Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, published in 1868, is a domestic drama loosely based on Alcott's childhood. It follows the lives of the four March girls -Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth- and their transition from childhood into womanhood. This transition is not easy because the girls face many ob-stacles along the way which requires them to make socially accepted decisions. Alcott uses these ob-stacles to question nineteenth century constructions of womanhood. She creates a controlled female centred environment where the girls can express their desires freely; thus, providing women with the opportunity to see beyond their socially prescribed gender roles. Throughout the novel, Alcott sub-verts the nineteenth century traditional ideologies concerning women by either attributing male char-acteristics to her female characters, or by having the female characters question femininity. Although it seems as though she is reinforcing this image of the ‘ideal woman', to an extent, by having the four March girls conform to social expectations of femininity; this reinforcement of prevailing ideas is be-cause Alcott was writing during a time that required her to produce moralising tales, and meet her readers and publisher's demands; yet, the subversions suggest her resistance to nineteenth century perceptions of femininity. For the purpose of this essay, I will only be focusing on the subversions that Alcott presents to her readers. This essay will begin with an overview of femininity in the nine-teenth century, followed by an examination of how Alcott, through the March sisters, subverts the tra-ditional views of femininity during the nineteenth century.
Little Women was published after the American Civil War, a tragic war that left the popula-tion feeling chaotic and disorientated. During the war, women were required to work to provide for the family, and to drive the economy. As a result, women experienced a sense of independency, which to an extent, had women questioning their domestic roles and the prevailing ideas about femininity. During the 19th century, a true culture of domesticity and womanhood had developed which central-ised the notion of a woman's role in the family - a sister, mother, daughter and wife - as a guardian of moral purity (Welter, 1966), and outlined the acceptable ways of conduct for women which consisted of "four aspects: piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity" (Gheorghiu, 2015, p.37). The combi-nation of these attributes "provided the promise of happiness and power to the Victorian woman, and without these no woman's life could have real meaning" (Brannon, 2002, p.161). Each of these vir-tues were perceived as innate to women and were supported by religion. Throughout this period, women were expected to marry and to have children (Wayne, 2007). Women who did not conform to these social expectations "represented both a challenge and a threat to prevailing [ideas] of gender at home and abroad" (Introduction, 2007, p.363). Alcott's novel acts as a platform to explore the prevail-ing ideas of femininity and domesticity. She questions the culture of womanhood and domesticity that emerged, and the notion that women must marry in order to find happiness.