Case Study

Girlhood and Little Women

I teach an undergraduate American Studies course on "Children's Literature and American Culture," which uses children's literature as a lens for examining the history of childhood (and American cultural history more generally). I use the Norton Critical Edition of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868-69), edited by Anne K. Phillips and Gregory Eiselein (2004) as the core text in a three-week unit on girlhood in the late 19th century.

Scholars often label the period between 1865 and 1920 the "Golden Age" of Anglo-American children's literature, as this is the period when many of the classics were written and published, including Alice in Wonderland (1865), Ragged Dick (1868), Tom Sawyer (1876), Treasure Island (1884), Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903), The Secret Garden (1911) to name just a few. This "golden age" came about because of changes in American childhood that produced the impetus to create and the market to consume books written primarily with the aim of entertaining children.

Why I Taught the Source

Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy stands at the threshold of changing notions about childhood (and consequent changes in children's literature), between the more didactic literature from earlier in the century that aimed to mold a moral, rational child, and the more purely amusing literature written decades later. The enormously popular and enduring book, focusing on four sisters in a middle-class New England family that has fallen into hard times financially, gives particular insight into the changing position of girls and women in American society. Moreover, the wealth of detail in the book reveals a great deal about the quotidian dimensions of children's daily lives in the late 19th century, from what they read, ate, wore, and played to their schooling, chores, and dating rituals. Finally, the moralizing dimensions of the book make explicit a set of ethical and moral assumptions that guided young people at this time in their thinking about class, gender, nationality, friendship, marriage, parenthood, and a range of other issues.

Little Women, or Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy was originally published in two volumes by Roberts Brothers: the first volume was published in 1868, the second in 1869. The two volumes were published as a set in 1870; this edition was republished several times over the next decade. A set of revisions between 1880 and 1881 resulted in what became known as the "regular edition," which was reprinted countless times. In the last several years, the original 1868-1869 work has received new critical attention, and it is this edition that is reprinted as the Norton Critical Edition.

The Norton Critical Edition of Little Women contains a wealth of materials that enhance one's ability to teach Little Women as both a literary and a historical document. Not only does the edition include biographical information, writings by Alcott, reviews of the book from the time, and recent literary criticism, it also reprints several earlier works that are key to understanding the form and content of Little Women, including relevant chapters from a 19th-century American edition of Pilgrim's Progress and Maria Edgeworth's short story, "The Purple Jar" (1801). The former is an excellent example of a religious and highly moralistic—yet exciting—text read by children from the Puritan era into the 19th century; the latter, read alongside material on the literary and historical context of the early 19th century, aptly represents a didactic tradition that emphasized moral lessons, yet portrayed children as capable of making and accepting responsibility for their own decisions.

How I Introduce the Source

These earlier literary works lay essential groundwork for a discussion of Little Women: Alcott uses Pilgrim's Progress as a central structuring and metaphorical device in her novel (chapter titles include "Burdens," "Beth finds the Palace Beautiful," "Amy's Valley of Humiliation," "Jo Meets Apollyon," and "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair") so that a reading of relevant chapters in Bunyan's tale greatly enhances students' understanding of Little Women. Alcott draws on the metaphors employed in Pilgrim's Progress to communicate moral lessons, but one can also find explicit and implicit debt to Edgeworth, whose work the girls' mother, Marmee, reads aloud to them after a particularly trying day. The central tension in Little Women is Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth's struggle to be good amidst all the temptations of vanity, self-indulgence, materialism, laziness, gluttony, selfishness, ambition, and, in Jo's case, willfulness. From Edgeworth Alcott seems to have borrowed the practice of teaching children moral lessons through example. Several vivid chapters in the book illustrate this, such as a the hilarious "Amy's Valley of Humiliation," in which Amy gets caught in school with pickled limes and must bear the humiliation of her punishment, and "Meg Goes to Vanity Fair," in which Meg attends a much anticipated society soiree and returns home feeling an uncomfortable combination of exhilaration and shame: shame about letting herself get so dolled up that she was unrecognizable, and about vicious gossip she overheard. In this instance, just in case Meg hasn't learned the lesson herself, Marmee, with quiet scorn, remarks upon that class of "worldly [but] ill-bred" people, "full of those vulgar ideas about young people" (83).

A chapter from Anne Scott MacLeod's American Childhood: Essays on Children's Literature of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (Georgia 1994) on "American Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century: Caddie Woodlawn's Sisters," provides an extremely useful framework for thinking about Little Women. Using examples from several 19th-century stories with girl protagonists, MacLeod suggests that this literature (including Little Women) reveals, on the one hand, the relative freedom afforded young girls and their involvement in rough and tumble outdoor pursuits, and, on the other hand, that this freedom ended rather abruptly as girls reached womanhood and were expected not only to get married, but also to assume a "womanly" demeanor and a range of household duties. These themes are echoed in Steve Mintz's Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Belknap 2005): chapters on "Inventing the Middle-Class Child" and "Children Under the Magnifying Glass" likewise work well with Little Women, offering useful background on childhood during this era. Such themes as expressed by MacLeod and Mintz clearly play out in Alcott's autobiographical Little Women, which betrays nostalgia for the girls' relative freedom and their grand aspirations for the future, in contrast with the rather settled lives they will lead as women.

Reading the Source

Teaching Little Women, I start with background on the period and on Alcott, and then we move into a discussion of the book, reading, along with the text itself, relevant chapters in Mintz and MacLeod, as well as literary criticism included in the Norton Critical Edition.

We spend three weeks studying Little Women and related texts and approaches, with the book serving as the central case study in a more general discussion of childhood and the "Golden Age of Children's Literature." Earlier in the course, students read excepts from Pilgrim's Progress and Maria Edgeworth's "The Purple Jar" as part of their study of Puritan-era and early republican children's literature. This also prepares them to follow allusions to these sources as they come up in Little Women.

In the first class period of the "Golden Age" unit (my class meets twice a week, for 75 minutes each class period), we discuss the relevant historical, literary, and biographical backgrounds to the book, with students reading Anne Scott MacLeod's essay, "American Girlhood in the Nineteenth Century: Caddie Woodlawn's Sisters," Alcott's own "Reflections of My Childhood" (collected in the Norton Critical Edition of LW), and a chapter of Steve Mintz's Huck's Raft that deals with childhood in the late 19th century. I give a mini-lecture on trends in childhood and in children's literature of this period, and briefly go over Alcott's biography; as a class we discuss the key ideas that came up in the readings, particularly in the MacLeod piece, as they help to illuminate the experience of American girlhood in the late 19th century. By the second class period in the unit, students need to have read the first 12 chapters of Little Women. Prior to this, I ask different students to read for specific issues: some focus on the development of particular characters (Jo, Beth, Amy, Marmee, Mr. Laurence, Laurie, etc.); others look for moral and/or religious messages; the image of childhood, home and family life; gendered messages and/or imagery; messages about class; and the way in which Pilgrim's Progress serves as a framing device for the book.

During the next class period we discuss these issues as they play out in the book, with students or groups of students reporting on what they found in the reading. In class I also ask students (in small groups) to find details in the text that describe clothing, food, play (there are wonderful examples of children's theatrics, a self-produced newspaper, and chores made into games); domestic furnishings; courting rituals; and gender roles. I also ask them to consider the book's take on religion and spirituality; attitudes about class; attitudes about immigrants and foreigners; and discourses around health and mortality. In preparation for the next class discussion, I ask students to post their own questions on blackboard (covering up through Book II, chapter V of the story). Students' questions have addressed romantic relationships in the book, patriotism, publishing, characterization, education, changes in tone from Book I to Book II, shifts away from the tone and style of earlier publications for children, religion, morality, marriage, and a range of other issues. These questions wind up taking more than one class period to discuss; I have students devote a portion of the time to small group discussions, but the class tends to be small enough that we can fruitfully discuss as a whole class. During the last two periods we begin to bring in other readings again: they read an essay by MacLeod on "American Boys" and use this to think about how Little Women fits into the "Bad Boy" tradition in American children's literature (think of Tom Sawyer and Thomas Bailey Aldrich's Story of a Bad Boy), and I also have students pose additional questions on blackboard once they have finished reading the book. The last day of our discussion is focused on literary criticism, using the criticism that is collected in the Norton Critical Edition. All students read Elizabeth Vincent's "Subversive Miss Alcott," and then each student chooses one other piece to read carefully and summarize: their choices include Catharine R. Stimpson, "Reading for Love: Canons, Paracanons, and Whistling Jo March," Barbara Sicherman, "Reading Little Women: The Many Lives of a Text" and Elizabeth Keyser, "Portrait(s) of the Artist: Little Women." Students bring written summaries of their articles to class, discuss their articles in small groups, and then report on the articles to the rest of the class. We also have a more general discussion about how literary criticism can open up our understanding of texts.

The paper assigned as a culminating exercise for this unit asks students to use Little Women as the starting point for a discussion of childhood or girlhood in the late 19th century, using both historical frameworks provided by MacLeod, Mintz, or other background, as well as at least one piece of literary criticism from the Norton Critical edition. The ways in which the book both challenges and reinscribes gender roles in the late 19th century makes it an obvious text for students of American girlhood, but there are a wealth of other historical arenas that one could explore by starting with Little Women.


What I really enjoy about teaching this book is that most students know about it, but few have read the original source, and they wind up enjoying it much more than they expect to, especially when given historical and literary backgrounds with which to frame their reading of the book. I also like the practice of pairing literary texts with historical ones. I have only taught this class once, but it was one of the more successful courses I've taught. I have never before devoted three weeks to a single book, but it worked very well, especially with assignments and related reading structured in.

Literary materials are somewhat complicated artifacts for use in the history of childhood, but they tell us a great deal about how children were imagined and addressed by adults and, in the case of a book with a long and devoted following among children, they can tell us about children's interests and reading habits. Moreover, the details of this particular book, while not a documentary record, do give students a rich portrait of life in a particular place, at a particular time, for middle-class, Anglo-American girls, a portrait far more textured than might be available in other kinds of historical documents.

Although I use Little Women in an upper-level, writing-intensive undergraduate American Studies course, I think the book could be used very fruitfully in a course on the history of childhood or the history of girlhood, with, perhaps, less emphasis on literary criticism and more emphasis on the ways in which various details (e.g. about chores, or the girls' reading, or religious mores, or games, etc.) can be corroborated through other historical sources.

How to Cite This Source

Julia Mickenberg, "Girlhood and Little Women," in Children and Youth in History, Item #80, (accessed August 10, 2021).