’m not even going further into this because it’s just a fact.


Frédérique James is a Japanologist from Belgium who focuses on cultural studies, as well as LGBT life in Japan.
She loves that good vegan food, getting lost, photography, yoga, and learning too many languages at once.

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