Jo March, Proto-Feminist Icon
Proto-feminism is as tricky a thing to define as feminism itself. Generally, all it means is a thing or person that has feminist characteristics, but in something that originated before feminism was a coined expression. And as feminism is a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, then anything proto-feminist should embody these ideals to one extent or another as well.
I love Little Women. As a fourth-grader, I received an abridged edition of the book for my birthday, and to honor the March sisters and their attic playhouse, built my own pillow-and-blanket fort in my room in order to read the book properly. Lying on my back, sheltered by my favorite sheets (they had elaborate roses and tangled vines on them), I kicked up my feet on the bed and looked forward to enjoying Jo and Laurie's happy ending.
Okay, so I don't love everything about Little Women. Yeah, yeah, I get it, I know, but…I was nine years old and all I wanted was for them to get married and waltz through Europe together. I still want that, and it's been twenty-three years since I was that kid reading in a fort on the floor of her bedroom.
But I digress.
There's still plenty to love about the book, whether or not you agree with the final resolution of Jo's journey. The setting is pastoral but grounded, the plot engaging and fast-paced, and the characters realistically flawed and well-rounded.
This last is, I believe, what keeps drawing people back to the story, because its morals and manners are quite antiquated. Many people object to the 'preachy' or 'moralistic' tone of the book, and point to the fact that Louisa May Alcott wrote it to be a moral guide for young girls to denigrate its applicability to our lives now. How could something with such a clear agenda be engaging to an audience that isn't invested in those traditional, gendered, Christian values?
But there is definitely an audience for it, nonetheless. There have been several high-profile adaptations of Little Women within the last few decades, one starring Winona Ryder in 2004 (which I love beyond all reason) and the most recent adaptation by Greta Gerwig in 2020 starring Saoirse Ronan (which was criminally underrepresented by the Oscars, but that's another story).
How can a story published over 150 years ago, about the struggles of four sisters to develop from girls into women, hold so much appeal for a modern audience? How can their personalities and issues in any way resemble ours, so far removed?
Quite easily, actually. Each of the sisters in Little Women—save perhaps Beth, who is relatable for other reasons but who sadly doesn't live long enough to develop fully—has an arc that many women and girls will understand to this day. And each, in its way, has a touch of feminist theory about it.
Meg is the oldest, and her position in the family makes her the responsible one. She holds down the most grueling job in tutoring children in a wealthy family, and is her mother's helpmeet at home. Yet she is unsatisfied by this responsibility, and longs for an easy life, one she remembers from her childhood. She wants, if not riches, then at least the freedom from worrying about money. Unfortunately, Meg falls in love with a poor man, and resolves her arc by learning to value a simple life rich with love.
Jo, the second sister—and the overall focus of this piece—is the tomboy, the odd one out, the loud, brash girl who can't settle into traditional feminine roles. Wildly creative, full of energy, Jo is also quick to anger and resentment where she is most full of love. Her efforts to manage her fiery temper while still maintaining her sense of self is engrossing, and her growth is definitely the focus of the book. What's key about Jo is that her inability to fit into traditional feminine gender roles isn't viewed as a drawback by her family; what they want her to manage is her anger, not her creativity or her longing for career. The story doesn't punish Jo—at first, anyway—for wanting to break away from her narrow life and do something other than marry and have children.
Finally Amy, the baby. I have the least sympathy for Amy, and I think her story is probably the least friendly to modern adaptations, as Amy is most bounded by the limitations of her time. Like Meg, Amy's arc has a lot to do with her relationship with money and social position, namely that she wants them and will do what she needs to get them. She has creativity and artistic talent, like Jo, and beauty and refinement, like Meg, but she also has the judgement and personality to make herself appealing to those that can help her achieve her goals. Therefore she, of all the sisters, is the only one to get all she wants practically without any drawback.
The scope of this piece is not wide enough to encompass all three sisters' stories, so let me return instead to Jo.
Growing up, I empathized strongly with Jo. I was an unattractive girl who felt like she was too large for everyone around me, who preferred reading and creating to other pursuits, and who played with the boys because I thought the girls were too sedate. I felt loud and awkward and was half-convinced, like Jo, that I'd never find anyone to love me because I was so flawed.
I also desperately wanted to be a writer. That was a conclusion I'd reached when I was eight, before I even read the book, so finding a heroine who was also a writer was like finding a blueprint for a life I desperately wanted to live. Perhaps that's why I longed for Jo and Laurie's love to run smooth, because Jo's successful relationship with a handsome, rich man would show me that I wasn't completely hopeless. If Jo could do it, I could do it.
Well. We don't ever get all we want, do we?
But even if Jo couldn't give me that, she did give me something more important. She gave me the example of a woman living a brave life away from the traditional structures of her childhood, and succeeding at it.
After Jo refuses Laurie's offer of marriage, she moves away from her hometown and into the big, bustling city of New York. She does this to escape an environment that's become painful to live in, but she also does it on the express understanding that she'll be pursuing her career as a writer. While in the city, she tutors children to make her daily living, while steadily improving her skill as a mystery and thriller writer. As she improves, her coffers fill. She pays for many necessities and pleasures for her family, helping to make everyone's lives, and Beth's especially, more comfortable.
However, Jo hides her stories from them, knowing that the increasingly gory and shocking material she writes will offend their sensibilities. As she grows prouder of what she achieves, she must also be more secretive about how she achieves it.
Jo makes a friend in her boarding-house, German professor Friedrich Bhaer, and trusts him to read her work. His reaction drives home to Jo that she is writing things that, aside from the money they bring in, give her nothing else to take pride in. Though Jo's pride is severely wounded, and though she does not want to abandon thrillers for they are what are supporting her and her family, she reluctantly does so as her shame and the professor's disappointment—and by extension, her parents'—make it impossible for her to continue.
As her time in New York ends, Jo returns to her parents' home, pursued by the professor. Jo finds she has inherited her aunt's massive home and, after accepting the professor's offer of marriage, decides to turn the manor into a school for boys, which she will run with her husband's help.
I will not lie; the ending of Little Women is disappointing. For all Jo's literary ambitions to end with marriage to the man who ended them was painful for young me to read. Just as it is painful for others…the two adaptations I mentioned before have Jo turn instead to writing the story of herself and her sisters, actually placing Jo in Luisa May Alcott's place as the in-universe author of Little Women. That, at least, is satisfying.
The title of this piece calls Jo a proto-feminist icon, and I stand by that assessment, despite her story's deflated conclusion. Perhaps had she been written fifty years later, or in the present day, she would have pushed back against Professor Bhaer's opinion, defying him and her upbringing to continue writing what she loved. Perhaps Alcott, had she been more invested in the story (and she really wasn't, just read any biography; this book was a paycheck for her and not much more) would have seen the simple resolution that filmmakers after her have seen.
So in a story that doesn't stick the landing, what makes Jo an inspiration to women, then and now? Well, because her decisions drive her story; she takes her own life into her hands and achieves what she wants, which, for a woman of her time, was by no means guaranteed. There have of course been many female authors throughout history, but it wasn't either a lucrative or necessarily prestigious career for them. Nor did these authors usually write about women like themselves. So Jo's character is unique, and important, and well worth investing in, even if her time and place leave her ultimate fate a little less than a modern girl could want.