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Women Roles in “My Contraband” and Little Women

2603 words (10 pages) Essay in Literature

08/02/20 Literature Reference this

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 The American Civil War has often been referred to as the war between brothers. When the war began men were expected to fight and the women were supposed to take care of the house, and the children with little to no earnings. The roles of women have always been a topic of debate. Many think that women should just stay in the house and take care of the kids, whereas others see women as contributing factors to society outside of the home. Education for women in the nineteenth century was more of learning the essentials for around the home, whereas for the men, they had every opportunity to receive a higher education. A women’s education was limited because their job opportunities were confined into a handful of possibilities. Society in that era could not see women with an occupation unless it was in the household.

 For most women, the Civil War was a turning point for women and their part in the community. With the war outbreak, numerous women volunteered to help in the war efforts. In particular, the roles that women played in the Civil War expanded from aids and nurses, spies, to smugglers. While others disguised themselves as men to join the military to fight beside the male soldiers that were already fighting. Their new task, for the time being, redefined their original role of taking care of the house and kids and made them a significant part of the war efforts. Occasionally women received more than one task, for example, Louisa May Alcott; she was a Civil War nurse and also an author of Civil War short stories and novels like “My Contraband” and Little Women. Whereas women didn’t have as many rights as men, the roles of women had a major advantage on the Civil War given that the war would have been different if they didn’t have women volunteers.

 Louisa May Alcott was the second daughter born in November of 1832 to Abigail and Bronson Alcott. Growing up, she had many obstacles and struggles as her family went from being of high status to moving to Boston and living in poverty. She began writing at a young age in her journal, which she used to illustrate her childhood experiences, that later was used to form her short stories and novels. When the war broke out Alcott enlisted as a nurse and went to the Union Hospital that was located in Washington D.C. Even though she was only a hospital nurse for six weeks, the experience was a turning point in Alcott’s life. She believes to be an abolitionist that states in “My Contraband” that “because I’m an abolitionist I am also a heathen, and I should rather like to show them that, though I cannot quite love my enemies, I am willing to take care of them” (Alcott 1728). She came down with Typhoid Pneumonia, but never fully regained health because of the medicine that was given to her had mercury in it.

In the periodical, “Miss Alcott Goes to War” Robert Sattelmeyer gives an overview of Louisa May Alcott’s life in the time of the war. He goes on to talk about Alcott and her “tomboy leanings, it seems only natural that she refused to be satisfied with knitting socks and sewing bandages, choosing instead to volunteer for the Union’s fledgling corps of female nurses” (Sattelmeyer 45). During the nineteenth century, the Union was not prepared with nurses to help tend to their wounds, and so the nurse that were volunteers were untrained and learned as they went. Most of the “nurses’ time, of course, was devoted to providing whatever comfort they could to the soldiers, reading to them, writing letters, talking and listening to them, and holding their hands while the doctors probed their wounds” (Sattelmeyer 46). While being sick Alcott got to work on her letters that later became her first bestseller known as Hospital Sketches, and established Alcott’s reputation as a prestige writer. Sattelmeyer believes that “her Hospital Sketches gave a human face to the staggering casualty statistics that were beginning to appear, and it remains a pioneering account of military nursing in its infancy” (Sattelmeyer 47).

   Louisa May Alcott is best known for her novel Little Women. She wrote it when she was thirty-five because her publisher thought that it would be a good idea to write a girls’ novel. She grew up around Margret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The novel takes place during the 1860s and is a fictional “autobiography” of Alcott’s life. The novel all the same authentically shows family life in the mid-nineteenth century. The realistic like characters and their stories dismantle some of the women stereotypes that impact the closing of the Industrial Revolution and social imposts and encounters, such as the Civil War. In the novel, you can see the four main characters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy heavily relate back to Alcott’s sisters. Little Women discusses women roles by having the four main characters be self-reliant which was not a thing back then. Their mother Marmee always supported the girls in their choices and told them that they could do or be anything that they set their minds to. The girl’s father is serving as a chaplain in the war, which leaves the girls and their mother to fend for themselves.

 Little Women takes aspects of the nineteenth century and shows that through the women characters, displaying female independence and the fortitude of women. This novel demonstrates the struggles that Alcott went through as a women writer in a male-dominated society.Each of the girls’ face their own challenges in life. Meg, the oldest child, doesn’t much care for the finer things but wants to marry the one she loves. Jo wishes to have the freedom and rights of a man but must contain herself if she wants to pursue her dream of being a great writer in a predominantly male world. Beth, even though dies in the end, needs to learn how to be more outgoing and not so cooped up. Amy, the youngest, is self-sintered and has to learn that not everything is about her, and must learn to put others before herself. Marmee, the mother, is featured as the perfect housewife.   

 “My Contraband” which was also a part of Hospital Sketches set her apart from other writers of her time by discussing gender and women roles in an interesting manner through her life stories. In Alcott’s “My Contraband” formally known as “The Brothers” she combines features from both gothic and sentimental literature. These two types of literature were popular back in the nineteenth century. The sentimental literature that is portrayed in “My Contraband” takes? an emotional response from the readers and the main characters. The gothic literature that is portrayed is the not so good characters. The reader experiences strong negative emotions, such as having feelings for the wrong man, which we see with Nurse Dane and the mulatto. The mulatto, also known as the contraband is a slave that is half white and half black. The combination of the two kinds of literatures in this short story allows the reader to feel a full emotional rage with the protagonist, Nurse Dane.

In “A Wound of One’s Own: Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War Fiction,” Elizabeth Young debates that,” Hospital Sketches aligns the masculinized nurse with the author herself, offering a commentary upon her own battles against gender propriety” (Young 440). When Alcott gives Nurse Dane power and influential traits within her job, she obliquely gives her masculine characteristics that nineteenth-century women wouldn’t typically have. By giving her these characteristics, Alcott challenges the roles of women within society and allows Nurse Dane to be an independent woman that shows the reader how strong a woman could be. When Alcott writes, “every woman has her pet whim; one of mine was to teach the men self-respect by treating them respectfully” (Alcott 1730), she is allowing for Nurse Dane to be perceived as a woman that not only can tend to the wounded but also give intellectual advice as well. While giving Nurse Dane teaching capabilities, especially to a man, was unheard of in the nineteenth century. Young looks at “My Contraband” through a feminist perspective and identifies Alcott’s usage of masculine characteristics in the female protagonist as a reflection of Alcott’s opinions on the role of women.

Alcott’s backing for gender and women roles within literature helped make a way for feminism and equality to be a focal point in the nineteenth century. Alcott uses “My Contraband” to confront women’s roles within society by making Nurse Dane a strong-willed and broad-minded character with a complex job that she works hard at, and has a logical philosophy on everything she confronts. By creating this strong female role, Alcott opens up the potential of strong women everywhere, and not just in her short stories and novels.

   In “Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Subversion in Louisa May Alcott’s ‘The Brothers’,” Patricia Bleu-Schwenninger argues that Alcott’s writing is a combination of her own personal life story and the history that was going on at that time by indicating, “daily life, the routine and incidents that make up life in a hospital, but above all she voices her opinion about the social and political issues of the time in the guise of Nurse Dane” (Bleu-Schwenninger 5). By voicing her opinion on gender and women roles, Alcott’s short story emancipates the women by the strength that they have. By presenting Nurse Dane as empowered women, it “allows her more freedom than if she were a mere housewife” (Bleu-Schwenninger 6). Having different tasks, freedom and duties gave Alcott a way to prove that women are just as capable at handling a man’s job.

Bleu-Schwenninger additionally argues, “Nurse Dane behaves as she should i.e. as a dutiful nurse seeing to her task, but she also takes an instant dislike to her charge, the white captain, while taking a decidedly marked interest in Robert, the contraband” (Bleu-Schwenninger 7). As it was discussed earlier Nurse Dane has immense feelings for the mulatto that she is not supposed to have. While nothing physical happens, Alcott describes is features by saying “his unmarried side was towards me, fixed and motionless as when I first observed it, … His eyes glittered, his lips were apart like one who listened with every sense” (Alcott 1732). In the end, with Alcott’s use of Nurse Dane to represent her own opinions, allows Bleu-Schwenninger to argue that the short story emphasizes the beliefs of gender and women roles that Alcott had.

“My Contraband” shows sexuality in Nurse Dane and the mulatto in the first couple of pages as we see, “I wanted to know and comfort him; and, following the impulse of the moment, I went in and touched him on the shoulder” (Alcott 1729). By writing this moment at the beginning of the short story, Alcott challenges the nineteenth-century ideal roles of sexuality and gender. Alcott also confronts women roles when Nurse Dane says to the mulatto, “I will write you letters, give you money, and send you to good old Massachusetts to begin your life as a freeman” (Alcott 1737). By Nurse Dane saying that she can do all of these things for him, Alcott shows how strong and significant women can be, and shows how much they can do without needing the help of a man. Alcott also allows Nurse Dane’s significance to highlight the fact that women can make their own decisions and have their own opinions isolated from men. In examining Alcott’s writing and personal life, we can see that Alcott’s political views influenced her writing and the way she used Nurse Dane in “My Contraband” to reflect herself and her opinions.

In “‘The Finest Kind of Lady’: Hegemonic Femininity in American Women’s Civil War Narratives,” Melissa J. Strong argues that “Civil War writing by privileged women from both the North and the South goes beyond uneasy alliance with normative femininity.” (Strong 2). Strong discusses that most of the women war writings took place inside of the Union hospitals while they were volunteering as nurses. Strong goes on to describe that women writings were “texts ranging from advice literature to political essays identify feminine as not working outside the home and certainly not working for wages” (Strong 2). She goes on to talk about how we have two different spheres that separate things. The first sphere being male and having all of the advantages of education and working, while the second sphere is female, with limited education and “working” in the home. Strong believes that “separate spheres ideology—and its substitution of ideals for realities—remains crucial to understanding the intersection of gender and nineteenth-century American literature” (Strong 2-3).

Women’s roles back in the nineteenth century were overlooked until the Civil War broke out, and the soldiers needed help. Most women during that time were nurses that worked on the frontline side by side with the soldiers tending to their wounds, while others worked in hospitals. The Civil War most likely would’ve ended differently if it wasn’t for the women volunteers. Even though women didn’t have as many rights as men, the roles of women had a major influence on the war, showing that they could do a man’s job and have their own independent opinions.

Throughout the works of, Bleu-Schwenninger, Young, Strong, and Sattelmeyer, you can see that Alcott’s opinion on gender and women roles were not only presented during that time period, but it also influenced and stimulated her work. “My Contraband” and Little Women are two of Alcott’s works that questions and ponders the roles of women in the nineteenth century. Alcott’s work helped realize the unfairness of feminism and equality that was going on in the United States. The allowance in her opinion was to help women see the potential that they had in themselves. Alcott supported women writers to do the same in showing that women roles in the nineteenth century were unfair.  

Works Cited

  • Alcott, Louisa May. Little Women. Bendon Inc., 2016.
  • Alcott, Louisa May. “My Contraband.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, ed. 9, vol.
  • B Levine. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 2017, pp. 1727-1741.
  • Bleu-Schwenninger, Patricia. Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Subversion in Louisa May Alcott’s The Brothers. Revue Française D’Études Américaines, Belin, no. 72, Jan. 2017, pp. 5-13.
  • Sattelmeyer, Robert. “Miss Alcott Goes to War.” Civil War Times, vol. 51, no. 2, Apr. 2012, pp.44-49.
  • Strong, Melissa J. “‘The Finest Kind of Lady’: Hegemonic Femininity in American Women’s Civil War Narratives.” Women’s Studies, vol. 46, no. 1, Jan. 2017, pp. 1–21. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/00497878.2017.1252560.
  • Young, Elizabeth. “A Wound of One’s Own: Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War Fiction.” American Quarterly, vol. 48, no. 3, Sept. 1996, p. 439-474. EBSCOhost,steenproxy.sfasu.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=tru&db=a9h&AN=9706103082&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
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