Women and Work
To the Editor:
Here are some of my reactions to Ellen Moers’s “Money, the Job, and Little Women” [January]. Concerned as we all are to establish a meaningful tradition of middle-class women’s attitudes toward work outside the home, we must, of course, consider Louisa May Alcott as an important 19th-century example of the independent spirit. Yet I think we have to be especially wary in looking at Alcott’s work as an illustration of the same qualities her life exemplified. The very fact that she so needed the money her father failed to provide often caused her, I believe, to write what middle-class women wanted to hear most—that women’s place was in the home, not in the job market.
That the character Christie is wealthy at the end of Work is not the result of any work she has done, but because she has received a husband’s pension and an uncle’s legacy. The work of God that the mixed group seated together finally see leading to women’s liberty is really the traditional self-sacrificial or charitable work women have always done as an assertion of moral superiority over men. Significantly, early in the novel when Christie seems to be finding genuine self-fulfillment as an actress, her selfishness appalls her, and she gives up the stage, arguing to herself that she wasn’t really good enough. What man would look at his profession similarly?
A contemporary critic of Work accused Louisa May Alcott of actually betraying the working girl by using marriage as a way out of difficulties instead of advocating better working conditions for those women who wished to remain independent. Perhaps her May ancestors made it truly impossible for her to identify with the women whose work she shared. . . .
Many middle-class women today might express similar disappointment that Louisa May Alcott followed the requests of her readers rather than her own better judgment in permitting Jo March to marry. Our chance for a feminine Huck Finn disappeared into the kitchen. But if both Huckleberry Finn and Little Women share the artificiality of their conclusions, both books remain equally valuable in suggesting what freedom can be, an especially difficult question for a woman.
Ellen Moers writes:
I am delighted that Eugenia Kaledin’s letter points up many of the conflicting tendencies in Alcott’s work for which I had no space in the few paragraphs I gave the subject in my article. But both Miss Kaledin and I are inevitably guilty of simplifications: my worst, in omitting to mention that Alcott’s alternate title for Work was Success; and hers, for leaving the impression that Alcott could handle the theme of “freedom” (for women or men) without its Victorian concomitant, “duty.” That making money appeared the first of duties to a female Alcott was responsible, I believe, for the best and the worst of her writing.