In her portrayal of Hope Leslie as a woman who chafes against the restrictions placed on her gender in her time, Sedgwick is a stronger reformer. She draws both Hope Leslie and Magawisca with intelligence and will and capability. And significantly, she closes the novel with this pronouncement, “marriage is not essential to the contentment, the dignity, or the happiness of woman” (350).
Used almost exclusively to describe women's writing, sentimentalism refers pejoratively to the supposedly excessive affect of the female authorial voice. In the Western tradition of distinguishing between reason and emotion, this concept serves to further the association of women with inferior reasoning and, thus, inferior intellect.
Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) provides one example of a text long dismissed as sentimental in spite of its influence and popularity. Jane Tompkins points out that literary criticism has, at least since the 1940s, “identified formal complexity and difficulty of apprehension with literary merit, ” so that many women, whose access to education was limited and whose works, therefore, often wrote differently from their male contemporaries and so were dismissed (2309). Yet Uncle Tom's Cabin sold hundreds of thousands of copies in its first few years of publication and bore a distinct antislavery message, and while very much a product of a time that viewed African Americans as popular stereotypes, the text demonstrates the power of a well-written message as well as the irrelevance of its author's gender. As Nina Baym has suggested, Little Eva's tears in the text are far from being merely sentimental: They served to mobilize an entire nation that had yet to fully embrace abolitionism.
The relegation of women's writings to the “sentimental” sphere was, of course, merely a single manifestation of overarching gender divisions. The woman's place was in the home, where she raised the children; the man's place was outside of it, where he earned the wages. As a result, many women naturally took up writing, for it in many cases provided her with the only available means of earning a separate income. Louisa May Alcott exemplifies this phenomenon, so that it is no surprise that her protagonist in Little Women lives such a convincing struggle to succeed as a writer and breadwinner.