WebQuest: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women

Overview: In this WebQuest, you will explore the links between Transcendentalism and the women’s movement. You’ll then learn about Louisa May Alcott, her famous novel, Little Women, and its little-known connection to the Transcendentalist movement and the women’s movement.

Step 1: Learn about the roles nineteenth-century American women were expected to play.
Begin by learning about the “sphere of woman”—the phrase used to describe women’s role in the nineteenth century. Then explore two other common terms: “the cult of domesticity” and the “true woman.” Learn about domestic manuals and advice literature for women. If you’re interested, delve into Godey’s Lady’s Book, one of the most popular publications for women in the nineteenth century. You might also find it interesting to explore the ways fashion became a battleground for women’s rights.

Step 2: Learn about the links between Transcendentalism and the nineteenth-century women's movement in the United States.
Visit Jone Johnston’s excellent site to learn about Transcendentalist Women. Of special importance was Margaret Fuller, the Transcendentalist writer/editor who began a series of “conversations” for women. Read a bit of Fuller’s 1940 book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century. Take a look at Bronson Alcott’s poem about Fuller—a reminder that Alcott, the father of the “Little Women,” supported the women’s rights movement. Additional resources on Fuller are also available.

Increasingly, due to these “conversations” and due also to their work with the abolitionist movement, some American women began to challenge prescribed gender roles. 

Consider the origins of the Women’s Rights Movement. Move on to an interactive history of the women’s movement. Learn about the Seneca Falls Convention (and the Women’s Rights National Historical Park). Look also at this overview of the Seneca Falls Convention (scroll down to the middle of the page to begin reading about the Seneca Falls event). Read “The Seneca Falls Declaration” (1848). Transcendentalist-influenced women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott were centrally involved in the Women’s Rights Movement.

You might also want to explore the Library of Congress online collection, “Votes for Women,” as well as the online collection of pictures. You also might find it useful to review this timeline of the movement to win suffrage for women. For those of you planning to be teachers, check out these lesson plans from the National Endowment for the Humanities: “Women’s Equality: Changing Attitudes and Beliefs”; “Voting Rights for Women: Pro- and Anti-Suffrage”; “Cultural Change”; and “Who Were the Foremothers of Women’s Equality?”

Step 3: Refresh your memory of Louisa May Alcott and her Transcendentalist family.

Louisa May Alcott was raised by Bronson and Abigail May Alcott in Concord as well as other Massachusetts communities. Their best-known home was Orchard House, located in Concord. Orchard House served as the model for the home in Little Women. Louisa May and her sisters was raised by their father and mother. Be sure to tour the rooms while you’re visiting Orchard House!

Step 4: Explore Little Women.
Read Little Women. You may read any unabridged edition of the novel – even this online edition if you prefer. You may find this chapter summary helpful as you’re reading.

Many parallels exist between the characters in Little Women and Louisa May Alcott’s real-life family. Her sister, Anna Alcott Pratt, served as the model for Meg. Elizabeth Sewall Alcott is echoed in the character Beth. And May Alcott Nieriker provided the inspiration for Amy. Louisa May, of course, was the Jo of the Alcott family!

Journal Prompts
As always, at least one of your journal entries this week must be tied to the WebQuest. Here are some possible starting points—but feel free to use your own ideas!

Journal Prompt #1: The Alcotts were devoted journal keepers. In fact, you might want to read a few snippets from Bronson Alcott’s journals. Alcott kept extensive journals about his own readings and observations and about his daughters’ intellectual, creative, and personal growth. He and his wife also encouraged their daughters to keep journals and often read their daughters’ journals as a way of developing a lively conversation with them. As you come across references to the Alcotts and their journals, you might reflect on these in your own writing!

Journal Prompt #2: Much critical controversy has centered on whether Little Women reinforces gender stereotypes or rejects them in favor of a feminist approach. Scholar Ann B. Murphy sums up the debate this way: “Is Little Women adolescent, sentimental, and repressive, an instrument for teaching girls how to become ‘little,’ domesticated, and silent? Is the novel subversive, matriarchal, and implicitly revolutionary, fostering discontent with the very model of female domesticity it purports to admire?” Here are some examples of the wide range of views scholars have taken on this issue:

Madeleine Stern: Alcott “advanced her feminist convictions and feminist characters.”

Susan Naomi Bernstein: Alcott “was vitally interested in the feminist questions of her day, including the question of how a woman might create a literary career in her own right, given the many restrictions that patriarchy placed on women’s lives. . . . [W]riting becomes a way of escaping the strictures of the role of ‘little woman’ in mid-nineteenth-century American society, a way of learning to become quietly free.”

Sarah Elbert: Alcott’s domestic novels (the first of which is Little Women) taken together “comprise a fictional record of liberal feminist ideology, process, and programs from 1867 through 1886 in America.”

Carolyn Heilbrun: Jo March is “the single female model continuously available after 1868 to girls dreaming beyond the confines of a constricted family destiny to the possibility of autonomy and experience initiated by one’s self.”

Patricia Spacks: Little Women underscores “repressive lessons in female docility, passivity, and silence” and its “glorification of altruism as feminine activity . . . reaches extraordinary heights.”

Nina Auerbach: The novel’s “portrayal of female materiality and self-sufficiency subverts ideals of domesticated womanhood . . . , and the matriarch, Mrs. March, allows her daughters ‘the freedom to remain children and, for a woman, the more precious freedom not to fall in love.’”

In your journal entry, you should take a stand on this question. Defend your position with at least one specific example from Little Women.

Journal Prompt #3: Does Alcott uphold her father’s Transcendentalism – or critique (maybe even reject) it? Defend your position with at least one specific example from Little Women.

Essay Question (if you choose to write about Alcott for your March 27 essay)
Using the work of Emerson, Fuller, OR Bronson Alcott as your departure point, argue that Little Women can be seen as developing and expanding this line of Transcendentalist thinking or critiquing (perhaps rejecting) this line of Transcendentalist thinking. To make your case, you may use any of the research tools included in any of the WebQuests this semester. As always, be sure to include resources from the WebQuest. See the Essay Guidelines for more detail about research, sources, length requirements, and documentation.

“American Transcendentalism: An Online Travel Guide” was produced by students in ENGL 446, American Transcendentalism, and ENGL 447, American Literature and the Prominence of Place: A Travel Practicum. These courses were team-taught in the Department of English at Shepherd College (now Shepherd University), Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in Spring 2002 by Dr. Patricia Dwyer and Dr. Linda Tate. For more information on the course and the web project, visit “About This Site.” © 2003 Linda Tate.