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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Makes a Woman Strong?

“I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy. And it’s worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa” (Alcott 11).

Jo thinks she has to be like a boy to be strong. She deliberately chooses a boyish nickname and calls herself the “man of the family” (12). She plays mostly male parts in the March girls’ amateur plays. It is easy to see why she rebels against the Victorian feminine stereotype when she wants to be an active, intelligent girl. At the other extreme, Meg is essentially passive and seems determined to fit into that “proper” stereotype. She is constantly reminding Jo to “remember that you are a young lady” (11), by which she means, 'act primly and take care not to muss your dress.' Neither sister has yet realized that they have an example right in front of them that proves women do not have to choose between strength and femininity. Marmee has both qualities in abundance. She is the rock of the family and of the whole neighborhood. Her wisdom is sought by all. She exercises medical knowledge, philanthropy, and economic management. She promotes the secular and moral education of her daughters. As one critic says, “in Little Women’s Marmee, Alcott creates a fictional portrait of her own mother as an artful teacher worthy of Jo’s imaginative emulation—not as a housebound mother but as a teacher who cares about girls’ learning” (Laird 285). Moreover, Marmee accomplishes much of this on her own, at least while her husband is at war. She knows that a woman does not need to be a soldier to be “in the action.” She sees that “action” is everywhere, and that every act of service, great and small, makes a difference in the world. She understands that teaching her children good values is just as valuable as picking up a musket to protect those same values. Marmee’s quiet influence spreads out in ripples, first affecting her girls, then the Laurences, the Hummels, etc., and will continue to spread out as her daughters begin to spread their influence. Marmee exudes generosity with a “pay it forward” attitude, which all four of her daughters begin to emulate.

A strong woman chooses her own future. Critic Ann Douglas claims that “choice governs its (Little Women’s) creation and theme” (55). The choices the four sisters make reflect their values and personalities. The same applies to young women nowadays. Her life choices might include a writing career like Jo’s, or a domestic life like Meg’s. It might include both, or anything else she sets her sights on. A strong woman evaluates herself and the world and creates the place she wants in it. Marmee tells her girls she wants them to “lead useful, pleasant lives” (98), but she also wants them to be happy. It’s not necessarily important what a woman does, but who she is, and whether or not she is true to herself.

Works Cited
Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Ann Arbor Media Group, 2009.
Douglas, Ann. “Introduction to Little Women.” Little Women And The Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays. New York: Garland, 1999. p. 43
Laird, Susan. “Learning from Marmee’s Teaching: Alcott’s Response to Girls’ Miseducation.” Little Women And The Feminist Imagination: Criticism, Controversy, Personal Essays. New York: Garland, 1999. p. 285.


  1. I like your point about Marmee being an "example" of both "strength and feminity" to her daughters. However, I wonder if Marmee would have been this "rock" for those around her if her husband had not been off fighting in the Civil War. Is Marmee forced to take a greater position of influence and power because of the absence of the male head of the family or would she still be a woman that others could turn to and depend on regardless of whether the "man of the house" was at home? Do you think Alcott believes women's strength is only necessary when the men aren't present or would she believe that women should be given equal opportunities for power and influence regardless of whether or not a male is in the picture?

  2. I agree with you that it does not matter so much what we decide to do with our lives, but what type of a person he or she chooses to become. And I think you are spot on that our choices have a huge impact on deciding who it is that we will become.

  3. I think this is one of the beauties of this novel, women can be strong and independent. I don't know if she was intending to prove that women are equal to men, but Alcott did show how you can still be feminine and still powerful and strong.