Reading Little Women is a warm Christmas fire surrounded by a large and loving family, which is exactly how I’ve experienced December 25th since my birth. We come together and are jovial dammit, no matter what has transpired in the last year or what misfortune may loom in the next. Alcott’s classic is also a tome of human values and goodness, complexly weighing ambitious and creative self-expression versus the dutiful sacrifices made for family, friends, and community.
A battle is also fought (arguably lost, arguably won and arguably yielded) by Jo March against society’s demand that women abdicate certain liberties upon the brink of adulthood. I can’t do Jo justice here, but I can say that I’ve never identified with another fictional character more. Jo, based on Alcott herself, was an intellectual tomboy who wanted more from life than what her gender granted, so where she could she adopted the demeanor of the freer sex. Her disappointment in not being a boy, her disdain for women’s fashion and housework, her propensity towards slang, physical activity and adventure stories, as well as her creative writing endeavors, were all ways in which Jo combatted the expectations of women in her time. These examples also hint at a conflict of gender identity, if at the very least, as a rejection of the social values and inequalities associated with her sex.
Jo’s affinity to boys and male friendships is perhaps a way she exerts her claim to agency, liberty, and spontaneity; all things freely handed to boys in her day. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says,
“The feminine dramas of Little Women unfold under the aegis of a father deified by absence. In novels of adventure it is the boys who take a trip around the world, who travel as sailors on ships, who live in the jungle on breadfruit. All important events take place through the agency of men. Reality confirms what these novels and legends say. If the young girl reads the papers, if she listens to the conversation of grown-ups, she learns that today, as always, men run the world. The political leaders, generals, explorers, musicians, and painters whom she admires are men; certainly it is men who arouse enthusiasm in her heart” (317).
Perhaps she thought that the more like boys she was, the less threatened by them she would feel, threatened not only by their societal worth and preeminence, but also by their love. The relationships she had with Laurie and Professor Bhaer provided an intimacy with the gender she was most intrigued by. The traditionally ‘feminine’ elements of their characters allowed Jo to feel comfortable in her androgyny. Nevertheless, societal mores enforced a romantic dynamic on both relationships, thereby causing the collapse of one and necessitating conditions for the other.
Ultimately, I think Jo can be said to have lived to her full potential, despite having lived in a time when women’s roles were constricted by traditional notions of femininity and institutionalized patriarchy. She did not, as she thought at first, have to renounce her femininity or romantic love, and was able to reach her highest ambitions.
Jo found comfort and happiness in home life, yet set her own standards for her marriage and made a living using her creative and intellectual gifts; she found a place among men without competing with or denigrating them. Alcott took the tactful route of raising women’s expectations of themselves without placing blame. Not only did Alcott rewrite what femininity could mean for young girls through Jo, that they could be the heroes of their own lives; she wrote new interpretations of what masculinity could be. Instead of aggressive, staunch, powerful soldier-types, through the examples of Laurie and Professor Bhaer she crafted sensitive, intellectual, funny and empathetic men as heroes, too.
Little Women emboldened girls to share the fruits of their imaginations and intellects and to face the odds that were against them. Beyond that, Jo March showed that you can define yourself, not based on the dictates of your surrounding culture, but by doing your best to be authentic when confronted with adversity and outright injustice.
By simply reading a book, Simone de Beauvoir and Gloria Steinem, who both cite Jo March as a strong influence, were encouraged to actively fight for the equal treatment of women in society; a definitive example of how the personal becomes political. Jo is 164 years old by now. She is old. But she is also me and you. Her struggles are our struggles. She wasn’t allowed an education equal to her male counterparts and she wasn’t allowed to vote. I was and you are. But we aren’t allowed wages equal to men, our peers; we aren’t allowed the free exhibition of our bodies equal to men or the privilege of not having them interfere.
Through Jo March, Alcott was taking chances in her own time, moving toward an androgynous and equal middle, where sex and gender did not have to mean anything she did not want it to mean.
What I underlined:
It’s bad enough to be a girl, any-way, when I like boys’ games, and work and manners. I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy, and its worse than ever now, for I’m dying to go and fight with Papa, and I can only stay at home and knit like a poky old woman (4)
What could be harder for a restless, ambitious girl than to give up her own hopes, plans, and desires, and cheerfully live for others? (688)
Pity from your heart those who have no such guardians to hedge them round with principles which may seem like prison walls to impatient youth, but which will prove sure foundations to build character upon in womanhood (565)
They gave a love that grew with their (daughters’) growth, and bound them tenderly together by the sweetest tie which blesses life and outlives death (374)
You are the gull, Jo, strong and wild, fond of the storm and the wind, flying far out to sea, and happy all alone (595)
Edition: Puffin Books 2014
Credit: De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex. London: Pan Books Ltd, 1949. Print.