“A true woman… will be strong-minded, strong-hearted, strong-souled, and strong-bodied… strength and beauty must go together.”
~Louisa May Alcott, An Old-Fashioned Girl
I recently found myself in need of what I would consider a “rose-pink” book, full of simple romance and tradition. However, I discovered that this little tale holds more wisdom than most pinkish novels. Despite its quaint title and innocent nature, there is a depth throughout it, as evidenced by the quote above. This book disguises a rather touchy subject, feminism and womanhood, as a classic comedy similar in style to Louisa May Alcott’s most famous novel, Little Women.
When we are first introduced to the main character, Polly, we are enchanted by her gentle nature and musical talent, but as we continue we find her also capable of hard work, outspokenness, and selfless love. However, she is scorned by the “fashionable” crowd of ladies as “countrified” and “drab.” Why is this? Is Louisa May simply retelling the old tale of the country mouse and the city mouse? I do not believe so. By comparing lively, loyal, and lovely Polly to the shallow girls of high society, she exposes the devolution of society and, more specifically, traditional femininity. Although written in 1869, the book decries the fading of “earnestness, intelligence, and womanly dignity,” and declares that a lack of “purpose and principle” are condemning women to become “restless, aimless, frivolous, and sick.”
Louisa May Alcott continues this sorry exposition throughout, but does not end without offering the reader hope and a guide for achieving what she- and I- consider true feminism. Sweet Polly, dignified Grandmother Shaw, faithful Miss Mills, and independent Kate (who seems to be based off of the author herself…) spread sunshine in even the darkest times and places. They are all examples of women who lived full lives, but not necessarily because they ran out to perform men’s jobs, although they were certainly capable of doing so, but because they realized the necessity and power of their roles as women in bearing the burdens of their households, caring for those too rich or too poor to care for themselves, spreading joy through difficult times, creating beautiful art and music, and supporting each other through everyday struggles. They excelled and gloried in the roles traditionally ascribed to women, but were also independent and wise, pursuing their own careers and livings while simultaneously serving, cooking, socializing, and teaching. These women represent feminism in its purest form- not feeling obligated to abandon all domestic responsibility, but balancing independence and loyalty, strength of spirit and tenderness of thought, personal ambition and familial needs, and, ultimately, “strength and beauty.” These are the values that, L.M. Alcott says, “make women truly beautiful and honored.”
(A small note: it seems to me that L.M.A. was familiar and fond of the biblical passage, Proverbs 31 and I would highly encourage anyone inspired by her words to read this chapter as well, for it absolutely captures the honorable woman she seeks to describe.)