1. It's a girl's world. Little Women is female-centric. I don't just mean it's about girls and women. I mean the entire novel is a picture of life where every male character is peripheral - yes, even Laurie - and every aspect of life is viewed through the lens of females. Alcott created a world of girls/women. Their hopes, dreams, failures, successes - even their vanities - are all their own, and not shaped by boys or men. There is never a moment in the narrative when we are inside the head of a boy or a man.
2. Sisterhood celebrated. Unlike so many other novels, Little Women is about females supporting one another, and holding each other up through the toughest of times. While sibling rivalry exists between two of the sisters, it's not about them being females, but about them being siblings with contrasting temperaments. At the end of the day, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy always have each other's backs, because sisterhood is a powerful force. In any other novel, sisters would fight over Laurie. Not the March sisters.
3. Marmee. Can we talk about marmee? Marmee is so badass that she tells her daughters she'd rather they remain spinsters than marry for money. Think this isn't some badass, feminist talk? Do some reading about what life was like in 1868, and what spinsterhood usually amounted to, for women who weren't heiresses. Marmee doesn't raise the March girls to plan on marrying for money and be supported by men. She raises her daughters to think for themselves, hold out for true love, and find ways to support themselves. You want radical feminism? A mother who is relieved when her daughter turns down the proposal of a rich, honorable young man, because she knows their love isn't truly of a romantic nature, and that they're not suited as life partners. A mother encouraging her daughter to leave the nest, move to a strange city on her own, and pursue writing, even when the window of opportunity for finding a financially secure husband is slowly closing. A mother who finds peace when confronted with the significantly older, penniless pauper her daughter DOES love, because she wants her daughter to live life on her own terms. Keep in mind we're talking about a book written in 1868, not 1978.
4. Jo March selling her hair. This is no small thing. For a young woman from a decent family to even walk into a shop where hair is bought and sold would be scandalous, but our Jo doesn't give a damn about convention, or what "proper" ladies are expected to do. She sees family crisis and the need for fast cash, recognizes that she lives in a world where her "one beauty" has a dollar value, and she makes the sacrifice. Does she lament her decision, later? Yes, briefly. Who wouldn't? But she doesn't dwell on it. It's HER hair, and she'll chop it off and sell it, if she wants to.
5. Jo and Laurie's friendship. Unlike so many other examples in literature and film, Jo and Laurie's friendship really is friendship in its truest form. While Laurie imagines it to be more, because he isn't as forward thinking as Jo, Jo always knows that what she has in Laurie is a best friend. Think the idea of girls and boys/men and women being best friends for life, with no romantic entanglements is old hat, and that the idea of true Platonic love between the opposite sexes is not at all a feminist idea? Find half a dozen examples of it in American literature prior to Little Women. I'll wait.
6. Self-determination. This is a theme which comes up in Little Women, again and again. We read, early on, about the March girls' and their castles in the air. Meg's castle is very traditional - and that's ok. It's OK to want a husband and children and to make a nice home life for one's family. There's nothing about that that isn't feminist, if it's what a girl or woman truly wants, and we know Meg well enough to know it's what she truly desires most. And why not? She has a wonderful, strong, resilient mother, and aspires to live up to her greatness. Beth's castle can be whittled down to peace: it's really all she wants out of life. No husband. No children. Just peace. And maybe a decent piano. It may not be exciting, but it's her life's wish, and she's allowed to have it, without anyone urging her to grow up and start looking for a husband. Jo and Amy have more nontraditional castles, both of which revolve around creativity and art. During an era when girls their age were expected to seek out respectable husbands who would offer them financial security, Jo and Amy both have dreams of achieving artistic greatness. When they each give up these dreams (or put them on hold) it's not because anyone forces them to, or the men in their lives have forbidden them to pursue them. Amy comes to the mature realization that she isn't much more than mediocre as an artist, and that hoping for genius is not enough. Jo puts her writing aside not because she has to, but because she makes a choice, eventually, to marry and have children. Die-hard Alcott fans know that, in the final book in this series, Jo's literary aspirations are not only revived, but with a vengeance. When we meet the much older Jo in Jo's Boys we're told that, when the Bhaers are facing dire poverty, Jo picks up her pen and not only saves the day by selling her writing, but she achieves a level of fame and fortune she'd never dreamt possible. Anyone who thinks Jo is forced to stop writing, or that she gives it up, entirely, isn't really reading the words on the page. They're certainly not reading through the entire March Family saga.
7. "A funny match." That's how Louisa May Alcott described her choice of husband for Jo. Alcott intended for Jo to remain unmarried, but the second part of Little Women never would have been published if she'd refused to give in and marry off all the surviving March sisters. An early feminist, herself, Alcott was the only significant breadwinner in her family, and she couldn't afford to lose a chance at a second novel being published. Put simply: she had mouths to feed. She did refuse, though, to marry Jo off to the handsome, charming, rich Laurie, even though it's what the public wanted so badly. That would have been too formulaic, and an insult to the girl Jo was, the woman she was to become. There are still people who lament this choice, but I maintain that, underneath the handsome face and substantial income, grown-up Laurie is really a bit of a bore. Put in more modern terms, Laurie is the wealthy guy who settles for a life in the family business - a business about which he doesn't really give a damn. How depressing. The idea that Jo holds out for true love, and finds it not in her young, handsome, wealthy neighbor, who fairly begs for her hand in marriage, but in the form of a poor, middle-aged immigrant with a love of philosophy and literature has always been something I've found refreshing. Jo doesn't settle. She never settles. The "funny match" Louisa May Alcott writes, as she thumbs her nose at convention, represents Jo March's ongoing insistence on dancing to the beat of her own drummer, thank you very much. If a 19th century woman saying, "I don't want to be married to a man who's just convenient and available, I want to find love with someone who I decide is worthy" isn't a defiant act of feminism, I don't know what is.
8. Aunt March. Hear me out on this. No one who reads Little Women adores Aunt March, but it must be acknowledged that Alcott has not only written a book where the family patriarch is absent, but created a world where the only family money to speak of is controlled by a woman. A childless woman who lives alone and wields a certain amount of power and sway. Is she always nice? Not by a long shot. But she's always her own woman, and she takes orders from no one. Feminism isn't about being docile or likable. And when she dies? Her house and land don't go to her nephew, Robin (the March girls' father), but to Jo. Aunt March not only skips over an entire generation when deciding who her estate should go to, and she doesn't just leave it to a female, she leaves it to the most spirited female in the family...the female most likely to do with Plumfield things Aunt March would find distasteful or even scandalous. Aunt March knows Jo well enough to know this, and she leaves her Plainfield, anyhow. I have a quiet affection for Aunt March, who I suspect would have been a suffragette, had she been born later.
9. Separate, but equal. Some 20th and 21st century feminists could learn a lot from Alcott. While I've seen divisions among so-called feminists in my lifetime, who rage against women choosing to make home, children and spouse the center of their universe, Alcott did no such thing. If the March sisters all chose their own lives, it's true that their choices are very different. Where Jo chooses a somewhat unconventional life - first turning down a lucrative proposal of marriage, and then opting for a life full of raucous male energy, running a school for topsy-turvy boys, several of whom really have no other place to go - Meg chooses a life of very quiet, conventional domesticity. Her life revolves around her husband, her children, and making a home that is comfortable for them. If it seems like a letdown, it shouldn't. It's Meg's castle in the air come to fruition, and Alcott honors that. Film versions of Little Women skip over it (really the only section of the book consistently absent from the films), but Alcott devotes whole chapters to Meg's domestic foibles. Some of these foibles and their resolutions may seem cringeworthy to readers in 2018, but the fact remains that Alcott does something that had seldom if ever been done before: she elevates what many of us see as mundane, domestic life. The life she describes in these chapters is probably closer to the lives lived by most women in 1868 than anything else we're likely to read in fiction from that era, because the domestic lives of women were not deemed worthy of literature. Alcott holds no such opinion. To her, Meg's dilemmas about her household budget, botched attempts at cooking, or entertaining her demanding children are just as worthy of being written about as Jo and Amy's far more exotic adventures in New York and abroad. Beth's journey, which is almost wholly internal, is also deemed worthy of exploration. When Alcott devotes time to and honors every kind of female life, she's truly the feminist we need in 2018 - the feminist who knows that feminism isn't about anyone telling women what they should or should not do, but about supporting women in the choices they make for themselves.
10. The sequels. Little Women does not exist in a vacuum. In point of fact, Alcott wrote four books about the March family: Little Women, Good Wives (in the USA, now published as the second half of Little women), Little Men, and Jo's Boys. Most people agree that Little Women is her true masterpiece. I think so. I also think the sequels are well worth exploring, for anyone who has an interest in the seeds planted in the first book. Little Men revolves around Plumfield, Jo and Fritz's school for boys. One of the oddities, of course, is that Jo sees fit to admit girls to the school, as well - Nan and Daisy, who are almost replacements for young Jo and and Meg. This, in itself, is pretty audacious. I highly doubt there were many co-ed boarding schools even in the most progressive corners of America at the time Little Men was written. What's more, when we get to the final book about the March family, we're treated to the vision Alcott had not only for Jo (who has become a successful and famous writer), but for her young counterpart, Nan, who becomes a physician and, we're told, never marries - not because she doesn't have the opportunity, but because she chooses a path in life that leaves no room for marriage. Nan is happy with and fulfilled by the path she has chosen. Daisy, for her part, chooses a path that is parallel to that of Meg (who is her mother) and, again, Alcott honors this choice as much as any other made by the girls and women in the March universe. Jo's Boys is not a great book. It's not even a very good book, but it's a must, if one is truly going to look at what Louisa May Alcott had to say about womanhood, the spaces women inhabit in the world, and the dreams girls and women have every right to dream.
Context is everything. One cannot fairly measure feminist content in a work written 150 years ago, without placing it in its proper social, political, or even spiritual context. Viewed through the lens tinted with 21st century values and norms, Little Women may seem mundane, boilerplate, or even at odds with modern feminist values. Viewed through the lens of 1868 - the year that Louisa May Alcott spent a mere 30 days writing the first half of this two-part book - it's clear that it gives voice to girls and women in a way no American novel really had, before, that it's daring and sometimes audacious. It's teeming with strong, positive female characters and relationships. Most of all, it gives us Jo March - a girl and a woman who dares dream her own, unique dream, and live life on her own terms, until the very end.
"I believe in the same pay for the same good work. Don't you? In future, let woman do whatever she can do: let men place no more impediments in the way; above all things let's have fair play, - let simple justice be done, say I. Let us hear no more of 'woman's sphere' either from our wise (?) legislators beneath the gilded dome, or from clergymen in their pulpits. I am tired, year after year, of hearing such twaddle about sturdy oaks and clinging vines and man's chivalric protection of woman. Let woman find out her own limitations, and if, as is so confidently asserted, nature has defined her sphere, she will be guided accordingly - but in heaven's name give her a chance! Let professions be open to her; let fifty years of college education be hers, and then we shall see what we shall see. Then, and not until then, shall we be able to say what woman can and what she cannot do, and coming generations will know and be able to define more clearly what is a 'woman's sphere' than these benighted men who try now to do it." - Louisa May Alcott