Breaking down the ‘Cult of Domesticity’ for women

Little Women By Louisa May Alcott Review

The female characters in Little Women also portray the enlightenment of Western women in the late 19th century.

The female characters in Little Women also portray the enlightenment of Western women in the late 19th century.

 During the 19th century women had a very specific role in society.

Women’s God-given role was to be the “keeper of the household and guardian of the moral purity of all who lived therein” (Hartman, 1). They generally stayed home and cooked, cleaned, sewed, and took care of their children. This was referred to as the “Cult of Domesticity.”

Author and feminist Louisa May Alcott was opposed to such societal ideals. She provides her commentary on what the societal standard of female behavior should look like through the variety of female characters. In contrast to other women novels from the time period, the characters in Little Women are educated, savvy and respected.

Alcott’s perception of what female behavior should’ve also been accepted is portrayed through the character Jo; Jo is also representative of Alcott herself. Jo March is independent, rebellious, sharp and valiant. She defies the set ideology of a woman during that time period through her tomboyish mannerisms, “Jo played male parts to her heart’s content and took immense satisfaction in a pair of russet leather boots given her by a friend” (Alcott 52).

These traits were included not to make Jo an outcast, but to signify her humanity. Jo is used to suggest that there’s truly no right or wrong way to behave as a woman. 

In addition to using Jo’s character to challenge societal norms, Alcott emphasizes female independence by implementing the lack of a father figure in the March family in part one of the novel, “We haven’t got father, and shall not have him for a long time.” (Alcott 2). During the 19th century it was uncommon for women to live comfortably without a man present to provide for them. Once again Alcott challenges this norm by removing the father from the equation and proving that the women still thrive in his absence. This opens the conversation that women were more than capable of enjoying the world outside of their homes. Alcott wanted to convey that women are just as or even more creative, intelligent, hardworking, and valued as men.

The female characters in Little Women also portray the enlightenment of western women in the late 19th century. During the Civil War women stayed home with their children while their husbands fought in the war. Being independent allowed some women to seek out their full potential as human beings and recognize their personal aspirations, virtues, thoughts, and capabilities. In this period of time many women began to further develop themselves into artists, writers, and teachers which Alcott includes in Little Women. Meg is a teacher, Jo is a writer, Beth is a pianist and Amy is an artist. This is Alcott’s way of advocating for women to fulfill their potential, and to avoid restricting themselves from progressing as humans because society says so. 

     Additionally, Alcott displays the reality of the ambitions of women. While Jo successfully published her novel and carries out her dream as a writer after several setbacks, someone like Meg is stuck making a decision between living luxuriously and love, and Amy eventually has to abandon painting, “What could be harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own hopes, plans, and desires, and cheerfully live for others?” (Alcott 1404). All of the March sisters have to sacrifice some aspect of their ambitions for the benefit of the family. In a male dominant society, women’s ambitions were often overlooked or labeled improbable; their duty to their family was considered top priority regardless of if they agreed. Accomplishing notable goals as a woman required much more dedication and intrepidity because the odds were stacked against their success. Alcott such raging inequality and the stereotypes society normalized. 

     Ultimately, the role of the women in Little Women is to accentuate the reality of womanhood in a time period where society pushed the narrative that women were no more than a “Cult of Domesticity”.  Alcott voices her personal experiences through the character Jo March. In doing so she highlights female independence, divergence from societal norms, and women’s struggle between family duty and personal growth. It’s the courageous writers like Louisa May Alcott who paved the way for feminists today.