‘Little Women’ Provides Insight and Perspective on Work, Women, Sex, and Sexism—Then and Now

January 29, 2020 Updated: January 29, 2020


The latest film adaptation of the beloved novel “Little Women” is a delightful, unique retelling of the famous story of four sisters most people already know.

But like many good adaptations of older novels, this film may serve to provide a new generation of women with much-needed insight and perspective on work and women, sex and sexism—both as it seemed in the 19th century and now.

Most people are familiar with the novel or film adaptations about the four March sisters, Meg, Jo, Amy, and Beth, based loosely on the life of the author, Louisa May Alcott.

One of the prevalent themes of the book and films is sexism that was rampant in that day. Several articles following the release of the film likened the sexism the March Sisters, or Alcott, experienced to the kind women still deal with now. The desire to impugn men for both existing and supposedly not wanting to even see the film seemed particularly strange.

In her Atlantic review of the film, Caitlin Flanagan listed the critiques, published as fast as one could see the film and write it up: “When a movie is this much of a triumph, there are bound to be complaints. ‘Little Women Has a Little Man Problem,’ Vanity Fair; ‘Men Are Dismissing “Little Women.” What a Surprise,’ The New York Times; ‘Dear Men Who Are Afraid to See “Little Women”: You Can Do This,’ The Washington Post. The male gaze is back! Only now we want it. Try to keep up.”

In the Vanity Fair piece, several people close to the filmincluding producer Amy Pascal and actor Tracy Letts, who plays publisher Mr. Dashwoodvoiced frustration that more men weren’t interested in the screenings, indicating a kind of dual layer of sexism.

“It’s a completely unconscious bias. I don’t think it’s anything like a malicious rejection,” said Pascal.

Later in the piece, Letts remarks similarly: “I just don’t understand it. I’m really flummoxed by it. … I mean, I’d like to think that there are a lot of other factors for why somebody maybe doesn’t want to tune in, because they … I don’t know, that they’ve seen too many versions of ‘Little Women,’ it looks too light or too Christmas-y? I don’t know what … it is. But please tell me it’s not because it’s a movie about women.”

Having seen the film and loved it, all of these observations seem strange. The book was written for women about women. Whether or not a man sees the film or enjoys it shouldn’t matter to women in this day and age; such indifference would in fact prove Alcott’s point: Independence—particularly financial independence—was Alcott’s real-life goal that she finally accomplished after a childhood of devastating poverty.

There’s nothing wrong with men not wanting to see a film by women, starring mostly women, and about women—if that’s even true! Indeed, such a world as now, where women enjoy what they want, when they want, and how they want because of the exact financial independence Alcott craved, is something she would have applauded.

As much as feminists might have watched “Little Women” and desperately wanted it to be about the modern-day struggle for equality, there’s simply no comparison to the life Alcott lived in terms of gender parity, and she’d likely be offended if she could hear women observe in this century: “Watch this film, it’s just like us!”

Alcott grew up in poverty in a world where women were on the cusp of increasing freedom—her book was published about 20 years after women earned the right to vote. In the film, several scenes show the March sisters dreaming about their futures, wondering when and who they will marry, because they’re certain that’s the only ticket out of poverty.

They weren’t entirely wrong. While Alcott did vote, she never did marry, and few women gained financial independence then, especially through writing, save for the prolific and profound Bronte sisters.

Times have changed drastically, and it’s not a straw man argument to point out the legal and societal improvements women experience now. Not only are women fully protected under the law, but they also enjoy complete parity in society, particularly when it comes to the topic that rubbed Alcott the most: work.

While Alcott never married, observations about work and motherhood are salient here, because those are the two areas feminism has affected most.

Before the 1960s, birth rates were at an all time high. After the 1960s, and the second wave of feminism that beckoned women to abandon motherhood and join the workforce, women swung too far in the direction of the workplace, had fewer kids, became more stressed and unhappy, and wondered what had gone wrong. As the economy changed and women began to fall back into a more nuanced approach about work, life, and children, things shifted.

A Pew Research poll in 2009 found 62 percent of working mothers wanted to work part time so they could better balance motherhood and their career. Now, more mothers do work part time, thanks in part to the increase of the gig economy; they’re also more educated while doing so, and, hopefully, they’re happier.

It’s important to watch beautiful films like “Little Women” for their storytelling prowess, depth of character, and to be enlightened about what life in 19th century America was like for women. But it would do Alcott, and the women who experienced so much sexism then, a disservice to assume that life today resembles their tragedies and lack of parity in any form.

Sure, there are still things that could improve, in the area of men, women, and work-life balance, but America has come a long way.

Nicole Russell is a freelance writer and mother of four. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Politico, The Daily Beast, and The Federalist. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.