Caddie Woodlawn is a children's historical fiction novel inspired by the life of the author's grandmother and great-aunt, who grew up on the Wisconsin frontier in the mid-19th century.
Gender Themes in Caddie Woodlawn
The character of Caddie Woodlawn is one of the most famous literary tomboys. One of the book's themes is learning to accept the restrictive gender roles expected of her as a young woman growing up in the 1860s. After the death of a weak and sickly sister, Caddie's father decided to experiment by letting Caddie "run wild" with her brothers rather than learning to be a proper lady like her Bostonian mother wanted. When this brings her into increasing conflict with her mother as she gets older, however, he sits her down to have a talk:
It’s a strange thing, but somehow we expect more of girls than of boys. It is the sisters and wives and mothers, you know, Caddie, who keep the world sweet and beautiful. What a rough world it would be if there were only men and boys in it, doing things in their rough way! A woman’s task is to reach them gentleness and courtesy and love and kindness. It’s a big task, too, Caddie—harder than cutting trees or building mills or damming rivers. It takes nerve and courage and patience, but good women have those things. They have them just as much as the men who build bridges and carve roads through the wilderness. A woman’s work is something fine and noble to grow up to, and it is just as important as a man’s. But no man could ever do it so well.
Caddie accepts this:
When she awoke she knew that she need not be afraid of growing up. It was not just sewing and weaving and wearing stays. It was something more thrilling than that. It was a responsibility, but, as Father spoke of it, it was a beautiful and precious one, and Caddie was ready to go and meet it.
But modern readers may choose to have a different response.
It is notable, however, that the family remained somewhat more flexible in their gender role expectations than many families of their time period. For example, when Caddie's mother insists she learn to quilt, her brothers Tom and Warren are permitted to take part and not discouraged for being "unmanly."
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