My final research paper in college. So fascinated by the topic, I wrote all ten pages in Barnes & Noble in a few hours... read on to see!

In the early eighteen hundreds, most Americans agreed with the view that the woman was a domestic and subordinate figure. However, throughout the 1800s, this idea was challenged by figures such as Sarah Grimke and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the Seneca Falls Convention. To observe the development of gender roles during the nineteenth century, we can turn to female literature, in particular the writings of famous women’s rights proponents, advocates, and the roles portrayed in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868).

Before the first wave of feminism, which began around 1848 with the Seneca Falls Convention, the role of a woman was based around a Christian idea of subordination to her husband and head of the household economy. For most of the 19th century, the American economy was heavily centered on a rural household, such as a large plantation or smaller farm. Within the household, there were elements of production and consumption, and private affairs and child-rearing were often handled by the wife. According to Catharine Beecher, an activist and educator in the mid-1800s, the women’s role was private life, family, persuasion, and service. She notably wrote that “heaven has appointed to one sex the superior, and to the other the subordinate station, and this without any reference to the character or conduct of either.” The basis for Beecher’s argument was that in the Bible, when God calls women to be subordinate to her husband, he is establishing her role in society. While men may engage in politics, public life, and so on, women must play their role subtly, if at all, through persuasion, education of the youth, and domestic affairs, and this view prevailed up until the mid-1800s. 

Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us.

Judith Sargent Murray, author

While the feminist movement may have officially began at the Women’s Rights Convention in 1848, we can trace the writings of activists back to the mid- to late- eighteenth century. The goals that traditionally characterized First-Wave Feminism focused on opening up opportunities for women, especially women’s suffrage, and this movement was often interrelated with themes of temperance, education, and abolitionism. Early writings from authors such as Judith Sargent Murray reveal the argument that women are of the same intelligence, dignity, and on equal terms with men. They are merely disadvantaged by social structures and roles placed on the gender. Murray argued,“Yes, ye lordly, ye haughty sex, our souls are by nature equal to yours; the same breath of God animates, enlivens, and invigorates us.” Women, in their souls, are equal to men, but their circumstances and society have confined them to an inferior role. In 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote the notable book A Vindication of the Rights of Women published in Britain, in which she challenges men as well as her fellow women saying that women “ought to cherish a nobler ambition” than mere love and “by their abilities and virtues exact respect.” This new concept of the women as a “rational creature” instead of merely an ornament to be flattered was received negatively by the contemporaries of Wollstonecraft’s writing, but the concepts from her book later provided the basis for female activists in America. 

Sarah Grimke & the Seneca Falls Convention

One such writer was Sarah Grimke, a wealthy Quaker who wrote her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes in 1838 in response to the ideas of Catharine Beecher and others who advocated that God has ordained women the subordinate sex. She argued that Beecher’s arguments for female inferiority were based in a “perverted interpretation of Holy Writ.” Instead, wGod made the sexes equal and women are merely deprived of the necessary respect, education, and upbringing to prepare them to compete in a male-dominated world. She believed “that if women felt their responsibility, for the support of themselves, or their families, it would add strength and dignity to their characters.” Gender roles were beginning to change, and the language of Grimke’s writing came to fruition in the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, where about three hundred men and women rallied for equality for women.

On June 11, 1859, the New York-based newspaper Harper's Weekly published a wood engraving mocking the annual conventions, with men in both galleries heckling and interrupting the woman at the dais. (Courtesy of Library of Congress)

In the Seneca Falls Convention, Elizabeth Cady Stanton released the “Declaration of Sentiments” to outline the demands of the first wave of feminism. The Declaration continues Grimke’s line of argumentation, stating that man has “usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for [woman] a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.” This argument assumes that God’s use of the term “subordinate” to refer to women does not make her lesser in dignity. Instead, women and men have equal roles in society and ought to be honored with the same civil rights. In particular, the “Declaration of Sentiments” focused on the woman’s right to govern herself in marriage, enter into college, participate in the workforce, and vote. However, it was not until August 1920 that the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was finally ratified, granting women the right to vote.

In the years between the Seneca Falls Convention and the ratification of the 19th Amendment, the role of women changed drastically in society. Many women rebelled against traditional gender roles, such as the women as a domestic entity or her husband’s property. This is evident in the writing of Louisa May Alcott, an American novelist who authored her most famous book, Little Women, in 1868. With her father incapable of providing for their family, Alcott turned to teaching, working as a nurse, and eventually writing to provide, and her stories preserved these trials in her depictions of women as self-reliant, strong, and sacrificial. In the March family, Marmee and Meg embody the traditional idea of the women whose loftiest aspiration is marriage and family life. In Jo, Alcott describes the working woman who seeks something outside of home life and equality with men as something to be achieved. In Beth, Alcott shows the compassionate and delicate woman. And finally, Amy embodies European Romanticism tempered by practicality.

Femininity in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

In the characters of Marmee and her eldest daughter, Meg, Alcott describes traditional femininity, characterized by their motherly tendencies, practicality, and desire for marriage above all else. When Meg wishes to marry a poor man, John Brooke, Marmee admits that she would not mind her daughters marrying a wealthy man in order to keep them “free from debt and make Meg comfortable,” but her priorities lie in a “plain little house,” “daily bread,” and “rich in the possession of a good man’s heart.” Marmee’s sole role in the book is to prepare, educate, protect, and raise her daughters. When Jo expresses frustration over her emotions, Marmee is the first to tell her that the interior battle is the one of priority. Just as Catharine Beecher writes that “Woman is to win every thing by peace and loved,” Marmee impresses the duty of developing one’s virtue to her daughters. On Christmas Day early on in the book, she gifts each of her daughters a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress as a reminder to educate their hearts of virtue before all else, telling them “our burdens are here, our road is before us,” pointing out that they must first direct themselves and their household over public matters. Catharine Beecher, an educator herself, would have advocated similarly, for a woman to use her subtle skills, gentle persuasion, and ladylike countenance to raise up and educate the youth. 

Marmee summarizes her goals for her daughters when asked by the eldest, Meg, if she has any plans for them:

I want my daughters to be beautiful, accomplished, and good. To be admired, loved, and respected. To have a happy youth, to be well and wisely married, and to lead useful, pleasant lives, with as little care and sorrow to try them as God sees fit to send. To be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman, and I sincerely hope my girls may know this beautiful experience. It is natural to think of it, Meg, right to hope and wait for it, and wise to prepare for it,

Marmee (Alcott, Little Women, 9.103).

This quote portrays the traditional role of the woman in society, as Beecher says, not less important, but different from the man’s role. Marmee’s goals and aspirations for her daughters, while somewhat extended beyond Beecher’s homemaker view in her call to be “accomplished,” are most related to the idea of the woman as the subordinate. She attests that “to be loved and chosen by a good man is the best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman” and she calls Meg to prepare for the “duties” of being a wife. Beecher and most Americans during the early nineteenth century would have agreed with Marmee’s view of the role, obligation, and opportunities of women being based around marriage and family life.

Similarly, Meg mimics her mother’s view as the eldest daughter. This is not atypical of a family dynamic, with the eldest of daughters often taking on the role of a second mother, and Meg is no exception. When the daughters are given their copies of Pilgrim’s Progress, Meg is the first to say that she will daily devote herself to the book. Meg continues to seek personal improvement throughout the book, despite falling into the pitfalls of vanity when confronted with the dazzling beauty of wealth. Perhaps the most typical figure of women in Alcott’s novel, Meg’s weakness is vanity and want of material things. Her character overcomes this particular insecurity in the end by marrying for romance over wealth; however, it remains her burden throughout the book. This is expressed very evidently in the film adaptation of Little Women from 2019, when Meg’s character exhorts a hysterical Jo, “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant. I want a home and a family and I’m willing to work and struggle, but I want to do it with John.” This recent adaptation of the book emphasizes Meg’s talent as an actress which Alcott touches on in Meg playing major roles in Jo’s works, but this also highlights Meg’s willingness to give up her dreams for becoming a wife, as the “best and sweetest thing which can happen to a woman.”

While Meg and Marmee may epitomize the traditional view of the woman, Alcott herself did not live a traditional life and perhaps could most relate to the character of Josephine, or Jo, who has aspirations outside of a family or home. Jo is described early on in the book as having a “decided mouth, a comical nose, and sharp, gray eyes which appeared to see everything, and were by turns fierce, funny, or thoughtful.” Her hair was “often bundled” and while in the book it does not mention her wearing bloomers or trousers, in many film adaptations of Little Women, Jo’s character is the only one to sport such a uniform. In the 2019 adaptation of the book, the costume designers took pains to reveal Jo’s lack of aspirations toward marriage and traditional femininity in her clothing. While this was “breaking the rules” of the time as the costume designer for the film notes, it was not entirely out of place. 

Emma Specter, “Dressing Little Women: Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran on Color, Character, and Breaking the Rules,” Vogue, December 25, 2019,

An illustration circa 1855 of a group of drunk female police officers wearing "bloomers" ignoring a street fight nearby (Hulton Archive / Getty)

Emma Specter, “Dressing Little Women: Costume Designer Jacqueline Durran on Color, Character, and Breaking the Rules,” Vogue, December 25, 2019,

During the same time as Alcott’s writing, or slightly after, there was a push for “freedom dress” or pants for women. In fact, Elizabeth Cady Stanton herself wore pants, or bloomers as they were known, at the Seneca Falls Convention, causing quite a stir for a while and encouraging many women to adopt the bloomers as a representation of the women’s rights movement. However, soon “bloomerism” became associated not just with women’s rights, but also with many deviant behaviors such as smoking, gambling, serving in the military, and abandoning family life, and due to this negative connotation female figures in the women’s rights movement moved away from wearing “freedom dress.”

However, modern films use this freedom dress for figures such as Jo March, who although not a radical feminist, was an early example that a woman could be a working member of society. As Jo states in the 2019 film, “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.” While this particular quote may be slightly tinted by a twenty-first century motif, it also envelops some of the themes of Jo’s character in the original book Little Women. Jo March directly contradicts the character of Meg in saying, when Laurie proposes to her, “I don’t believe I shall ever marry. I’m happy as I am, and love my liberty too well to be in any hurry to give it up for any mortal man.” Jo has no aspiration to settle down, but instead she seeks to write and make her fortune herself. This is evident also when Jo funds Marmee’s trip to visit their father by selling her own hair rather than winning the money by persuading Aunt March. by “peace and love” by asking Aunt March. In scorning the idea of a woman’s hair as their one true beauty, as Amy puts it, Jo reinforces that she is a figure contradicting traditional femininity and providing for her family through self-sacrifice as a man would. While Jo eventually does settle down and get married at the end of the book, she always maintains the figure of a working woman, defying the norms, for she meets her love while writing and teaching in New York and then in the end, directs a boy’s school instead of running a household economy, saying “I have never been so jolly in my life” surrounded by the youth in her school for boys. This shows that happiness for a woman is not merely found in devotion to family life and household obligations but can be obtained through work and personal success.

“Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.”
  • Jo March

An engraving of four women wearing different types of bloomers, c. 1850. (Photo: Kean Collection/Getty Images)

Beth is a meek character throughout the book, and her role in the story of womanhood has been contested. Beth is content, evident in the opening lines of the book where each girl expresses their wants for Christmas: “We’ve got Father and Mother and each other,” she says quietly. Early on, Beth asks if Jo is a tomboy and Amy a goose, what am I? To which Meg responds, “You’re a dear and nothing else” to which Alcott describes Beth as a “mouse” and the “pet of the family.” Readers might equate Beth’s character to the perfect standard, for she only complains of measly things such as resentment over cleaning the house. Perhaps this is why Beth’s character must die at the end of the book, she is the perfect standard for woman which has come to an end in society. She cannot stand up to the trials of life. At the beach with Jo, she points out that she has never thought of being married or a life of ambition and has always anticipated dying early. Instead of presenting a gender role herself apart from a woman of virtue, Beth provides insight into other characters, describing Jo as a gull, strong and wild, Amy as the lark, trying to raise up to the clouds, and Meg as the turtledove, in love. She reveals the standard of the virtuous woman and the feminine talent of contentment, insight, and compassion.

Beth describes Amy as the lark, always “trying to get up among the clouds, but always dropping down into its nest again.” Amy’s character is romantic, the woman with no responsibility, perhaps due to her role as a youngest child, seeking wealth and success through old European ideas of art and music. Most famously, Amy expresses her goals in life by claiming, upon visiting Europe and being faced by the beauty there, that “talent isn’t genius, and no amount of energy can make it so. I want to be great, or nothing. I won’t be a common-place dauber, so I don’t intend to try anymore.” As such, Amy states that she is content to polish up her talents and be an ornament to society, marry someone wealthy so she does not have to work, and live in luxury. Amy’s goals are not to be mocked, for they remain as ambitious and practical as Jo’s, while maintaining the air of her mother in pursuing the subtle influence of a woman over the direct ambition in the fashion of a man. 

Amy provides an example of the nineteenth century trend of American women marrying into aristocratic European families in order to garner success. This is relevant to nineteenth century gender roles because it goes back to the idea of the woman using her subtle influence over her public influence in order to succeed in life. Beecher describes that a woman may be influential, but her persuasion is “different and peculiar” to a man’s; she should seek to make herself “respected, esteemed and loved that to yield to her opinions and to gratify her wishes will be the free−will offering of the heart.” In a way, this idea of subtle persuasion reinforces traditional views of womanhood while also featuring a tint more of ambition. Many American families idealized European culture as the pinnacle of success, much as both Amy and Jo do when they regard traveling to Europe with Aunt March with utmost excitement. As the character who has the loftiest aspirations, it makes sense that Amy would view developing her talents in Europe as the foundation for her success, and her final marriage to childhood friend Laurie is one of both love and practicality due to his wealth. In the end of the book, she, like the others, realizes the blessings and hardships of family as well as the obligation, saying “my castle is very different from what I had planned . . . like Jo I do not relinquish all my artistic hopes” but she admits that her child is her greatest achievement. Amy brings a unique, old-world idea of the woman as a romantic figure, both accomplished in virtue and the arts but also committed to family life. She is more of a balance of the characteristics of Jo and Meg and experiences the most character development throughout the novel.

my castle is very different from what I had planned . . . like Jo I do not relinquish all my artistic hopes

Amy March (Alcott, Little Women, 47.497)


Altogether, the little women of Alcott’s story reveal Beecher’s ideas of the Christian homemaker and Grimke’s concepts of the working woman. Marmee and Meg aspire to manage a family and raise up children; Jo seeks to be a working woman, revealed through both her written and spoken words and appearance; Beth helps the reader understand the goals of each character and face the fact that each will experience hardship; and Amy reveals the practical woman who seeks both a life of her own but also realizes that she must rely on marriage. In the end, Meg describes herself as the happiest of women, Jo directs her own school for boys, and Amy graduates from little scribblings to marble. Each little woman has grown throughout the story and in a way has provided for themselves through some facet of the feminine imagination or talent, whether that be traditional or otherwise. Alcott’s Little Women expresses the nineteenth century changing gender roles in truly and thoroughly revealing all the different ways that a woman might establish herself in life.