Limiting the Experiences Women Can Have as Women

I recently heard an argument that Louisa May Alcott wasn’t a woman – or at least, she wouldn’t have identified as a woman nowadays. Had she been alive today, the argument went, she would’ve identified as a man or maybe another gender identity.

I found the evidence unconvincing, as it amounted to quotes cherry-picked from her diaries with a disregard for context – sometimes textual context but also, more broadly, cultural and historical context. I also found the reasoning fundamentally sexist.

Born in the 1830s, Louisa May Alcott lived in a culture that not only had a more constricted social role for women, but also a narrower view of what a woman should or can be (that a woman must be very feminine, must think a certain way, must act a certain way, and never overstep her bounds).

Alcott didn’t like feminine things. Some of the traits that were dominant in her, such as a love of adventure and a bold assertiveness, were considered men’s traits. Furthermore, she wrote in her diary about falling in love with women – something that, in her culture, was conceived of as a manly thing to do, as only a man would love a woman romantically. (And in the second half of the 19th century, the “inversion theory” of same-sex attraction came about, arguing something similar about the psychological makeup of gay people.)

It’s no wonder that she sometimes used masculine language to describe her longings and her traits. No wonder she struggled with womanhood and how to describe the ways she wasn’t fitting in. (Also, no wonder she was a proponent of women’s rights.) Even nowadays, we still use gender-based or sex-based metaphors for different character traits – for example, saying that somebody “has balls” when they’re being brave.

To say that Alcott shouldn’t be identified as a woman strikes me as profoundly sexist and limiting. The argument boils down to the following: “The fact that she wasn’t comfortable with womanhood means that she wasn’t a woman! If she were actually a woman, she would’ve been comfortable being feminine and settling into a constricted role. She wouldn’t have wanted to be anything else or do anything else. She would never have used masculine terms, even metaphorically or playfully, about herself.”

Many women, however, chafed against narrow roles and narrow conceptions of womanhood. They bent, broke, or played with various stereotypes. That doesn’t mean they stopped being women. To say otherwise is to compress womanhood into a particular personality and a particular way of thinking and feeling. It limits the experiences that women can have as women – and that includes the experience of wanting to not be a woman, for one reason or another.

Just as a personal anecdote, one of my friends growing up was a tomboy who often longed to be a boy, for three main reasons: 1) She was berated by her family for not being feminine (and she wondered why she just couldn’t have been born a boy to avoid the need to be feminine) 2) She found it harder to fit in with girls socially and 3) She hated the changes her body underwent in puberty and how she was sexualized. It was only in college that she became more comfortable with herself and her body; she understood, not just as an abstract idea but as a realization deep in her bones, that she could be a woman while not being feminine – that womanhood doesn’t have to be limited to certain ideas about femininity. (And this was somebody growing up in the late 20th century! Her struggle took place in a society that’s freer for women.)

But, you may argue, maybe Alcott would have identified as a man nowadays. Who can say? Isn’t it a possibility? Her family and friends used the nickname Lou for her (which was a common nickname for any Louisa, including a Louisa more feminine than Alcott was). But maybe Lou in 2022 wouldn’t have identified as a woman at all!

I have no idea what she would have done in the 21st-century USA. You can’t transplant people from one culture or historic era into another and pretend that they would have turned out the same. People aren’t just a product of genetics; they’re also shaped by their culture and upbringing. (Likewise, you can’t interpret everything in history or other cultures through a specific 21st-century viewpoint and pretend that other people would’ve thought about things just as you do.)

Had Alcott been born nowadays, I don’t know what path her life would’ve taken. Maybe she would’ve lived openly as lesbian or bisexual. Maybe she would’ve enlisted in the military and then gotten a job as a war correspondent. Maybe she would’ve worked for an advertising firm or driven an ice cream truck or become a foster parent. Many possibilities.

I hope she wouldn’t have been limited by the imposition of sex stereotypes, as these still flourish nowadays. The pressure to conform to stereotypes is especially hard for girls who don’t fit in socially, who aren’t feminine, or who aren’t comfortable with their bodies (including how they’re constantly sexualized). But the fact is, there’s no ironclad rule about being feminine or being comfortable with social expectations attached to womanhood. Also, there isn’t one way to feel or think as a woman, and there isn’t one female personality. It looks like we still need that reminder.

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