Historical Context

*Since Little Women centers around four women, this section will primarily focus on the roles of women in the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of industrialization and urbanization, which meant that there was less focus on the home as the center of economic activity. The daily experiences of men and women became more and more separated, eventually becoming what historians have termed “separate spheres” of activity regarding gender, each sphere with its own expectations and roles.[1] Whereas the masculine sphere was centered on the public life, the feminine sphere was focused on the privacy of a domestic life. With less labor needed at home, women were expected to focus on childrearing and housekeeping, which became seen as a separate job in the new economy.[2] Women were solely responsible for the moral and spiritual upbringing of their children.

However, despite the intense focus on motherhood and the cult of domesticity, the nineteenth century saw more single women than any previous time in American history. The new idea of companionate marriage, or one of equality and mutual interests, meant that women were less encouraged to marry for social or economic status. In addition, the increasing availability of education for women led to a higher percentage of women pursuing a career instead of settling down.[3]  

With less need for family labor, women were expected to devote their time solely to the domestic sphere. By the 1830s, an entire literary genre of domestic guidebooks was created to instruct middle-class white women on their proper roles and duties within the home.[4] These guidebooks, however, often romanticized domestic responsibilities, which could be grueling and time-consuming.

But it was from this idea of women as the moral center of society that education became more available for women. How could mothers appropriately carry out their jobs in raising morally upstanding children if the mothers themselves were not properly educated? Many Northern women, especially during the Transcendentalist movement in New England, received rigorous educations at home from their fathers, but as the trend grew, more educational options arose.[5] Now there were educated women that wanted to pursue careers, and one of the most popular choices was teaching, seen as a natural choice for the morally authoritative and spiritually wholesome female.

The roles of women as protectors of the domestic sphere gave them new authority on social and moral reform. The Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century, as well as the influence of Transcendentalist movement, motivated people to seek individual perfection. As women became more involved in reformation movements, such as temperance, poverty, crime, and abolition, their efforts to reform society led them to question the social, political, and legal limitations of their own lives.[6]

One of the most important issues for women’s reform was suffrage. Introduced in 1848 at Seneca Falls as “the sacred right of elective franchise,” suffrage eventually became the primary focus of the women’s reform movement. Led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the National Women’s Suffrage Association filed lawsuits and pushed for a federal amendment to the Constitution. Anthony and Stanton had also formed the National Women’s Loyal League in 1863, not only to push for an end to slavery, but to give activist women an alternative in contributing to the war effort, besides working in a hospital or knitting socks for the soldiers.[7]

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The nineteenth century also saw the rise of women participating in literary culture. Women took on new roles as writers, editors, poets, and journalists. Some of the most beloved writers and poets of the century were women, such as Louisa May Alcott, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson. Women often wrote for magazines or newspapers in addition to publishing novels or collections of poems, as they could not hope to support themselves or their families on one genre alone. [8]


[1] Tiffany K. Wayne, Women’s Roles in Nineteenth-Century America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 2.

[2] Ibid., 3.

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Ibid., 29.

[5] Ibid., 72.

[6] Ibid., 100.

[7] Ibid., 171.

[8] Ibid., 172-3.

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