Eastman Johnson

Why Don’t More Boys Read Little Women?

"Little Women is presumed to be hardly worthy of rescue from
the educational oblivion into which it has fallen."

By  Anne Boyd Rioux

Of course, the erasure of Little Women is part of a larger silencing of women’s voices in literature classrooms, which has only become more profound as issues relating to women’s lives have become more socially volatile. As just one documented example, the New Yorker critic David Denby describes, in his recent book on how literature is taught in American schools, one supposedly exemplary tenth-grade English class that spent the year exploring the theme of the Individual and Society. How many of the assigned texts were written by women? Only a few poems by Sylvia Plath, over an entire year, while they read books such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (the only book they read about a woman). The female students were visibly frustrated, so Denby asked the teacher to explain and learned that “intensity mattered more [to the teacher] than inclusiveness.” I couldn’t help thinking that Little Women (or a host of other novels by and about women) would have contributed valuable, and surely “intense,” perspectives on what it means to be a female individual growing up in America. Instead, the “individual” remains male.

In fact, the only two books about girls that routinely appear on middle- and high-school reading lists are The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. As was the case in my daughter’s own sixthand seventh-grade English classes, I suspect these books are used to teach issues related to the Holocaust and civil rights rather than the experiences of girls growing up.

The second strand of the story is about a push, beginning in the 1980s as part of the canon wars, to teach contemporary books instead of the classics. Although Little Women never had a secure position in the canon, it got lumped together with other “old” books then under fire for neglecting the perspectives of minorities and purporting to be universal. While teachers have made more room for contemporary young adult literature in their classrooms, some of the core classics, like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, and To Kill a Mockingbird remain the most frequently taught. With less and less room for such texts, however, those on the fringes, such as Little Women, have been dropped altogether.

The third and perhaps most important strand of the story of how Little Women disappeared from the classroom is the widespread concern about boys’ reading habits—or lack thereof—which purportedly reached “crisis” proportions in the early 2000s but is still very much with us. Whereas research in the previous decade had focused on a gender gap in education that disadvantaged girls, a turn toward focusing on the ways boys were left behind in seemingly feminized educational environments dominated research and the mainstream media. Departments of education in the United States, Australia, Canada, and the U.K. began initiatives to encourage boys to read. In the United States, Newsweek ran a cover story in 2006 that sparked a conversation on op-ed pages, websites, and morning news shows. While some have argued that the crisis is a manufactured one, part of the backlash against feminism’s gains, articles continue to appear about how boys are failing to thrive as well as girls are, particularly in regard to reading.

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Teachers and school librarians, who are overwhelmingly female, were more or less admonished for letting their own (feminine) reading preferences govern their text choices and recommendations. One librarian explained the problem this way: “Boys are interested in reading about video games and sharks, but they’re being handed books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables.” Library director Michael Sullivan was equally blunt in his essay “Why Johnny Won’t Read”: “We insist that all children read books that foster internal reflection, that emphasize the emotional rather than the physical. We define good books as those that conform to the way girls think. . . . The main reason why librarians and teachers often have so little respect for what boys like is that most of them are women—and guys’ tastes [for gross humor and scary things] don’t appeal to them.” In response to the criticism directed at them, educators have quite understandably bent over backward to entice boys to read, but not only by providing more options. Instead, they have flattened the options so that texts about boys predominate—the more male focused and the more contemporary, the better. And to be sure, plenty of anecdotal evidence shows that teachers and librarians are not handing Little Women to boys; on the contrary, they, along with parents and peers, are actively discouraging boys from picking up or checking out so-called girls’ books at all.

The belief in a fundamental difference between boys and girls is stronger than ever. As one recent article on the subject explained, boys’ brains are simply wired to prefer action and adventure stories, and it is the teacher’s job to “provide boys with topics and genres that are of specific interest to them.” Girls won’t be left behind, the logic goes, because girls don’t mind reading books about boys, whereas boys won’t read books about girls. For that reason, one expert argued, the schoolroom library should contain twice as many “boy books” as “girl books.” Teacher education textbooks include multiple variations on the theme that “the English teacher must choose common reading that will appeal to boys,” as one textbook explicitly states. “The assumption has become a truism,” a scholar of gender and reading concluded, “one to which most teachers and librarians active today subscribe.” No wonder then that education professors often stress in their courses what boys like to read, directing their students—future teachers, most of them women—away from the books they had loved reading when they were young. Although today’s educators and researchers don’t specifically rule out stories about girls, that has been the net effect. The male-dominated classics have been joined by male-dominated contemporary literature, creating a national reading curriculum in which girls appear as sisters and sidekicks but almost never as protagonists.

Boys’ distaste for girls’ books, a product of the gender distinctions in everything from toys to books that children pick up on very early, seems to arise as they discover that girls and everything associated with them are viewed as inferior. Boys are teased by their peers, or steered by their parents or other adults away from books with girls on the covers. This bias has spilled over into the publishing world as well. It is widely known that gender accommodations in the marketing of two of the most popular series in recent decades significantly contributed to their popularity with male readers. The author of the Harry Potter series had to hide her gender behind the initials J. K., and the Hunger Games books featured gender-neutral covers with mockingjay symbols instead of the heroine, Katniss Everdeen.

“The male-dominated classics have been joined by male-dominated contemporary literature, creating a national reading curriculum in which girls appear as sisters and sidekicks but almost never as protagonists.”

The gendering of children’s books has a long history, in which Little Women plays a prominent role. In the early 19th century there was little differentiation between books for boys or books for girls. By midcentury, though, we start to see a split. Publishers began to produce adventure stories about boys escaping from the domestic world ruled by women as well as books specifically designed to convince girls of the rewards of staying at home and taking care of others. Previous children’s literature had stressed obedience to authority for both sexes, but the new boys’ books no longer did, while girls’ books continued to do so. Thus boys were encouraged to develop into young men who were enterprising, autonomous, and adventurous. Girls, on the other hand, were encouraged to develop into young women who were content to huddle by the hearth and happily obey (male) authorities on whom they were utterly dependent.

The narrative tension of these girls’ books derived from the pressures on liberty-loving girls to give up their individuality and independence to conform to a repressive ideal of womanhood—a pattern that many readers see in Little Women. The publisher Thomas Niles had asked Alcott to write a book for girls precisely because a new crop of boys’ books had emerged without corresponding books specifically for girls. We know that Alcott initially rejected the idea, perhaps in part because of the underlying assumption that a book for girls must of necessity lack adventure and confine itself to home life.

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Yet Alcott didn’t want to write a conventional narrative. By sending Amy off to Europe and Jo to New York, she didn’t exactly conform to expectations.

Just because books had become differentiated by gender, however, does not mean that actual boys and girls followed their precepts, nor does it mean that they read only the books designed for them. Girls frequently read their brothers’ books. If they had to remain at home in life, they didn’t always want to do so in their reading. It was assumed, in fact, that girls would benefit from understanding the world their brothers imaginatively lived in, but the opposite view was almost never considered. It was widely supposed that boys had no interest in reading girls’ books, at least those portraying a dispiriting, restrictive domesticity with little action or excitement.

Nonetheless, some men later admitted having crossed the divide to read what has since become known as the book for girls—Little Women. President Theodore Roosevelt, literary scholar William Lyon Phelps, author Rudyard Kipling, and New Yorker critic Alexander Woollcott all had fond memories of reading the novel as children in the late nineteenth century. At the turn of the century, Little Women was still recognized as “one of the few ‘girls’ books’ that all boys will read, even if they do it on the sly or in a corner.” In 1897, Willa Cather was concerned about the way children’s literature had split along gender lines. In a column for the Home Monthly she argued, “It isn’t wise to make that hateful distinction [between boys’ and girls’ books] too early; avoid it while you can.” She recommended in particular the books of Louisa May Alcott, which readers of both sexes continued to love into adulthood.

Fast-forward to the second half of the 20th century, and we see that assumptions about what books boys and girls will read had solidified to the extent that books written for boys dominated the publishing industry and school curricula. Although the women’s movement had a positive impact on the publishing world, and many more books with active female protagonists have been published, the progress has benefited girl readers but not boys. Today the publishing and reading worlds remain largely segregated by gender. What is considered a book for girls is simply any book featuring a female protagonist, even though most such books today have little to do with indoctrinating appropriately submissive, so-called feminine behavior.

The issue of privileging books featuring male protagonists, from picture books on up, has been a hot topic in recent years, particularly as it relates to the publishing industry. In 2011, the Guardian ran a story with the headline “Study Finds Huge Gender Imbalance in Children’s Literature: New Research Reveals Male Characters Far Outnumber Females, Pointing to ‘symbolic annihilation of women and girls.’ ” The dominance of white protagonists is also being vigorously addressed, as is the issue of gender stereotyping books for children. In the U.K., the “Let Books Be Books” campaign has been widely publicized and highly successful at getting publishers to stop labeling books as for boys or for girls and getting newspapers to stop reviewing them if they are. The problem starts with gendered baby books and goes all the way up to adult books, the covers of which tend to feature highly feminine designs for fiction by female authors. Yet researchers continue to stress the need for male-oriented texts in the classroom.

One recent study concluded that “boys in particular will benefit from having access to books predominately aimed at males, as they are less likely [than girls] to transcend gender boundaries” in their choices of reading material. Thus the study’s authors recommend same-sex, small-group work rather than whole-class discussions of the same text, so that boys can read about boys and girls can read about girls. The primary concern of such studies is motivating boys to read. The effects of sex-segregated reading on students’ attitudes toward the opposite sex are not considered in any of the literature, so far as I can tell.

The issue of whether boys’ reading preferences are due to biological differences or socialization continues to be debated, but it is surely some combination of the two. While the argument for brain chemistry presumes there is something natural and therefore right about it, the extent to which boys develop prejudices against not just girls’ books but also anything having to do with girls deserves serious discussion. It is human nature to seek out stories about people like ourselves. But is it not equally natural to be curious about people unlike ourselves? Why would anyone want to discourage boys from developing that curiosity? And if boys enjoy books about aliens, which they certainly do, why not also books about girls?

Many thoughtful commentators have acknowledged the harm done by our culture’s hypermasculinization of boys. Perhaps most usefully, one researcher has challenged the many opinion pieces and studies on boys’ reading preferences for the way they perpetuate a narrow view of masculinity. Their “attempts to build literary curriculum on received notions of what is appropriately masculine” tend to alienate many boys who have broader views of what it means to be a boy than do the adults so eager to cater to their presumed tastes. In fact, such efforts can only reinforce essentialist notions of gender that lead to homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism, which in turn can lead to bullying and violence.

The crux of the problem is that by condoning intolerance of the female and the feminine, in reading preferences or otherwise, we do a disservice to both girls and boys. Shannon Hale, author of Austenland and the Princess Academy series, has forcefully raised the issue on her blog and on Twitter, touching a nerve with many librarians and children’s authors. In a piece called “No Boys Allowed: School Visits as a Woman Writer,” she describes how sometimes boys are not invited to her presentations because her books are about girls. She is outraged at “the belief that boys won’t like books with female protagonists” and “the shaming that happens (from peers, parents, teachers, often right in front of me) when they do.” She goes even further, suggesting that the resulting gender bias and shame can have long-lasting, harmful effects on boys’ psyches:

. . . the idea that girls should read about and understand boys but that boys don’t have to read about girls, that boys aren’t expected to understand and empathize with the female population of the world . . . this belief directly leads to rape culture. To a culture that tells boys and men, it doesn’t matter how the girl feels, what she wants. You don’t have to wonder. She is here to please you. She is here to do what you want. No one expects you to have to empathize with girls and women. As far as you need be concerned, they have no interior life.

After Hale went public, other female authors of children’s books featuring girl protagonists reported having faced similar gender prejudices at schools.

While some may think that Hale’s linkage between rape culture and boys being told not to read books about girls is a stretch, I think it is fair to connect the dots between the dismissal of girls’ voices and perspectives and the lack of empathy toward females in our culture that can result in abuse. There is plenty of evidence that far too many boys grow up with little regard for the humanity of the female half of the population. The high rates of sexual harassment in the workplace and rapes on college campuses provide ample evidence. Researchers are noting how masculine identities require the repression of empathy. Psychologists are also beginning to recognize the important function that reading fiction can play in developing it. At a minimum, we should be able to agree that it would be good for boys to read some books from a female perspective. And what better book than Little Women, with its gender-bending protagonist, Jo, and her best friend, Laurie, both of whom challenge the rigid gender boundaries that persist? Its title notwithstanding, Little Women is a book that both boys and girls can benefit from reading.

Anne Boyd Rioux
Anne Boyd Rioux
Anne Boyd Rioux’s latest book is Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters. She is Professor of English at the University of New Orleans and author of Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist. You can find her at anneboydrioux.com.





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