Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) was for me always about fire. Characters stand before the fire, gaze into the fire, get their dresses scorched by the fire, build fires for those who have none, scramble to rebuild the fire when it has gone out, poke at the fire thoughtfully, stand by with tongs for the logs to break apart.
I grew up in rural New Hampshire, where for four winters during the 1970s oil crisis, we heated our house with wood. My brothers and I learned to split logs. My first feminist battle was arguing with my father why I couldn’t use the chainsaw when my brothers could. (My argument that it ran on gas rather than on testosterone was not well received. I lost.) We all learned how to build a wood fire efficiently and monitor the boiler closely. I know exactly how much labor is involved in heating water to take a bath, wash your hair, do laundry, do dishes, keep the house clean—all while attempting to fit in in high school. I lost that battle too.
Opening Little Women as a teenager I noticed immediately Beth fretting about her rough hands, from doing dishes. I might be the only reader who read closely Jo’s poem “A Song From the Suds,” about helping housemaid Hannah hand wash clothes when Marmee leaves the girls alone to go to Washington.
While I, like many readers, was drawn to Jo, I was equally fascinated by Hannah Mullet and the role she played in the March household, “considered by them all more as a friend than a servant,” yet doing all of the really hard work. Who was she? What did she want? Did she mind being called “Old” Hannah? A central fact of democratic America (and its fictions) is the awkwardness of the middle class in dealing with servants.
There is no mention of Hannah’s wages. She builds the fire when the March household brings their breakfast to the poor German family, the Hummels, on Christmas morning. Hannah does the cooking, the laundry, and the ironing. Hannah sleeps by the fire.
The book is filled with domestic disasters that Hannah cleans up. When the girls give Hannah a holiday, they learn how much work she does. “Housekeeping ain’t no joke.” The fire goes out. When the stove is finally lit, the food is burnt. Some chapters later, Hannah helps the newly married Meg set up her own home.
What I found most unsettling about Greta Gerwig’s new film, with its spotless, fashionable outfits is not only its shameless blazer porn (the one Marmee wears when giving away bundles to the poor and the one Jo wears when writing in the attic are both to die for) but also its ignoring the household labor that is always present in Alcott’s novel and thus intensifying the troubling class dynamics at play. In the screenplay, Gerwig’s Hannah is simply “a good natured woman old enough to be their grandmother.” Sad but not surprising for a young woman filmmaker.
And take the poor Hummels. At first they exist to raise the class status of the Marches. “It’s so dreadful to be poor!” Meg sighs in the second sentence of the book. In the second chapter the March girls see the “ragged bedclothes” of the Hummels and learn a lesson in real poverty—which is rewarded by treats (ice cream, cake, bonbons, hot-house flowers) sent from their wealthy neighbor. Whose labor produced and delivered these treats? Does it matter?
The sick Hummel baby infects Beth, who dies. Subsequently, the Hummels exist primarily for the convenient disposal of spoiled dinners. “Bundle everything into a basket and send it to the Hummels. Germans like messes,” Amy says. Meg’s cooking failures “were to be concealed from all eyes in the convenient stomachs of the little Hummels.” The withering irony that condenses the Christmas lesson into a phrase like “convenient stomachs” is exactly the dimension of Alcott’s work that captured my imagination, back when the OPEC crisis taught me how many logs it took to heat enough water to wash my hair.
But the key scene for me was the famous currant jelly scene. Meg’s husband, John Brooke, comes home from work with a friend and finds “yesterday’s mud” still on the steps, the kitchen a mess, and his wife hot and cross because the jelly won’t set. Red gooey stuff is everywhere. “We are going to have a new moon, my dear,” he says the next day, by way of apology.
As many recognized immediately, this scene is about menstruation. More specifically, it is about bloodstains and laundry. For what was the extra monthly task in the era before disposable sanitary napkins, but blood-specific laundering, with lye, kerosene, and often urine (high ammonia) to get rid of stains? What we now call “the male gaze” had a special intensity and urgency before washing machines.
A century later, few have to labor this way in New England (though the film Period, End of Sentence, is about burdens today for girls in India), but I find myself still attuned to the ways that doing laundry and sporting clean linen does—and does not—appear in texts. Think Odysseus encountering Nausicaa doing her laundry. Think Anna Letitia Barbault’s epic poem, “Washing Day” (1797), a day on which nobody, including husbands, should expect hospitality. Think of the “snowy” bedspread of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Chloe, a character Jo quotes (actually misquotes) early in the novel, or of Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” (1916), in which farm wives bristle at men who don’t know how much work it takes to keep kitchen towels clean. Whether it’s clean or dirty, airing one’s laundry was historically a public spectacle, even if it’s a woman doing the washing alone.
All such messy housekeeping scenes are missing from Gerwig’s film, as is the scene of Jo spending an afternoon “reading and crying” over Susan Warner’s The Wide Wide World (1850), a novel largely about a newly impoverished little girl learning what it means to have to do laundry. In a pivotal scene, Aunt Fortune (“Miss Fortune”) dyes little Ellen’s white stockings dark so that they don’t need as much washing.
It’s hard to blame Gerwig. Nobody likes seeing drudgery in movies. The central appeal of Cinderella is that we can stop looking at the work Cinderella does (the cinders she sweeps from the fire dirty her as she makes them into soap). Both she and the reader enjoy her beautiful clothing and shoes that won’t need polishing.
But who does the laundry in the castle once Cinderella marries the prince? Somebody does. Most of my academic career has been spent looking at the lives of women responsible for household chores, including laundry. When biologist Carol Greider learned that she had won the Nobel Prize for medicine, she was famously “folding laundry.” This fact propelled an ongoing discussion about women’s academic careers and domestic labor, including proposals for employer-subsidized housekeeping for women academics. Such a proposal, many argued, only punts on the larger question of “work–life balance,” in addition to reinforcing the class inequality at the heart of waged domestic labor. Whether it’s a glass slipper or a housekeeping voucher that frees one woman from the washing, the laundry must be washed and folded, usually by another woman. It’s no surprise that hotel housekeepers are at the forefront of the labor movement today.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is about a woman with grit choosing the life of a writer over marriage and domesticity. But Alcott’s book is also about literal grit: fires, stains, laundry, burnt food. These are the kinds of relentless physical, material facts around which the lives of the March girls revolved, that Jo’s would always revolve, even as a writer, and that women’s life today still revolve. It’s a poor feminism that cares not about who tends the fire and who does the washing up.