The Work is Never Done: Women’s Collaboration in the Workplace from Louisa May Alcott to Contemporary Chick-Lit

by  Laura Gronewold and Marlowe Daly-Galeano

<1> Madeline Albright must have been shocked when a comment she made in early 2016 went viral—for the wrong reasons. Albright was speaking in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when by her own account, “I delivered a line I have uttered a thousand times to applause, nodding heads and laughter: ‘There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other’” (Albright). According to the former secretary of state, she has been repeating this call to arms since 1990; that is to say, she has spent a full 25 years publicly arguing for the importance of women’s collaboration. Albright knows from lived experience, as do many, that women will only continue to make progress—and to sustain the progress already made—when they help one another in the workplace, in particular, but in life more generally. The “saving grace” for women in a competitive, patriarchal, capitalist society comes from women’s “willingness to lift one another up” (Albright).

<2> Albright’s pithy statement no doubt rings true for many women who have found themselves the only professional woman in a room full of men, or the smart, ambitious young woman who is encouraged to limit her goals in order to fulfill limited and limiting gender roles. Yet Albright’s assertion fell flat in early 2016. Millennials and Gen Xers responded negatively to Albright’s comments, which got lost in the larger criticism of millennial women voiced by second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who implied that millennial women were only casting votes for presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in order to be popular with millennial young men. To Steinem, millennial women were not “lifting up” the female candidate, Hillary Clinton, and for that they were admonished. While Steinem’s comments positioned millennial women through the lens of their relationship to millennial men, Albright more concretely considered these women in the context of her own experience. For as she reminds us in her New York Times opinion piece, “I am struck that despite all that has changed, I am still asked the same questions: ‘How do you maintain work-life balance? What can I do to succeed in a male profession? What advice should I give my daughter?’” (Albright). That women are still asking these questions of Albright after 25 years indicates the deep anxieties we have about women and work, as well as the deeply-rooted gender norms that continue to animate our society and culture. But Albright is very clear in her advice that women must support each other in order to succeed, that women need each other as allies, that women must “give one another a hand” (Albright). It is significant that the questions that most bother Albright—those about balance and professions dominated by men—center on workplace issues. Albright’s mandate for women is a call to arms for collaborative action; giving “one another a hand” suggests reciprocity and sustainability that, when applied over time, might change the questions asked of a successful working woman.

<3> As our project will demonstrate, the idea of women’s collaboration in the workplace is not a new topic. Indeed, as early as the mid-nineteenth century women were negotiating the need for such collaboration through popular literature. Long before it was commonplace for young women to think “only girls are secretary of state” (Albright), as does Albright’s granddaughter, fiction was a medium through which nineteenth-century authors like Louisa May Alcott, Frances E.W. Harper, and Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis Parton) could explore and question gender norms, power dynamics, and the separate spheres mentality of the era, which dictated the public sphere was for men alone, while women were relegated to the domestic sphere where their labor (often uncompensated) sustained the home. Over a hundred years later, turn-of-the-twenty-first-century female authors such as Allison Pearson, Helen Fielding, and Jennifer Weiner continue to use popular fiction as a productive genre for exposing the realities of the contemporary gendered workplace, as well as for presenting an argument for the crucial role female collaboration plays in women building successful professional careers.

<4> Thus, in this project we discuss representations of collaboration between women within the workplace. Looking across centuries, across the Atlantic, and across various concepts of literature, canonicity, and genre, we trace and compare the paths of two literary characters, Christie Devon and Kate Reddy, the protagonists of Louisa May Alcott’s 1873 novel Work: A Story of Experience and Allison Pearson’s 2002 novel I Don’t Know How She Does It. The two novels utilized here as case studies for representations of women’s workplace collaboration are not intended as anomalistic or unique examples. A similar inquiry might be made with Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Silent Partner (1871) and Maureen Sherry’s Opening Belle (2016), or any number of novels written over the last two and a half centuries. Work and I Don’t Know How She Does It are representative texts, and it is through a closer examination of these two texts that the project will explore some of the ways that Albright’s call for collaboration has been voiced in popular literature. Both of these novels focus on the professional as well as personal lives of their heroines. In each novel, the protagonist experiences elements of identity formation through fulfillment and success in the workplace. The protagonists have opportunities for professional collaboration with other women. Collaborative work is often represented as a site of success while also being portrayed as a locus of pronounced tension between individual and collective identity. By focusing on a variety of representations of collaboration—professional, sympathetic, interracial, and cross-cultural—in the workplace, or, in some cases, the lack thereof, these narratives about working women complicate or problematize a false dichotomy between individual and joint success. Furthermore, representations of such workplace collaborations in popular literature across time suggest the potential for feminist action that begins in the workplace but extends beyond the office and into the other social, political, private, and cultural settings of women’s lives. Finally, the continued proliferation of these narratives reinforces Albright’s demand for more collaborative support for women: the work is not yet done.

<5> The topic of women and work has had several important cultural resurgences throughout modern history. While nineteenth-century individuals were enmeshed in the ideology of separate spheres and the valorization of women whose work was confined to the domestic, or private—rather than public—sphere, wide-sweeping conversations in the twenty-first century asking and responding to the questions of whether women can, in fact, “have it all” suggest that women’s work is consistently received and treated distinctly from men’s, in both collaborative and independent endeavors. This question, articulated in Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 article in The Atlantic “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” generated a number of responses. [1] A few months before Slaughter’s article appeared, Gloria Steinem discussed this topic in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, admonishing, “You can’t do it all” and lamenting “Superwoman is the adversary of the women’s movement” (qtd. in Sandberg 123). In her best-selling book on women in the workplace, Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, utilizes Steinem’s position to frame her own recommendation, suggesting that women not ask whether they can have it all, but rather, whether they can do it all. In either case, she admits, the answer will be no (122). Even as these writers establish the impracticality of the “having it all” conversations about women and work, the widespread appeal of the discourse indicates its continuing relevance for women, both those who work outside the home and those who do not. At the heart of the question is gendered difference: society does not even ask if men can have it all. [2] Their roles in both the personal and public realms are considered and evaluated very differently.

<6> Just as women’s need to create work-life balance is often opposed to men’s assumed work-life balance, in the nineteenth century, women’s labors within the home were often presented as the counter to men’s labor in the outside world. As Tara Fitzpatrick writes, “The sentimental image of the domestic haven and the true woman worked to mediate the corrosive effects of capitalist individualism by offering men the solace of the family home—both as respite from competition and as a goad to further competitive endeavor” (29). In the case of women performing unpaid labor, then, a collaborative ethic is expected and valued: it can save men from the dangers of individualistic competition. Yet, this idea becomes more complicated when applied to women working outside the home and in waged labor. Amidst the prevalent question of the “respectability” of nineteenth-century white middle-class women’s work outside the home, Janis Dawson suggests that work was simultaneously seen as an ethical necessity, since “the moral value of work and the sense that idleness was sinful remained strong in nineteenth-century society” (114).

<7> Like the conversations instigated by Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis Parton), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Frances E. W. Harper in nineteenth-century America, [3] early twenty-first century discussions of women and work have frequently been fleshed out through nonfiction narratives, which can be very productive, even when they are directed at a limited audience (white, upper-middle class, highly educated readers). Even when a nonfiction book includes nonwhite experiences, such as Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey’s What Works for Women at Work, the working woman’s experience is nevertheless framed and often understood as primarily white and middle- to upper-middle class.[4] This is particularly true of contemporary constructions when the work is intellectual, occurs outside the home, and is categorized differently than the unpaid (and even paid) labor that occurs within the domestic sphere. These nonfiction texts do productive work and introduce ideas to the popular lexicon that can produce change in some workplace cultures, but they do not always enter the same kind of imaginative and emotional realm as fiction.

<8> So while contemporary ideological anxieties about women and work continue to be explored and negotiated in popular writing—from nonfiction advice manuals like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In to Tina Fey’s thinly veiled advice in BossyPants—popular women’s fiction at the turn of the twentieth century, such as I Don’t Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson, offers salient representations of postfeminist culture and captures the conflicting ideals surrounding women, work, and identity that proliferate in popular culture. Indeed, theorist Tania Modleski discerns inner conflicts within the genre (xxv), while critic Caroline J. Smith argues that postfeminist women’s popular fiction constitutes a deliberate response to contemporary culture through the genre’s reflexive dialogue with various advice manuals—such as Lean In—that are largely written by women, and in no uncertain terms marketed to female readers (15). Through popular literature, readers are invited into an imaginary space where the heroines’ emotional journeys are as important as any practical advice an individual reader may glean from the novels. This emotional experience provides an entrance to an affective realm—what Lauren Berlant refers to as an intimate public [5] —that allows readers to engage with the political challenges of the gendered workplace but ultimately emphasizes a sentimental moment such that readers feel connected to others and less isolated in their struggles. [6] Through this affective realm, the reader and the author enter into a collaboration that is both intellectual and emotional.

<9> Both of the novels that we examine in this essay were widely read at their time of publication and therefore may be considered popular. They were, it follows, easily available to women readers [7] and to women who worked. And while these novels do some social and political work, they have been primarily understood by their contemporaneous critics and readers as works of entertainment. They provide the reader with stories, and an opportunity to escape and to feel for fictional characters. Unlike a work of nonfiction like Sandberg’s Lean In, in which the initial question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” (12) demands that the reader start from a place of self-analysis, these novels, as works of fiction, allow the reader to start in a place outside the self. Yet ironically both Alcott and Pearson choose very real settings for their imaginative fictions: their protagonists’ struggles in the gendered workplace would have been or are familiar to contemporaneous working women. As works of popular fiction they offer the possibility of escape, but with their focus on female collaboration and the development of primary characters, these novels are not purely escapist. There are very real lessons to be learned from both Alcott’s popular nineteenth-century novel Work and Allison Pearson’s bestselling chick-lit novel I Don’t Know How She Does It.

<10> Of course, it is now recognized that the act of reading fiction invites self-reflection in addition to providing readers the ability to connect to fictional characters. P. Matthijs Bal and Martijn Veltkamp’s much-discussed 2013 study has linked reading fiction to emotional transportation and empathy, thereby highlighting the importance of identification between the reader (self) and the character (other). [8] Furthermore, David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano have shown that the affective Theory of Mind (ToM), which they define as the “ability to detect and understand others’ emotions,” (377) is even more enhanced by reading “literary fiction” as opposed to nonfiction or popular fiction (380). Kidd and Castano acknowledge the challenges of separating literary from popular fiction, a process that may call both of the texts we analyze here into question (378). Although the works we analyze in this article might not be consistently defined as literary fiction, depending on the determination of the “literary prize jurors” who make the call, we wish to emphasize that fiction has its own distinct way of leading a reader to self-reflection and self-analysis, and from there to social connection (Kidd and Castrano 378). Our position is that reading fiction is in itself a collaborative act between author and reader; the empathetic response is one that is created by the combined effort and experience of two individuals. [9] We have turned our own history of collaborative scholarship and professional development to literary representations of collaboration because we find it a fertile common ground for the work we do and the projects that matter to us. And although we explore texts from different time-periods and different nations, we are surprised by the way these novels embrace Albright’s call through their representations of women and work. The depiction of women’s collaboration within these works of fiction is particularly resonant with the questions we explore, and it establishes a pattern of historical and transatlantic conversation about women’s attempts to build not only a more egalitarian workplace but also a feminist social and political environment.

Idealized and Failed Collaboration in Louisa May Alcott’s Work

<11> Although she is best known as the author of popular and well-regarded children’s books like Little Women (1868) and An Old-Fashioned Girl (1869), Louisa May Alcott also produced a body of work for adult readers, from sensational fiction published anonymously and under pseudonym to autobiographical sketches to novels for adults. Her 1873 bildungsroman, Work: A Story of Experience shares many themes with her children’s literature: the struggle for identity within a society that may not reflect one’s values, the viability of being single (or married), and the ways women understand themselves within a patriarchal world. Yet Work is clearly a book for grown-ups. For instance, Christie Devon, the novel’s evolving heroine, watches a young woman with mental illness kill herself; later, worn down by professional and economic failure, Christie contemplates her own suicide. As a nurse, she tends to wounded soldiers, until her own husband dies in her arms of battle wounds. Added to this list of grown-up subject matter is Christie’s friendship with Rachel—formerly Letty—a reformed but fallen woman.

<12> Begun in 1861 before the Civil War and the success of Little Women in 1868, Work was a novel that absorbed Alcott’s attention for more than a decade (Fitzpatrick 30). This is fitting since the novel depicts over twenty years of Christie’s working life, from the moment she leaves her aunt and uncle’s home to escape dependency (and an unwelcome offer of marriage) to her life as a widowed mother in a feminist collective at the age of forty. During this evolving twenty-year career Christie works as a house-servant, an actress, a governess, a paid companion, a seamstress, a florist, an enlisted nurse, a business owner, and, finally, a leader in the women’s movement. The novel was initially titled Success, and, admittedly, it includes some of Christie’s successes along the way. However, the revised title, Work, more accurately reflects Christie’s material reality: she needs to work to support herself, and it is a lifetime of varied work that constitutes Christie’s bildung. As Alexandra Mullen observes, work is inseparable from education, and from each of her jobs Christie takes not just an experience but also a life lesson (681-2).

<13> Much of Work is characterized by Christie’s loneliness. She often feels alone even when living within a moderately supportive community. Christie’s working life is characterized by repeated rejection. Although Christie is occasionally rejected by others, she more frequently rejects those to whom she does not feel a powerful connection. Christie longs for community and collaboration, but her standards and ambitions are high, and while she debates the values of joining forces with those who appreciate but don’t understand her (such as Lucy who advises Christie to stay with the theater company or Philip Fletcher who proposes to her even after learning she was socially below him), in the end Christie continues moving on, consistently looking for, and eventually finding, her own elusive network of similarly high-minded individuals.

<14> In Work, Alcott presents several examples of female and feminist collaboration, but they are not depicted as equally valuable. While Alcott generally seems to support women working with and helping other women, she does not present all collaboration as universally good. And while she seems to disparage competition, this is not because she embraces a completely egalitarian society. Both the narrator and Christie make derogatory comments about the Irish, who are categorized as “incapable” (17), racist (19), and incompatible with other workers (30)—in other words, non-collaborative. This bias suggests that while Christie’s worldview is feminist and abolitionist, it is not always inclusive. Collaboration—if it is the right kind of collaboration with the right kind of people—may function as a path to the highest and best society and allow one to leave behind weak and disingenuous methods of service and labor. For Christie, collaboration is often placed in opposition to singular, independent labor, even as it is intricately connected to the force of workplace competition. Elizabeth Mutzabaugh contends that Christie leaves her promising career as an actress in order to escape “the atmosphere of competition that she feels is not only unworthy of her efforts, but one that will lead her morally astray” (133). [10] Alcott’s idealized representation of collaboration is not competitive and provides a possible way for women in the workplace to achieve personal success and to maintain moral superiority.  In this way, Christie’s choice also reinforces Fitzpatrick’s view that nineteenth-century women’s work may allay some of the negative social consequences of competition.  She chooses ways to turn her paid labor, performed outside the home, into opportunities for meaningful collaborative action, action that rejects those “corrosive effects” of capitalism (Fitzpatrick 29).

<15> Christie’s most successful collaboration begins when she aligns herself with Hepsey, the black cook at the Stuart home where Christie obtains her first job as a house-servant. A bond forms very quickly between Hepsey and Christie, perhaps because the work they do in the household reminds them of what they have escaped. Hepsey escaped slavery five years ago, and Christie, through the action of leaving her aunt and uncle, has escaped dependence. The drudgery of their labor is cast as its own form of freedom. While the previous white housemaid had refused to eat with Hepsey, Christie insists on sharing the dinner table, telling Hepsey,

But I don’t like that way, and I won’t have it. I suppose Katy thought her white skin gave her a right to be disrespectful to a woman old enough to be her mother just because she was black. I don’t; and while I’m here, there must be no difference made. If we can work together, we can eat together; and because you have been a slave is all the more reason I should be good to you now. (22)

<16> Christie’s collaboration with Hepsey is presented as meaningful, centering on the cause of raising money to purchase freedom for Hepsey’s enslaved family members. But the union also provides day-to-day comforts, such as the companionate meal described above. The collaboration between Christie and Hepsey, then, operates on many levels. They work together to serve the Stuart family, each aiding the other with her duties, or to use Albright’s language, giving “one another a hand” (Albright) as needed. They also support one another emotionally and financially. Their efforts against slavery are not sanctioned by the governing pre-emancipation system, yet their efforts in the Stuart home support and sustain a dominant economic (and ideological) system.

<17> Failure is ultimately productive in Christie’s trajectory. It advances the stages of her bildung, and it also offers her new opportunities for personal growth as she builds communities and relationships with other people. After Christie has been in service in the Stuart household for a year, Mrs. Stuart fires her. [11] Christie leaves the household with some relief even though it means parting from Hepsey. Christie’s relationship with Hepsey does not end when she leaves the Stuart home, though; rather it continues over the years, transforming from a workplace collaboration to a supportive friendship, and finally to one of joined forces in the women’s collective Christie forms at the end of the novel. Yet without Hepsey regularly at her side, Christie must find other allies and companions in her new environments. When Christie struggles to find her next job, Mrs. Black and her daughter Lucy, other boarders in Christie’s rooming house, encourage Christie to take a part in a play at the “respectable theater” where they both work as actresses (30). In the late nineteenth century, being a professional actress fell within the realm of questionable employment, even as the bourgeois theater was steadily becoming more popular and socially acceptable (Saxon 35). Faye Dudden observes the risks of public theater for nineteenth-century American women: going to or performing in the theater required that a woman leave her home, “her proper, natural place . . . for the public sphere” (131). Although Christie is dubious about a career in the theater, the kindness and support of her friends convince her to give it a try. By taking the job, Christie gains a mentor in Mrs. Black, who “reminded her that she must learn to use her wings before she tried to fly, and comforted her with stories of celebrities who had begun as she was beginning, yet who had suddenly burst from their grub-like obscurity to adorn the world as splendid butterflies” (37). Alcott’s vivid language here captures her own excitement about the theater. She casts the theater as a structure and space that has the potential to transform individuals, in this case from obscure and “grub-like” (hidden, buried, and undesirable) persons into “splendid” butterflies. The transformation, as she presents it here, consists of both changes in the individual and changes in how the individual is seen by others. Mrs. Black reminds Christie that achievement in the theater brings with it both splendor and celebrity, elements that are often seen today as markers of a successful career.

<18> Although Christie has some misgivings about the moral propriety of acting, she responds to the attractive mentoring network offered her by the cast and crew; in other words, the theater is initially presented to her as a collaborative and empowering space. “We’ll stand by you,” Mrs. Black tells Christie, “so keep up your courage, and do your best. Be clever to every one in general, old Sharp in particular, and when a chance comes, have your wits about you and grab it” (37-8). As Christie becomes more successful as an actress she loses some of the warm support that had originally attracted her to the theater. Her friendship with Lucy begins to dissolve as Lucy becomes envious that “Christie had passed her in the race” (40). It seems Christie has lost her appreciation for the theater when she sees that competition has soured her relationship with Lucy. A spirit of competition has diminished the spirit of female collaboration that Christie first experienced in the theater, and this is unsettling to her. Precisely at this point, a debilitating stage accident confines Christie to a long recovery, and her fellow actors and actresses generously take care of her until she can get back on her feet. After she recovers, they beg her to stay, but it seems Christie has rejected a theatrical career: “she felt that she had made a mistake and lost more than she had gained in those three years” (47). This section of Work offers a conflicted portrait of women working together, reflecting Alcott’s own ambivalence and the competing ideologies of the nineteenth century. While Christie initially gains much support from her friends in the theater, she also watches a friendship decline as a result of competition and jealousy. Only when Christie and Lucy are no longer in competition for the same roles is the friendship restored. Christie’s distaste for the theater is a bit of a puzzle, given that Alcott was generally a great supporter of the stage, and she saw it as a venue for the promotion of social change (Daly-Galeano 4, 15). An avid and proficient amateur actress herself, Alcott often presented complex portraits of the theater and, in particular of actresses within her fiction; [12] this pattern suggests her awareness that women of her time period often saw any work they did as having a performative element.

<19> Although the theater often functions as a space of empowerment in Alcott’s fiction, in Work the space is constructed ambiguously. While working in the theater offers Christie economic freedom, the collaborative opportunities it generates are less fruitful. Lucy, Mrs. Black, and other members of the theatrical community take care of Christie emotionally and financially during her long recovery, but in the end Lucy leaves this career feeling she has “lost more than she gained” (47). This collaboration is ultimately presented as less genuine and less valuable than Christie’s joint efforts with Hepsey, perhaps because while Christie has opportunities for collaboration in the theater, she is also forced to compete with her friends for leading roles. As Mutzabaugh suggests, it is the competition (and not the people or the collaboration of her theater company) that Christie tries to put behind her when she moves on to her next job as a governess (133). The model that Alcott idealizes, then, is one in which women may work collaboratively toward a shared goal, free from the demand to compete with one another. A non-competitive model may seem at odds with the commonly held ideas of workplace success that recognize and reward individual achievement, but women in today’s workforce as well as those of Alcott’s time have stressed that a collaborative model offers real potential for all participants. Albright’s call for women helping women is echoed in Sheryl Sandberg’s business philosophy as well: “There are huge benefits to communal effort in and of itself. . . .Teams that work together well outperform those that don’t. And success feels better when it’s shared with others” (48). [13] Even though the theatrical workplace featured in Work does not facilitate Alcott’s ideal paradigm of noncompetitive feminist collaboration, it presents the beginning of such a model, one that is taken up by contemporary feminist thinkers and performers like Tina Fey.

Alcott as Precursor to Current Models of Feminist Practice

<20> Louisa May Alcott was not the only stage-experienced writer to think through feminist praxis using the theater. While best known for what Janet Maslin describes as “dagger-sharp, extremely funny” humor, Bossypants by twenty-first century comedian Tina Fey is a work rooted in feminist thought. In the middle of her book of self-deprecating jokes, awkward personal narratives, and absurd social critiques, Fey includes a section, set apart from the rest of the book in a shaded box with a different font, on “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life and Reduce Belly Fat*” (84-85). The only part of this section that is overtly funny—the only part that even tries to be funny—is the asterisk. At the bottom of the page, Fey admits, “*Improv will not reduce belly fat” (84). However, the rest of the section is no joke. “The Rules of Improvisation That Will Change Your Life” (if not reduce your belly fat) is a serious piece of work, a feminist manifesto of sorts. In this two-page set of guidelines, Fey presents the improv schema of “YES, AND” as a model for feminist action. The rules are simple: In improv the actors must agree with one another—rather than compete—to achieve successful collaboration. “The first rule of improvisation is AGREE,” Fey explains, “So if we’re improvising and I say, ‘Freeze, I have a gun,’ and you say, ‘That’s not a gun. It’s your finger’ . . . , our improvised scene has grounded to a halt” (84). The rules of improvisation require that the improvisers “at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you” (84). From the yes, one participant adds something to the conversation (“The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” (84)). What is added is a statement, not, as Fey is careful to clarify, an “apologetic question” (85). The process then is a pattern of repeated agreeing and stating something new. Fey recommends that women apply an improvisation model, one where they start by saying yes and work unapologetically with others to build a common product. This theatrically-based model highlights feminist collaboration that can function as well in the workplace (or improv theater) as it does in relationships outside the workplace. Fey’s model articulates the process and paradigm Christie applies to her own life when she joins Sharp’s theater, and when she leaves it to move on to different forms of work. Christie agrees to open herself to new collaboration, phrasing “YES, AND . . .” in her own way when she asks “What next?” before moving on to her next job (48). Christie leaves the theater behind, because she is looking forward to better opportunities for connection and success, those that will not only advance her position but, more importantly, place her in network of like-minded people.

<21> Unfortunately, what comes next for Christie is a long string of difficulties and failures, with each one leaving Christie more isolated than the last. After leaving a position as a governess and then another as a paid companion for a young woman who suffers from mental illness and eventually commits suicide, Christie is able to contribute one hundred dollars toward the liberation of Hepsey’s enslaved brothers [14] and seeks a new position as a seamstress at a mantua workroom. There Christie tries to help Rachel, a quiet coworker who is fired when the other women find out about her disrespectable past. Christie stands up for Rachel, but Rachel is afraid to accept Christie’s support or friendship. Christie becomes an outcast among the other women, and this leads her into the “saddest [year] Christie had ever known,” one marked by poverty, desolation, and desperation (115). Overwhelmed, Christie contemplates and nearly attempts suicide, when Rachel appears in the mist and saves her from throwing herself off the wharf platform. While not particularly realistic, this moment nonetheless affirms the collaborative ethic. The support Christie offered Rachel within the workplace is returned to her in a much bigger way, at the crossroads of her life. Glenn Hendler has observed that in her moment of crisis, Christie “loses all sense of self and other” (692), and her thoughts of suicide may be linked both to her “sympathetic nature” and to the “quintessentially feminine” (691). The reunification with Rachel may reaffirm the feminine ideal of friendship, but it also reifies the individual strength that is restored to Christie with Rachel’s support. To return to Fey’s improvisational model, we might also view this scene as Christie’s agreement with Rachel’s contention that she should live. Here she enacts the YES, before moving on to the AND, the next and more hopeful stage of Christie’s life and career.

<22> Christie is only about halfway through the career trajectory depicted in Work, but her life improves from this point onward, and she surrounds herself with a group of kind, moral, and supportive friends. Because the novel is a bildungsroman, Alcott depicts a long and convoluted thread of events in Christie’s life, including Christie’s failed romantic relationships and the sentimental reunion of Rachel (who is actually “Letty”) with the family that cast her out. As it turns out, Rachel/Letty is the sister of the penitent David who regrets his harsh judgment of his sister. Coincidentally, David is also the man Christie falls in love with and marries, which transforms the relationship between Christie and Rachel into a legal (rather than simply metaphorical) sisterhood. Sadly, Christie’s marriage to David is not even long enough to endure the span of a pregnancy, and David is killed in the war before their daughter is born. Having recovered from her suicidal despair, worked with David in the florist business, served as a wartime nurse, buried a husband, and delivered a daughter, Christie affirms YES, AND once again by stepping up as a leader of the women’s movement at the close of the novel.

<23> Christie’s new work, and her rise to leadership, is not presented as a hierarchical assumption of power; instead her position is inseparably linked to other women’s professional and political work, as Katie Kornacki has observed (148). Christie’s feminist leadership is backed by the support of what Alcott has famously described as “a loving league of sisters, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, each ready to do her part to hasten the coming of the happy end” (343). Alcott’s tone is hopeful, and the formation of the “loving league of sisters” seems as likely a vehicle for social change as competition or capitalistic success. Collaborative labor can be so fulfilling and so transformative that it easily becomes a charged model for revolution. [15] Hillary Clinton expressed the same enthusiasm for collaborative potential in her introduction to the anniversary edition of It Takes a Village. “We are all in this together,” Clinton affirms, “we can rebuild a world where justice and hope and peace can overcome the forces of terror and fear . . . But there is much work to do, and it will take every member of the village to get it done” (XVIII). [16] The Clinton campaign’s 2016 slogan, “I’m With Her,” restates and reinforces this collaborative ideal.  Alcott’s and Clinton’s language reveal great optimism for an unrealistically “happy end,” yet both depend on a rather incredible collective force to achieve this end.

<24> Given her own career path, it is not surprising that Louisa May Alcott’s novel about a working woman is so invested in exploring, critiquing, and advancing collaborative models. As a writer, Alcott was highly interested in the idea of collaborative work. This is in contrast to prevailing ideas about the craft of writing, which is often understood as lonely labor. When Tina Fey reflects on her writing process, she comments, “Writing a book is a solitary experience. I would hide from my own family in a tiny room next to our washer/dryer and type. To keep the writing from being too stiff, I tried to imagine I was having a conversation with a friend. Writing for television is more of a group process” (“Tina Fey Answers” 2). [17] Alcott described a similarly isolated experience about the drafting of her novel Moods: “From the 2d to the 25th I sat writing, with a run at dusk; could not sleep, and for three days was so full of it I could not stop to get up. . . . I didn’t care if the world returned to chaos if I and my inkstand only ‘lit’ in the same place” (sic.) (Journals 103). Yet in spite of the solitary nature of much of the writing process, Alcott returned repeatedly to ideas of writing as collaboration. In more than one example from her early fiction, she writes about literary works that are complicated by having more than one identifiable author. [18] In 1873, when her sister May Alcott Nieriker wrote a book manuscript of her own (An Artist’s Holiday), Alcott tried to help her publish it (Louisa May Alcott Additional Papers). There are even chapters of Nieriker’s manuscript that are in Alcott’s own handwriting, which indicate some shared work. Thus, even in a career often presented as solitary—or rather, especially in a solitary career—Alcott affirms the value of collaborative labor.

<25> In Work, Alcott repeatedly emphasizes depictions of collaborations, both successful and unsuccessful. It is no accident that the final pages of the book reveal that Christie is not only a leader but also a collaborator, surrounded by her “loving league of sisters, . . . each ready to do her part” (343). In this hopeful closure she brings back the characters with whom Christie has already worked successfully, indicating that collaborative success must be learned and built upon for long-term sustenance. Not all collaborations are equal; they do not all lead to leadership, hope, or success, but they do teach the participants how to collaborate and to collaborate well. And that, for Alcott, is the hope for a feminist and egalitarian future, one that is seriously challenged by conceptual and ideological structures like separate spheres. Clearly, Alcott’s dream of an egalitarian workplace that is free of racial and gender prejudices has not yet been realized in contemporary society. [19] The recent conversations we have already referenced, from Albright’s call to “give one another a hand” to Slaughter’s awareness of the lingering idea of “having it all” to Sandberg’s 2016 editorial response to Albright’s earlier Op-Ed, demonstrate that the work of early feminist writers forms part of a sustained discourse. As contemporary writers continue this conversation with a nod to the work that has already been done, they too participate in the process of voicing YES, AND by showing that the struggle for collaborative values and equal successes in the gendered workplace is one that is ongoing.

Collaboration as Tactical Resistance in Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It

<26> Just as Alcott’s Work was an important and commonly-read text for working women of her time, Allison Pearson’s novel I Don’t Know How She Does It speaks to the concerns of twenty-first-century women navigating the challenges of an evolving, yet still extremely gendered, workplace. In Work, when Christie is acting in theatrical productions and Mrs. Black assures her that there is a collaborative community supporting her, Christie is lifted up (in Albright’s sense) to take chances professionally and to thrive. The fact that Christie’s community will “stand by” her empowers Christie to draw on her bravery, “do [her] best,” and lean in to career opportunities, so long as Christie has “[her] wits about [her] and grab[s] it” (37-8). Relying on one’s wits is also very important in Pearson’s novel; indeed thinking creatively and strategically alongside a group of professional women is crucial to surviving contemporary sexism and misogyny for protagonist Kate Reddy’s young colleague Momo. Their ethic of female collaboration is sharp and inventive—as crucial for Momo as it was for Christie throughout her journey—not only in their respective career fields but in their daily endeavors as working women. Alcott affirms that women must “give one another a hand” (Albright), and in doing so women can advance the professional (and personal) opportunities for even more women. One hundred fifty years later, Pearson also argues that women must support each other—as we discover in I Don’t Know How She Does It, women champion each other’s successes and defend one another when necessary—all the while heeding Albright’s advice to “pay careful attention” to the political history of women and work, because “the gains we have fought so hard for could be lost, and [women] could move backward” (Albright). In order to combat the continued sexism and misogyny that persist in the twenty-first- century workplace, Pearson shows that women who embrace the “YES, AND . . .” (48) ethic of female collaboration championed by Tina Fey set themselves up with an important network of female allies with whom they can collaborate (and improvise when necessary) in order to protect their careers and reputations in a competitive and aggressive workplace.

<27> In I Don’t Know How She Does It, Pearson explores the role of work in the construction of female subjectivity; the novel participates in—and is categorized within—the popular genre of women’s writing known as “chick lit.” This contemporary literary and cultural phenomenon dominated bestseller lists from the mid-1990s through the early twenty-first century, and was initiated by the tremendous sales of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, which first debuted in England in 1996. [20] The generic—and pejorative—term “chick lit” [21] continues to be used by publishers, critics, and scholars to describe and categorize the style of popular novels by women writers for female readers that feature white, single, middle- to upper-middle class professional women in their late twenties and early thirties living in a major urban center. [22] These novels bear many similarities in theme, first-person narrative point-of-view, and plot structure, as well as a shared—and highly imitated—style of snappy, humorous, confessional reflections. Chick lit novels offer both implied and overt commentaries on the workaday lives of real women; and as Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It demonstrates, the overt commentary makes a strong argument for the vital role that female collaboration plays in the lives of upwardly mobile professional women. As we shall see, when women collaborate and fulfill their “obligation to help one another” (Albright), they create a strong community of female colleagues who support each other and help safeguard job security, career advancement, and professional reputation.

<28> Chick lit heroines illustrate how female subjects still struggle to claim agency and define their identity within the twenty-first century, gendered workplace, as well as within capitalist economic and social structures. Pearson builds on a tradition of exploring female collaboration that hearkens back to Alcott’s time, and that also re-emerges throughout the twentieth century with authors like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood. [23] I Don’t Know How She Does It explores the crucial role that female collaboration still plays in empowering women to claim their agency and gain success in the twenty-first century marketplace. The novel engages with cultural ideologies that women must learn to negotiate in order to succeed in professional careers. Women must possess an ability to pass—that is, an ability to perform gender, class, and/or race within distinct social spaces and workspaces. For women to have access to material culture and the financial successes promised by Western capitalism and the paradigm of the superwoman who “has it all,” chick lit heroines must read their social context and appropriately tailor their performances for specific audiences. But as Pearson’s novel suggests, women should not feel they must do this alone. Rather, they can achieve career and personal successes through an ethic of female collaboration that combats misogynistic aspects of the workplace—not to mention the financial limitations of the glass ceiling. Through work, Kate Reddy gains access to the ideals and principles of the twenty-first century “good life,” especially as it is articulated by feminist philosopher Linda Hirshman in Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World. [24] For Hirshman, women create “flourishing lives” (30) for themselves when they engage in work that focuses on more than the needs of their nuclear family and carries a larger societal benefit. [25] This set of ideals can be traced back to Alcott and other nineteenth-century feminists.  Much less ambitious, but still an important piece of the contemporary conversation on female subjectivity, Pearson implies that the good life for Kate Reddy (as with all chick lit heroines) includes happiness, self-respect, a healthy sex life, and consumer purchasing power. But as we see through Kate’s younger female colleague Momo, without the support of trusted female allies, a woman’s career is still vulnerable to the sexist backlash that has persisted in Western culture since the 1990s. [26]

<29> Protagonist Kate Reddy’s journey in I Don’t Know How She Does It certainly fulfills Hirshman’s modern notions of the “good life,” with Kate’s stimulating work as a successful hedge fund manager, her pleasant marriage, and her two loveable but demanding children. As one of only three women working in a firm with over sixty fund managers, Kate must fashion her gender, class, and race performances to fit the aggressive, white patriarchal culture of Edwin Morgan Forster (EMF). Her friend Debra, a lawyer and mother, admonishes, “they don’t want to be reminded that you have a life, stupid” (20). Within a capitalist system that does not provide adequate accommodations for working mothers, Kate flounders under the impossible expectations still placed on working mothers. Her dilemma illustrates the double-bind that many professional women have been struggling with for decades. Kate grew up in a working class home outside a major urban center in the north of England. Now relocated to a stylish North London neighborhood with her husband and two small children, Kate’s story is a sometimes-humorous first-person account of the attempt to balance motherhood and career. At home she feels pressure to keep up with “perfect” stay-at-home mothers who bake homemade sweets for the school bake sale, while at work she feels pressure to hide her home life in a masculine office where “Money doesn’t know what sex you are” (26), a philosophy Kate finds liberating given the importance of gender performance to her job.

<30> Kate is torn between this gendered, binary construction of heterosexual, feminine identity. While Alcott’s Christie Devon longs for the chance to have both a fulfilling career and a satisfying family life, Kate longs to maintain both her career and home life in the face of mixed messages telling her she must choose one or the other. Given the historical context within which Pearson is writing, she accurately captures the postfeminist challenge that Slaughter documents: “Just about all of the women [interviewed by Slaughter] … planned to combine careers and family in some way. But almost all assumed and accepted that they would have to make compromises that the men in their lives were far less likely to have to make” (Slaughter). Money might not know Kate Reddy’s sex, but her colleagues (both male and female) do, and thus Kate must negotiate a culture that tells women they can—or should—“have it all.”  If they do not, it is their fault as individuals, and not the fault of neoliberal policies and ideologies, or human resources practices that actively work to undermine the promise. Slaughter’s article provides a productive challenge to the stereotype of the “superwoman” whose legacy has troubled feminist movements throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, which echoes the dilemma that Pearson is trying to illustrate throughout her novel. [27] What becomes clear over the course of Kate’s journey is that it is nearly impossible for a woman to “have it all” without a support network; indeed, Kate’s story illustrates the profound need for female collaboration. Both Slaughter and Pearson want readers to seriously rethink the “superwoman” paradigm, for as Slaughter notes, “It is time for women in leadership positions to recognize that although we are still blazing trails and breaking ceilings, many of us are also reinforcing a falsehood: that ‘having it all’ is, more than anything, a function of personal determination” (Slaughter). Thus “having it all” becomes an impossible paradigm: women are told that with enough individual grit and determination, they can achieve anything professionally. Pearson challenges this paradigm throughout I Don’t Know How She Does It and invites readers to think critically about the systemic issues and cultural narratives that actively undermine women’s opportunities to combine family and career.

<31> Within the rhetoric of choice that dominates postfeminist debates about subjectivity, female subjects can choose to dedicate themselves to work outside the home or choose to dedicate themselves to childrearing and managing the domestic sphere. But they must choose: as Slaughter suggests, resignation is always already part of the way contemporary women configure their careers and families. Pearson dramatizes this dichotomy in I Don’t Know How She Does It. Lacking the time to devote herself entirely to mothering, as demonstrated by actions like baking gourmet treats for her daughter’s multiple school functions, Kate relies on her collaboration with her nanny to succeed in both the public and domestic spheres. [28] Although this relationship is not necessarily presented as a collaboration, without it Kate would not be able to pursue the intellectually fulfilling work that empowers her as the primary financial earner in her family. Thus, through collaboration with her nanny, Kate is also empowered to make a contribution to the public sphere, just as Christie’s domestic relationships with her boarding house roommates (Lucy and Mrs. Black) are transformed into public and professional relationships when the three women work together in the theater. [29]

<32> Significantly, Kate has several female friendships in her life with women who provide crucial support structures to help her process the gendered demands of the twenty-first-century workplace. These friendships are not the focus of the novel, and indeed are not mentioned in criticism and reviews of the novel. [30] They are underplayed to the extent that they appear to be a given in the life of a working woman—as if they are automatic and not something important that women must cultivate and nurture. [31] Yet Kate’s friend Debra helps Kate reflect on how far she has come in terms of career, as well as how she has advanced her economic and social class. Kate’s colleague Candy helps her process workplace anxieties and serves as comic relief for some of the more anxiety-producing elements of their masculine workplace. Through Jill Cooper-Clark, the wife of Kate’s senior colleague, Pearson portrays the successful woman who leaves her career to be a stay-at-home mother—someone Kate’s young colleague Momo pities, stating “Oh, how sad … I mean, what a waste to end up doing nothing with your life” (219). [32] Kate’s peer friendships with Debra, Candy, and Jill are portrayed as vital to a contemporary professional woman’s longevity and survival. As Sandberg writes, “there are many ways that women can help one another without hurting themselves. … When a woman’s accomplishments are overlooked, other women can celebrate them, showing that they care and giving public credit where it’s due” (Sandberg). Kate’s female friendships demonstrate the power of such a crucial network of female allies. Indeed, we see that female collaboration provides emotional support, practical advice, and confidentiality. These women are doing the essential, imperative work of “lift[ing] each other up” (Albright).

<33> In addition, Pearson echoes Alcott’s nineteenth-century concerns when she proposes that women cannot succeed in the twenty-first -century gendered workplace on their own. Indeed, Pearson suggests through the character of Momo, a young colleague whom Kate initially mentors and later defends, that collaboration is crucial for women to succeed in the workplace. In the beginning, Kate’s mentorship of Momo shifts between its focus on important rhetorical tactics for navigating the gender/power dynamics at EMF and strategic clothing choices for successful passing in the workplace. For instance, Kate advises Momo to avoid starting her sentences with “I’m sorry” (26); such gendered posturing undercuts Momo’s authority and communicates a lack of confidence about her right to be present and to be heard. Kate also advises Momo on the importance of clothing for class-passing in the gendered workplace. For instance, Kate dresses herself for an influential business meeting as if preparing “for battle in full Armani armor” (145). And recognizing that a level of feminine performance is an unspoken rule for professional women at EMF, Kate also resolves to “do something about [Momo’s] shoes: navy flatties, they do nothing for her feet, which are as tiny and articulated as a ballerina’s” (146). [33] While Kate’s advice may be considered problematic and even a reflection of internalized sexism, Pearson is clearly demonstrating the various forms of passing required for women to succeed in the gendered workplace. Kate’s mentorship becomes a collaboration between these two women, in which Momo gains insight into the implicit gender biases and unwritten protocols women must negotiate to succeed at masculinist EMF.

<34> Meanwhile Kate agonizes over the appropriate level of honesty required to wisely advise but not depress Momo: that is, she wonders how early she should counsel Momo that “the only way to get on at EMF is to act like one of the boys, and when you act like one of the boys they call you abrasive and difficult, so you act like a woman, and then they say you’re emotional and difficult” (31). Kate’s mentorship, then, includes the very elements that have empowered her to class pass in the gendered workplace. Late in the novel, however, Momo comes to Kate in crisis when she discovers that one of their male colleagues, notorious misogynist Chris Bunce, has photoshopped Momo’s face onto pornographic images of women and shared them with other male colleagues in the workplace. Desperate to protect her reputation and feeling defeated from having to do so in the first place, Momo turns to Kate for advice and protection. When Kate gathers a group of women to pool their talents and resources in order to help Momo, Pearson is demonstrating that women must rely on each other if they are to find a safe workplace where they can thrive.

<35> Beyond readers seeing Kate formally mentoring Momo, we more importantly see Kate and Momo collaborating; for instance, these two women team up to land an important “ethical” client (EMF, of course, sends two of their few women as representatives for that) (120). But their collaboration ascends to emergency status when Momo discovers that Chris Bunce is sexually harassing her. As one of EMF’s top fund managers Bunce boasts a phenomenal sales record, so there is an assumption that he will never be let go from company. The implication is that when a workplace values profits above all else, a male employee like Bunce is tolerated under the “boys will be boys” mentality that persists as a part of postfeminist culture—no matter how sexist, rude, racist, or inappropriate the behavior might be. One evening after work, Momo returns briefly to the EMF office, where she discovers the group of men that Bunce has gathered to inspect the pornographic photos of herself. When Momo confronts the men, not one of them—not even her close friend Julian—has the courage to admonish Bunce, and not one of them defends her (297). Distraught, Momo comes to Kate for help, advice, and a shoulder to cry on:

Bunce had taken head shots of Momo from the EMF website—the ones the firm was using in its brochure to illustrate its commitment to diversity—and digitally spliced them onto other women’s bodies that are freely available on the Net. “Bodies with no clothes on,” Momo repeats, and her primness makes it doubly painful.

Momo says she stopped looking when she saw her own head giving head. There were captions to go with the pictures, but she found it hard to make them out because she dropped her glasses and they cracked on the trading floor.

“There was something about Asian Babes, I think.”

“There would be.”

“What are we going to do?” she asks, and the we feels both presumptuous and entirely right (297-299).

<36> Pearson highlights the hypocrisy of the modern, gendered workplace—a culture that would both exploit Momo’s otherness as illustration of their “commitment to diversity,” while simultaneously positioning Momo as the vulnerable target to the backlash from a misogynist colleague like Bunce. It’s clear why Momo turns to Kate; after all, none of the men at EMF display the nerve required to address the sexual harassment in their workplace. Male co-workers like Momo’s friend Julian may be colleagues, but they are not collaborators with Momo. Thus through Momo, Pearson demonstrates that women must collaborate on more than landing big clients. They must “give one another a hand” (Albright) and become the “we” who will come together to create a plan to combat the inequality and sexism in the gendered workplace.

<37> Momo pushes Kate to further explain this workplace dynamic, and in doing so she tries to examine the psychological factors motivating Bunce. But Kate’s explanation that Bunce has acted this way “because you’re beautiful and you’re female and because he can. It’s not very complicated” (298-299) isn’t meaningful or helpful, and it rightfully infuriates Momo. She desperately wants to know what measures they can take, what penalty and justice are available to her. Kate’s attempt to assuage Momo’s anger and frustration reflects the complicated nature of gendered power dynamics at the turn of the twenty-first century. Kate comments:

“I’m saying that there was all history and now there’s us. There’s never been anything like us before, Momo. Century after century of women knowing their place—and suddenly it’s twenty years of women who don’t know their place, and it’s scary for men. It’s happened so fast. Chris Bunce looks at you and he sees someone who’s supposed to be an equal. We know what he wants to do to you, but he’s not allowed to touch anymore, so he fakes pictures of you so that he can do what he likes with”

… “You’re telling me we can’t do anything, Kate, aren’t you? About Bunce. I just have to put up with it because that’s what they’re like and there’s no use trying to change anything.

That’s exactly what I’m saying. “No, I wouldn’t put it quite like that.” (297-299)

<38> Pearson clearly states her critique here: men haven’t caught on yet that women are in the workforce and so they sexualize women to enforce a power structure that still maintains male heterosexual power. The sexual act that Pearson mentions in the narrative—fellatio, which focuses on male pleasure—further illustrates the power dynamic that Bunce yearns for. In Bunce’s rendition, Momo is naked and thus even more vulnerable than she already is as a young woman and person of color in the gendered workplace. Pearson magnifies the anxieties that animate many narrative representations of the twenty-first century workplace: what happens to (heterosexual) men when women have successful careers? How do we culturally reformulate gender, work, and power when women have entered the public sphere with the hopes, the expectations, and, in some cases, the demands, to be treated equally based upon their work. [34]

<39> Pearson critiques Bunce’s sexist actions, and as readers we know this is clearly to be the case because the novel has positioned him early on as a misogynist. However, Kate’s ambivalence about Momo’s chances for retribution and her doubt about the potential success of official sanctions against Bunce reveals the complicated nature of whose work gets valued, and within what measures. It also makes a strong argument for the critical role of female collaboration for working women. After all, none of Momo’s male colleagues reached out in a supportive or collaborative spirit, but rather allowed their silence and shame to enforce the hegemonic, patriarchal structures that have for decades explained away misogynistic behavior like Bunce’s. With Bunce’s earning potential for EMF, there are additional reasons why the official company reaction might be conflicted, at best. Kate knows this, which is why her initial reaction suggests doubt and ambivalence to Momo. With no faith that the human resources policies at EMF will truly support and defend women in the workplace, Kate and Momo turn to a community of women—much like Christie’s league of sisters in Work—to problem solve and save Momo’s career, reputation, and life. [35]

<40> Pearson suggests that Kate and Momo are smart to question the ability of official sanctions to effect any real change within EMF. If Momo were to consult human resources and or seek litigation, Kate imagines how difficult it would be: Momo would be suspended without pay, there would inevitably be some kind of public “inquiry” (299)—even if it was only officially public within the offices of EMF. Simultaneously, Bunce would have his defenders, and his excellent and lucrative sales record would be noted. Kate states that in short order, “the offense against Momo [would] be referred to as ‘a bad business’ or simply ‘that Bunce business’” (299). Further picturing this trajectory, Kate concludes that when Momo insists she does not want to be paid in exchange for her silence about the sexual harassment she endured, the company would insinuate that this could mar Momo’s reputation for the rest of her career. Pearson implies that this emphasizes the sexual double standard that persists and to which women must become complicit—the “boys will be boys” attitude prevails and women must simply endure a level of sexual harassment in the workplace if they are to remain in male-dominated fields. Thus the need for female allies and female collaboration sets the stage for Kate, Momo, and their collaborative of women to come up with a workable and legal solution to this dilemma.

<41> Pearson chooses instead to emphasize the power of female collaboration. When women become one another’s “saving grace,” when they indeed demonstrate their willingness to “lift one another up” (Albright), as they do in I Don’t Know How She Does It, they come up with creative solutions to the problems present in the gendered—and here misogynistic—workplace. Kate recalls her advice early on to Momo that “money can’t tell what sex you are” (300). So Kate and Momo hatch a plan with their EMF colleague Candy in which they can damage Bunce and his colluding male colleagues where it will “hurt them most” (300)—through money and Bunce’s financial reputation at work. Kate and Momo quickly assemble an alliance of women: Candy; a woman overlooked for the promotion Bunce received; Debra, who provides legal advice; Judith, a former patent agent; Caroline, a graphic designer; and Alice, a TV producer. Together this collective of women pools their intellectual abilities and professional networks to defend Momo and bring justice to Bunce and his nefarious actions. [36]

<42> Kate’s and Momo’s plan is to sell a defective product to Bunce, but to disguise their strategy as a new product he would have little knowledge about: a biodegradable diaper purportedly invented by Kate’s deadbeat father. Kate knows the product will fail, that Bunce’s initial investment will cover her father’s debts and nothing more. And thus Bunce’s reputation will fail, which will “punish” him more than a lawsuit or investigation into sexual harassment. In point of fact, this “punishment” becomes an attack on Bunce’s masculinity as defined by the neoliberal workplace—earning power, reputation, networking, and the financial bottom line. However, Candy cautions Kate that they could lose their jobs at EMF for deliberately misleading Bunce and bringing a huge financial loss to the company. Kate emphasizes that “there is a principle at stake here” (303), and by this point readers understand the principle to be this: that it is utterly necessary for women to form collaborations that are deep and rich enough to sustain and defend them in times of inequity and injustice.

<43> Kate’s best friend Debra, a lawyer who is providing legal consult on this revenge mission, emphasizes, “this isn’t fraud. It’s naughty, but it’s not illegal. And it’s a clear case of caveat emptor—if the buyer doesn’t take care over what he’s buying, then that’s his lookout” (305). This is another important aspect of their mission to bring justice to Momo and penalty to Bunce; in order for us to root for Bunce’s demise, we must still be able to see Kate and her female cohort working within the law, even if, as Pearson notes, they are willfully misbehaving. (That’s why readers like it, after all!) Their “naughty” mission evokes a fun plot, the kind of revenge that readers can relate to emotionally, that can make them engage in wish fulfillment for the times they endured politics of the gendered workplace without the luxury of a loyal female squadron to help turn the tables on the patriarchal, white hierarchy of corporations. [37]

<44> Unlike Alcott, who wrote with great hopes for equity and feminist advancement in the future, by the twenty-first century Pearson writes with more cynicism about the progress that has been made on both the professional and domestic stages. Rather than creating an idealistic female coalition, Pearson shows how female collaboration must function carefully—not necessarily underground, but certainly on the fringe of the publicly accountable practices of human resources departments. It becomes tactical resistance, a way of working within the workplace culture (and within the law) that allows women to band together to defend one another and to create a better workplace culture for them all. As Sandberg notes in a recent New York Times Op-Ed, “When a woman helps another woman, they both benefit. And when women celebrate one another’s accomplishments, we’re all lifted up” (Sandberg, “Catty Woman”). Pearson knows that the workplace is still rife with racial and sexist prejudices, but her novel demonstrates that it is still important that we continue the discourse around these important issues—and that women continue to support each other and form the critical networks that sustain and protect them. And like Fey’s call that women embrace the YES, AND process to achieve feminist collaboration, Pearson presents strategies for negotiating the gendered workplace—and even for claiming agency and finding successes within the gendered workplace. As I Don’t Know How She Does It illustrates, the struggle to bring value to collaboration and make progress toward gender equity is indeed still a crucial work in progress.

The Work is Never Done

<45> From Madeline Albright’s entreaty that women “give one another a hand” and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s awareness of the lingering idea of “having it all,” to Tina Fey’s appeal to embrace a “YES, AND” methodology for feminist action and Sheryl Sandberg’s multiple writings on women’s advancement in the workplace, contemporary women writers approach the continuing challenges for working women and the vital role of female collaboration through their sustained discourse on this topic. This discourse extends into the world of literature, as we have shown, with emotionally resonant and critically engaged effects. As we see in Alcott, women comfort and encourage one another—to the point of saving each other’s lives—and in doing so help individuals find their courage and claim agency in order to affect positive change for other women. Christie is first and foremost a collaborator, which empowers her to step into a leadership role precisely because she is among her “loving league of sisters, . . . each ready to do her part” (343). Meanwhile Kate helps Momo and in doing so helps herself (and any other future women at EMF) by looking outside the official sanctions of their company to bring about gender equity and justice in the face of sexual harassment. Although Kate hesitates at first to be fully honest with Momo, in the end her honesty is what will sustain Momo when she inevitably finds herself mentoring a younger female colleague in the future.

<46> Just as Albright has returned to her now-famous quotation, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” many times over the past 25 years of her professional career, this article demonstrates that literary authors Louisa May Alcott and Allison Pearson have also returned to this topic, writing more than 100 years apart. Clearly this is a dialogue that is not resolved and requires the continued analysis that all of the authors cited here provide. What we see is that women have indeed made progress—especially white, professional, educated, upper-middle class women. But they have not made that progress by flying solo; rather, they have made that progress through women lifting each other up and providing moral, ethical, and practical supports to sustain their professional and personal successes. In this way, we see that female collaboration is just as important in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth century.

<47> In the end, and as a reflection on the issue of collaboration, we decided that our findings are a little more disappointing than hopeful. While we love the potential of collaboration and we celebrate the literary examples of female collaboration at its most successful pinnacle, we are disheartened that the same issues voiced by early feminists are issues that plague contemporary women in the workforce. We both highly value female collaboration—and we hope this essay is a testament to that. We do not want female collaboration to go away. But we do hope that the utter necessity of female collaboration in the face of financial desperation or sexual harassment will be a thing of the past at some point.

<48> We do not feel that these findings undermine the strategic use of female collaboration as a tool for reform, nor do we think that collaboration must always be structured around gender in order to advance the cause of equity, diversity, and opportunity in the workplace. However, these findings do quite obviously indicate that the work is not done. In Work, Alcott uses the character of Christie to represent the contemporaneous struggle of women to be more fully recognized and valued in the public sphere. And in I Don’t Know How She Does It, Pearson uses the characters of Kate and Momo to illustrate that the struggles of contemporary working women are, unfortunately, very common. Alcott forecast a promising future for women and female collaboration through Christie’s brazen, collaborative community of women of different races and social classes. However, Pearson implies that even with a community of female collaborators, Kate’s and Momo’s struggles in the twenty-first century suggest that Christie’s vision of a “coming generation of women [who] will not only receive but deserve their liberty” (344) seems to be part of an ongoing and not yet fully-realized process. The task of truly placing value on collaboration, particularly in capitalist and individualistic societies, is big—huge even. As we have seen, literature reflects the small successes, lack of large-scale progress, and wide, sustained ideals of collaboration that have persisted throughout first-wave, second-wave, and postfeminist discourse. It plays a crucial role in inviting readers into an important critical dialogue around female collaboration, and it demonstrates quite clearly that there is much work yet to be done.



[1] See, for example, Ruth Rosen, “Who Said ‘We Could Have it All?’”, Kunal Modi “Man Up on Family and Workplace Issues: A Response to Anne-Marie Slaughter,” and Lori Gottlieb, “Why There’s No Such Thing as Having it All—And There Never Will Be.”

[2] In addition to being a gendered question, the discourse of “having it all” has been primarily directed to and centered on educated, white, professional women. This audience is also primarily middle- or upper-middle class, with the attendant privileges for salaried work, time off, dual salaries, and the option to hire outside help with childcare and domestic chores. Slaughter’s article, Sandberg’s book, and the genre of chick lit direct their writing to this audience. It is also the primary audience for feminist philosopher Linda Hirshman in her polemic Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World.

[3] Although these authors all participated in the publication of fiction and/or poetry, some of their most effective feminist writing also took the form of nonfiction periodical columns, essays, and letters. See, for example, the scathing, satirical social critique in Fern’s essay, “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books” published in The New York Ledger in 1857.

[4] Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy (2004) traces the ways needs for domestic labor in the households of working North American women has transformed the twenty-first-century migrant labor force and global economy.

[5] See Berlant’s The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture.

[6] According to Ann Douglas, when literature operates as a “form of leisure, a complicated mass dream-life” it “reveal[s] and support[s] a special class, a class defined less by what its members produced than by what the consumed” (10).

[7]  Although Louisa May Alcott is usually considered a girls’ or women’s author in our contemporary period, her work was viewed somewhat differently during the nineteenth century. For example, Alcott was the only female author included in Parker Brothers 1893 game, Authors. In that game she was lumped with twelve other authors considered the primary figures of literary history at that time; this group included William Shakespeare, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Edgar Allan Poe, and others. In the twentieth century, Alcott’s work has been treated differently. Nina Baym credits Alcott (and her contemporary Martha Finley) with contributing to the “decline of woman’s fiction . . . because they represent the transformation of woman’s fiction into girls’ fiction” (296). When Work was published in 1873, it was reviewed in women’s periodicals like The Ladies Repository and Godey’s Lady’s Book, but the most thorough treatments appeared in publications with broad national audiences such as The Nation, Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art, The Literary World, The Commonwealth, and Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Some of the 1873 reviews focus on gender, like the Springfield Daily Union whose reviewer wrote, “Like Miss Alcott’s other novels it is written chiefly about women” (Clark, 192). The Springfield Daily Republican’s reviewer, however, recognized Alcott’s broader, transnational appeal, writing, “Miss Alcott has become one of the most popular writers of the time and country, and even in England has a great and increasing popularity. She seems to be looked upon across the ocean as a peculiarly American author,—with a manner of writing quite fresh, and unlike that of any European novelist” (Clark 189).

[8] See also Janice Radway’s cultural studies classic Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Culture, as well as John G. Cawelti’s Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture.

[9] Even Vladimir Nabokov (no great feminist) agrees on the collaboration that occurs between reader and writer, which he romantically portrays in his essay “Good Readers and Good Writers”: “Up a trackless slope climbs the master artist [the author], and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts forever” (614).

[10] For more on literary representation of collaboration in the nineteenth century, see Victoria Ford Smith, Between Generations: Imagination, Collaboration, and the Nineteenth-Century Child.

[11] Christie fell asleep with a candle burning, resulting in a fire in the Stuarts’ attic. It is Christie’s reaction (laughter) to her employer’s “hysterical” scolding that infuriates Mrs. Stuart enough to terminate her (29).

[12] At the age of seventeen Alcott confided in her journal, “Anna wants to be an actress and so do I” (Journals 63). Among the notable fictional actresses included in Alcott’s work are Marion in “Marion Earle; or, Only an Actress” (1858), Clotilde in “A Double Tragedy: An Actor’s Story” (1865), Jean Muir in the thriller Behind a Mask (1866), and Miss Cameron in Jo’s Boys (1886).

[13] As recently as June 2016, Sandberg continued her advocacy of female collaboration and argued against the idea that women are “ ‘catty’ or ‘queen bees’.” Indeed, in her June New York Times Op-Ed, she emphasizes that women find more success when they support other women: “When a woman was made chief executive … [another] woman had a better chance of joining senior management than when the chief executive was a man” (Sandberg).  However, it is important to note that Sandberg’s philosophy has also been criticized by feminist theorists, including bell hooks, who faults Sandberg’s neoliberal biases and argues, “In truth, Sandberg offers no strategies for the building of feminist solidarity between women” (hooks).

[14] Hepsey fails to purchase her mother’s freedom when “ ‘[O]le missis’ would not let her go at any price, and the faithful chattel would not run away” (101). Instead, Hepsey uses Christie’s money to buy her brothers out of slavery and send them to Canada.

[15] To examine very recent iterations of the village or league of sisters, we turned to the popular novel of 2016, Opening Belle, in which Maureen Sherry closes Belle’s story with an ending almost identical to that of Work. Sherry’s “loving league of sisters” takes the form of a “boutique investment firm,” in which all the partners are women who commit to “help[ing] one another” (Albright) and learning from each other: “We make ourselves sit next to someone different each day, to help us share ideas,” Opening Belle’s narrator explains (326). Just as Alcott did a century and a half earlier, Sherry presents the collaborative structure as the ideal.

[16] Just as Christie’s role in the women’s movement is motivated in part by a concern for her daughter and the world she will live in, Clinton’s village revolves around and depends upon a commitment to the well-being of children. Clinton’s 2016 presidential election picks up on this emphasis and utilizes the rhetoric of collaboration, especially as it affects women and families.

[17] Many of Fey’s successes as a writer and performer have been collaborative, from her work with Second City to collaborations with Amy Poehler and the writing teams at Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock.

[18] For example, see “Enigmas” (1864), “The Freak of a Genius” (1866), and A Modern Mephistopheles (1877).

[19] The prejudice against the Irish that is represented Work remains a notable and problematic exception to Alcott’s vision of an egalitarian society.

[20] Fielding’s novel was first published in the United States in 1998. Scholars and critics agree that it is considered the ur-text of chick lit. Its success launched the genre and invited Fielding’s successors to imitate and vary the humor and triumphs of her text. See Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young (4), Caroline J. Smith (2), and Tania Modleski (xxi).

[21] Other bestselling chick lit novels include The Devil Wears Prada (2003) by Lauren Weisberger, Confessions of a Shopaholic (2001) by Sophie Kinsella, Good in Bed (2001) by Jennifer Weiner, The Nanny Diaries (2002) by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus, Mr. Maybe (2002) by Jane Green, and Something Borrowed (2004) by Emily Giffin.

[22] Nearly all novels are set in New York City or London. Author Jennifer Weiner slightly modifies this formula by setting her novels in Philadelphia, and Christian chick lit author Kristen Billerbeck interestingly sets her “Ashley Stockingdale” novels in Silicon Valley. As critics Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra note, chick lit, like postfeminism, is a transatlantic “phenomenon of both British and American popular culture, often marked by a high degree of discursive harmony evidenced in such ‘transit’ texts as Bridget Jones’s Diary, Sex and the City, [and] I Don’t Know How She Does It” (13).

[23] These authors address female collaboration, including its complications, as well as competitiveness between women in their novels. See Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Sula (1973) and Song of Solomon (1977) by Toni Morrison, and Cat’s Eye (1988) and The Robber Bride (1993) by Margaret Atwood.

[24] Hirshman’s appeal for work-based constructions of female subjectivity is grounded in the epistemological tradition of the “good life,” dating back to Plato’s The Republic. Hirshman’s use of Plato joins a tradition of feminist scholarship that responds to classical philosophy and ideals. See also Julia Anna’s essay, “Plato’s Republic and Feminism,” in which she elucidates problems with Plato’s call for the “good life” through engagement with work outside the home.

[25] Hirshman asserts that only through work outside the home can a human being achieve her fullest self. Pursuing qualities of goodness and justice in life will potentially lead to intellectual development and fulfillment, as well as creating community with fellow citizens. Hirshman’s definition of the “good life” demystifies nineteenth-century, essentialist notions that female identity only thrives within private, domestic spaces where women are the protectors of emotional and moral development. Instead, this new interpretation of the “good life” modernizes conversations about female subjectivity and work for the twenty-first century. In addition, the “good life” increases the public value placed upon women’s intellectual capacities, as well as on their engagement within public, political, and social arenas.

[26] Susan Faludi documented this sexist power structure and patriarchal cultural phenomenon in her famous 1991 work, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women.

[27] Ruth Rosen’s response to Slaughter illuminates the historical trajectory of the fraught superwoman mythology, noting, “The belief that you could become a superwoman became a journalistic trope in the 1970s and has never vanished. . . . And that was exactly what feminists had not wanted” (Rosen).

[28] This is similar to the way Alcott presents the joint labors of Christie’s feminist collective; the women help to raise Christie’s young daughter as Christie speaks publically for the women’s movement.  A difference, of course, is that Christie will presumably not be paying for childcare, and her work as spokesperson will directly benefit all of the women of the collective.

[29] It is because of the support of Lucy and Mrs. Black that Christie is able to make her public contribution as an actress.

[30] See, for instance, critics Kerstin Fest’s “Angels in the House or Girl Power: Working Women in Nineteenth-Century Novels and Contemporary Chick Lit”; Heather Hewett’s “You Are Not Alone: The Personal, the Political, and the ‘New’ Mommy Lit”; and Juliette Wells’s “Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers, and Literary History.” See also reviews by Kate Betts in the New York Times and Dana Stevens in Slate.

[31] As we have seen with both Albright, Fey, and Sandberg, many contemporary women are engaging in the feminist practice of collaboration, and are advocating for it publicly, too.

[32] Although Jill Cooper-Clark dies of cancer at a relatively young age (47 years old), Momo’s pity is focused not on Jill’s short life, but rather on the fact that Jill left behind a thriving career. According to Kate, Jill was “fast-track civil service” and would have been “running the Home Office by now, but she decided to run her own home instead” (219). Indeed, the fact that Jill left the workforce entirely to manage a household and serve as primary caregiver for her three sons is what Momo finds upsetting.

[33] Kerstin Fest argues that in chick lit, “the heroine’s femininity in the workplace is a concern” (44). She demonstrates the postfeminist nature of chick lit, situated within the rhetoric of choice that demands women choose either work or motherhood. Fest continues, “The ‘good’ woman is expected to neglect work and prioritize her private life. Women’s professional success is very often linked with a lack of femininity and presented as a threat to the heroine and to her private personal relationships” (45).

[34] This demand to be treated equally does not even take into account the wage gap that Sandberg and others have critiqued.

[35] Another similarity between I Don’t Know How She Does It and Work is that Christie endeavors to elevate a fallen woman, highlighting and critiquing the sexual shaming of women that cuts Rachel off from her family and threatens Momo’s career at EMF. Christie defends Rachel and pleads for her job even as other women at the mantua workroom judge her.

[36] Pearson chooses to have the alliance of women meet in a strip joint called “The Suckling Club” (303), which is a disturbing image/name for a “gentlemen’s entertainment emporium” (304). This setting may respond to a historically familiar pattern revealed in Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey’s What Works for Women at Work: the strip club has been a workplace or after-work meeting place in male-dominated industries (77).

[37] Berlant’s work in The Female Complaint is helpful for understanding the affective register within which chick lit (and much popular fiction) operates and within which readers come to feel connected with the heroines of the genre. According to Berlant, cultural productions of “women’s culture” produce subjects who see themselves as part of a larger “intimate public … marked by a commonly lived history; its narratives … shaping its conventions of belonging; and, expressing the sensational, embodied experience of living as a certain kind of being in the world, it promises also to provide a better experience of social belonging” (viii).



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