Defining Nineteenth-Century Womanhood: The Cult of Marmee and Little Women


  • Sarah Rivas


This paper explores the character of Marmee in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in order to illustrate Marmee’s influence on her daughters and the message concerning womanhood and femininity evoked by the novel as a whole. The Cult of Marmee —an eclectic mixture of Barbara Welter’s the “Cult of True Womanhood,” feminism, spirituality, transcendentalism, and
social reform—drives the plot of Little Women by becoming the standard from which the four March sisters construct their individual identities. This paper establishes Marmee as the primary influence on the March sisters, and therefore as the primary influence on the novel’s plot, while
exploring the five elements of the Cult of Marmee as they relate to the novel’s characters and to real nineteenth-century women. Ultimately, any rigid conclusion regarding the novel as feminist or antifeminist must be grounded in an understanding of the novel’s historical context. Alcott offers
an imperfect picture of liberated womanhood; in spite of this, however, Little Women’s message of hope for female independence and strength should not be ignored.


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