Vittoria Santoro

Little Women was published back in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott and Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is the latest of many throughout the past century. However, it not only brought to life the spirit of the original version, but it also highlighted feminist themes that are relevant in our specific time. So brace yourselves to dive in 4 issues raised by Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women that are relevant for women today.

1.     Can women have it all? 

It is said that the first step of the gender revolution took place in the 70s and introduced women to the public sphere: work, education and politics. The second step should have been men entering the private sphere and becoming equally responsible for the care of the house and family. However, in no country this has fully happened yet and in many countries worldwide, it has barely begun. In this spirit, it is easy to see why for some women it is a struggle to have it all, being in the position of balancing two jobs: their actual paid one and the one as wives and mothers.[1]

            This has been identified as one of the factors behind some Western countries’ drop in the number of births, with women feeling a lack of incentives and feeling more and more a trade-off between working and having a family. [2]

            This crossroads that some women face is briefly, but deeply, acknowledged in 2019’s Little Women by a monologue given to the character of Jo March, best exemplified by the following line: “Women, they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts and they’ve got ambition, they’ve got talent as well as just beauty and I am so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for, I am so sick of it, but I am so lonely.”

Jo March fought her whole life against conforming to a society’s idea of what a woman of her station should be and do because it simply wasn’t what she wanted for herself. She fought tooth and nail for her independence and once she got it, she realized that it wasn’t all she craved for and in the society she lived in, she found herself struggling to combine the two desires she had: that of independence and that of a family. While for Jo marrying implied more limitations than for a woman today, her struggle is still familiar, evolving but still not fading. 

2.     Ambition

It should come with no surprise that women can be ambitious, yet when they manifest such traits in real life, they can be shunned for it. Men are praised for their thirst for a job, a career, money, but apparently ambition is not a good outfit on a woman. Gerwig bluntly shows this through the redemption of Amy March. Stubborn in her determination to marry well and live the wealthy life which she did not experience as a child, Amy March was dismissed as superficial and vain. Openly being a gold-digger is among the reasons why she never achieved ‘fan favourite’ status. Yet, in 2019’s Little Women, Gerwig tilts the perspective from which Amy March is observed and makes her gain new depths by having her say this: “I have always known I would marry rich, why should I be ashamed of that?”  and then As a woman, there is no way for me to make my own money, not enough to make a living or support my own family. And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children they would be his, not mine, they would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is; it might not be for you [Laurie], but it most definitely is for me.” 

By firing the bullhorn on women’s limited opportunities in the 19th century, Greta Gerwig offers a different narrative of Amy March: not a capricious girl, but rather an ambitious woman that cannot have a career and so fends for her future within the constraints that society has set up for her. Amy March, Gerwig implies, is not vain or superficial, she is just ambitious and outspoken about what she wants and maybe the issue is not her, it’s our perception of what characteristics are worthy of praise in a woman.

Again, this creates a link with today’s society, when showing ambition does not gain praise for women.[3]Women can be ambitious, women should be ambitious and women should not be in the position of hesitating to show they are ambitious.  

3.     Negotiation

At the end of the movie, Jo March is seen negotiating her compensation for the book Little Women. This scene mirrors real life and Louisa May Alcott’s real-life story, as she really did negotiate her share of profits with the editor. But most importantly, negotiation is a key issue for working women today. Women negotiate their wages less than men and it contributes to the gender gap. Also, when women do negotiate, it does not always the same results as for their male counterparts. Negotiation is a fundamental issue that is relevant even at the beginning of the career, as the starting salary influences future wages when asking for raises, promotion, or when changing company. It is not an issue often addressed, it’s, therefore, a powerful move for Gerwig to put it on screen for every woman to see, to convey that it’s an activity to be encouraged and adapt. [4]

4.     The right to choose 

Finally, the character of Meg March, the oldest sister, brings up another conversation that is interesting today. When Meg is about to marry, her sister Jo offers her to run away, be an actress, and avoid marriage, which she sees as a cage. Meg refuses, telling Jo “Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they are unimportant.” 

It is still a very interesting theme of feminism in developed countries, one of the stay-at-home-moms: women have fought for the right of employment and are still fighting today to be granted equal opportunities on the workplace, so women who choose to stay at home even if they could work are subject to debate, with some women going as far as claiming it is anti-feminist, others claiming instead that it is absolutely feminist. 

Gerwig seems to be joining the latter current by giving Meg that line, setting herself on the side of feminism as the right to choose. [5]