"Dishes and Dusters" and the Dangers of Domestic Femininity in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0000-0002-8254-3345
Tovig, Victoria, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Ogden, Emily, Department of English, University of Virginia

Something strange has happened in the past fifty years: despite Louisa May Alcott’s background as an abolitionist, suffragette, and spinster encouraging a view of a more liberal minded Alcott, the past half-century’s critical evaluation of her most well-known work, Little Women, demonstrates notable disunity on how to interpret the text. Following a feminist reevaluation of Little Women after the discovery of Alcott’s thriller novels in 1975 by Madeleine Stern, scholarship has primarily used Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer alongside Alcott’s biography as a lens to uncover a potentially subversive thread within Alcott’s treatment of marriage in Little Women. The critical focus on Jo, however, has come at the cost of critics being unable to come to a consensus on whether Alcott as an author, and her text, is conventional or subversive. This paper proposes that a closer examination of Jo’s sister, Beth, who dances around the periphery of a discussion focused on what Jo’s marriage means for nineteenth century models of womanhood, allows us to come to an answer. Looking at Beth’s embodiment of Barbara Welter’s Cult of True Womanhood in Little Women and how her obsessive following of the tenets of True Womanhood – piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity – lead to her death demonstrates that Beth and her death do not serve to usher Jo into the folds of True Womanhood, as typically viewed by scholars, but to offer a warning against domestic femininity. This paper argues that focusing on Beth reveals that although Beth may be Alcott’s most conventionally feminine character as the symbolic representation of the Cult of True Womanhood, Alcott’s treatment of Beth, and by proxy True Womanhood, is her most subversive act of all.

MA (Master of Arts)
Alcott, Little Women, True Womanhood, domestic femininity, Beth, Jo, Cult of True Womanhood, Louisa May Alcott
Issued Date: