Little Women in a Time of Little Concern



The 150th anniversary of the publication of Little Women got a bit of attention this year, and I could not remember having read it. The book, by Louisa May Alcott, is considered a classic in the canon of books that young women must read, so I picked up a copy I have had on my shelf for many years. It is a 1912 edition, given to my mother by her mother, and possibly by her mother before that. The women in my family tend to be bookish.

It is sweet, a story of four sisters who love and support one another despite their differences and the stress of reduced economic circumstances during the Civil War. They are in New England, far from the fighting, and their concerns tend to the frivolous. Will they have enough money to buy a hair ribbon?

I can see why I had trouble getting through it as a young reader, and I am having difficulties finishing it as an older reader. The girls’ obsession with money, possessions and appearances is deeply irritating, and perhaps more so to a southern reader, whose Civil War literature dealt in far more serious matters.

But reading Little Women these days, in the turbulence over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, frames the larger story of female vulnerability in an interesting way. In the book, none of the sisters would spend time alone with a male person between the ages of 15 and 65. The young neighbor boy proves himself trustworthy, as does his kindly aged uncle. In their time, a young woman seen alone in the company of a man could be “ruined” – take that for what you like: she could be sexually assaulted or be thought to have loose morals. In the social context of Little Women, it is not clear which would be worse.

Society evolved through the 20th century, and in the wake of WWII, chaperones were no longer considered necessary to guard both physical and moral safety of young women. And then sexual morès changed as well, and young women could be sexually active without endangering their social status. This was considered progress, an advancement of society toward more equal treatment of men and women. Sexual assault became the exception, rather than the norm.

Or did it? With the deeply courageous testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, women have been coming forward from all corners to reveal long-hidden stories of sexual assault. Are women still unsafe from predatory men? This larger question, tearing at the hearts of women everywhere, has been shoved aside by Republican party leaders in their partisan haste to get Judge Kavanaugh confirmed. Red-state right-wing mouthpieces, led by Senator Lindsey Graham and others, are repeating the phrase “over nothing” to refer to Dr. Ford’s claim of assault. Judge Kavanaugh’s life should not be ruined “over nothing,” they insist.

It has the merit of clarity. The answer to the question of women’s safety has been put before us, and it is negative. The Senate hearings, and reactions to them, have revealed that he-said prevails over she-said, even when he said it with tears and sobs, anger and disrespect, and she was sober and collected. The male voice overrules.

The March sisters of Little Women knew this, and acted accordingly. Now we, 150 years later, see the place and recognize it for the first time, but is it an end, or a beginning? It feels like a stunning loop in time, back to a status we thought had changed. T.S. Eliot, the master of circular time, had a few things to say about hopelessness and struggle:

“There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither is gain or loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

Except, of course, at the ballot box. There it is very much our business.