When I began teaching Little Women in my American literature survey courses, I wondered how many of my students had read the book before. In that first class, only one said she had read it in high school. A few of the women had been given the book to read as girls. None of the men had read it. This was a small sample, admittedly, but I wondered if it was being taught in middle and high schools. Surely if books such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were being taught, their near-contemporary and, shall we say, feminine counterpart, Little Women, was as well. It didn’t take much digging to find out how wrong I was and why Alcott’s classic had not endured as a book for schools while Twain’s tales of boyhood had.
Little Women, it turns out, is barely on teachers’ and students’ radars. Its educational heyday in the first half of the 20th century is a distant memory. Surveys of teachers’ favorite or recommended texts conducted by the National Education Association ranked Little Women at 47 in 1999 and 73 in 2007. A 2010 survey of four hundred English teachers indicated that none were teaching anything by Alcott. The same year, the annual What Kids Are Reading survey, based on 6.2 million students’ reading records, listed the 40 most frequently read books by grade. Little Women was not mentioned in the report.
Also in 2010, however, Little Women received a potential boost from the new Common Core Standards Initiative. Along with benchmarks students should reach in each grade came lists of “exemplar texts” having sufficient quality and appropriate complexity for each level. Little Women made the list for grades 6–8 (as did The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). It hasn’t much benefited from the recommendation, however. According to the 2012 What Kids Are Reading report, which includes a focus on the Common Core exemplar texts, only 0.08 percent of the 7.6 million American students surveyed had read Little Women the previous school year. By 2014, while some texts on the Common Core exemplar list had received a nice boost since the initiative began—Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, for instance, was read by ten times as many students as before, and Tom Sawyer by four times as many—Little Women’s increase was only two hundredths of a percentage point, meaning it was read by 0.1 percent of students. In the 2016 surveys, conducted in the U.K. as well as the United States, Alcott was not mentioned in either report, which represented the reading habits of 9.8 million students in the United States and 750,000 in the U.K.
Most educators and parents have been less than thrilled with the Common Core, which many states have challenged. The list of “exemplar texts” has been particularly controversial among education specialists, raising concerns about creating a new literary canon. Classics in general were deemed to be overrepresented on the list, but Little Women was the target of a specific kind of criticism. For instance, one education blogger complains,
I yowled when Little Women first appeared on the Common Core list of exemplary texts for 8th graders. And I’m still yowling. The point is not whether you or I loved this book eons ago. The point is whether it is appropriate for today’s 8th graders. . . . If someone polled 500,000 8th-grade teachers, asking them for book recommendations, what are the chances that Little Women would appear on anyone’s list?
In other words, Little Women is presumed to be hardly worthy of rescue from the educational oblivion into which it has fallen.
Another blog post takes a different approach to the subject, but its title pretty much says it all: “Please, Do Not Teach Little Women!” The author, who chairs the English Department at a middle/high school in Connecticut, thinks that Little Women is appropriate as an independent reading choice but nothing more. She has “a great fear that some educators will consider the novel a ‘teachable text.’ ” She regrets that girls will not “linger over every page,” as she did when a child, and that they will be forced to take multiple choice tests about it rather than be allowed to develop a personal relationship with the March girls. Her regret that the novel could cease to be a private pleasure, read alone with a flashlight under the covers, is understandable.
But then she claims, “Although I am not gender-biased with literature, I would not assign this novel to pre-teen boys.” She pleads instead for teachers to choose Tom Sawyer and to leave Little Women alone. Her claim to a lack of bias notwithstanding, her comment that she would not assign this novel to teenage boys perfectly reflects the clear gender bias that she and many teachers have about using what are deemed to be girls’ books in their classes. Another educator, a library media specialist, reacted to the Common Core list by asking, “How many 12-year-old boys will be engaged by Little Women?” As far as I can tell, no one is concerned about whether 12-year-old girls are engaged by Tom Sawyer. But their reaction is not what concerns educators. It’s the boys’ responses they are worried about.“This is the real issue. A book that is about girls, whose very title seems to announce its gender exclusivity, is to be kept at home, not brought into the glaring light of the schoolroom.”
Still assuming there must be some elementary and middle-school teachers out there using Little Women in their classes, I naïvely posted a query on a very active listserv that includes academics in education and children’s literature as well as education professionals working in schools. I simply asked who was teaching the novel, hoping I could follow up with interviews about their experiences. I received only a handful of responses. They were not encouraging. They mostly explained in various ways that teachers don’t teach Little Women because it’s a book for girls and they fear turning off the boys, whom they perceive as unwilling to read books about girls. One educator admitted how unfair this was, considering that the girls are made to read books focusing on boys. Another was more vehement, stating simply that the boys would loathe it. The surest way to teach them how to hate reading would be to make them suffer through Little Women, she said. It is “a private book for girls,” not one to read “publicly, in a classroom.” Yet another respondent explained that it was not well suited to classroom discussion in a mixed-sex school and that it was more appropriate for girls to read at home.
This is the real issue. A book that is about girls, whose very title seems to announce its gender exclusivity, is to be kept at home, not brought into the glaring light of the schoolroom. As we have seen, this wasn’t always the case. Little Women was initially a wildly popular book devoured by children and adults of both sexes. It gradually became, however, “more of a women’s novel, then an adolescent girls’ book, and finally . . . a notable piece of children’s literature, specifically perhaps, a work for seventh and eighth grade girls,” as one teacher wrote on its centenary.5 Since then, I think it’s fair to say, the book has migrated further down the age scale, to fifth and sixth grade. As a book for young girls, then, Little Women seems to warrant little if any attention in the schools. I searched in vain for a local school where I live, in New Orleans, that was teaching it. Even at a progressive K–12 private girls’ school, where I knew a couple of the English teachers, not only was no one teaching it, but my attempts to interest them in the idea fell flat. As one of them showed me the way out after one of our meetings, she admitted that they teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and wondered, “If we don’t teach Little Women, who will?”
The story of how Little Women has migrated from the classroom to optional summer reading lists and homeschooling text lists (another way it stays at home) has at least three strands that relate to feminism, the preference for contemporary texts, and concerns about a crisis in boys’ reading. In the first instance, I can’t help but wonder whether Little Women fell out of favor with educators because of its association with feminism. At about the same moment (the 1970s and ’80s) that it became a hot topic of conversation among feminists, Little Women went underground and under the covers, where it could safely remain a book for girls without wider cultural significance. As we have seen, Little Women became less of an innocuous family tale and more the kind of book that could ignite uncomfortable discussions. Teachers were likely wary of addressing feminist issues with their students and found boys’ books less potentially controversial.
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.
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.
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.
There is some evidence that boys can respond positively when encouraged to read Little Women. One school librarian likes to tell the anecdote (presumably because it is an aberration) of a “typically masculine” boy who one day settled down to read Little Women, “inarguably the most femininely titled book in literary history,” and brushed off the teasing of his classmates. “You’re missing a great book,” he told them, and he continued reading. My own experiences with attempting to interest boys and men in Little Women have been largely positive. In my American literature survey courses, I regularly teach Alcott’s novel to a diverse group of traditional and so-called nontraditional (i.e., older) students. I will never forget the response of one online student who saw in the March sisters’ struggles his own difficult journey toward adulthood. “Despite being a 30 year old man,” he wrote, “I’m very sad to be done with this novel, and very happy to have read it.” Nor will I forget the day an African American male student, who listened to the novel at nights while he worked as a security guard, came to class quite upset because Jo had turned down Laurie’s marriage proposal. For these and many other (although not all) of my male students, Little Women was a revelation. They didn’t expect to become so absorbed by it, but they were.
I have also found that young boys can be enticed to read Little Women as well. When invited to speak to my daughter’s sixth-grade English class, I took the opportunity to encourage the students to choose Little Women for their book clubs. I told them about the novel’s popularity and influence, the March sisters and who they were based on, and the career of the woman who wrote it. Before leaving, I asked them if Little Women was a book only for girls, and the students were very vocal in their answer. “Noooo,” they chorused. We talked about how they had just read a book about a boy, Tom Sawyer, and how Little Women was from more or the less the same time period and showed not only what it was like to grow up as a girl but also what it was like for their friend, Laurie (a boy, despite his name), to grow up as a boy. They seemed to agree that it was useful for girls to read about boys and for boys to read about girls. During our discussion, the boys in the class asked as many questions as the girls; I didn’t notice them tuning out or acting as if this discussion was not for them.
Later that week, the teacher told me that three groups had chosen to read Little Women for their book clubs—two groups of girls and one group of boys. When I went back to talk to the three groups, they unfortunately hadn’t read much of the novel yet, but we did discuss which of the sisters they liked best so far and how they were handling some of the slang and archaic language (in some cases, not well). The three boys who had chosen the book seemed to be as interested as the girls were. One in particular impressed me. He liked Jo and was curious to know more about Laurie, who had just been introduced. When he came to write his book review, he was quite persuasive in his recommendation of Little Women, arguing that it gave the reader a better understanding of life in the 1860s, when young men had to go to war and young women had to follow rules about how to dress and how to behave.
This experience convinced me that there was much to be gained by asking or encouraging boys to read Little Women and not much to be lost. None of the three boys exhibited any discomfort about reading the book, nor did any of their classmates make comments about their choice, their teacher later told me. Even though the other boys in the class didn’t read it, they were at least exposed to the idea that boys can read books that are supposedly for girls, and the sky wouldn’t fall. I came away thinking that it can be done, no matter what teachers and parents say. (The biggest hurdle, frankly, was not the book’s title or the gender of the protagonists, but the length of the novel. I encouraged them to treat it as two books in one, thus giving them permission to read only the first part, which does stand alone as a book in its own right. This is something teachers could easily do if they are concerned about how long the book is.)
One reason that so many male readers have been uncomfortable with Little Women—and perhaps the most important reason they should read it—is that it flips the perspective between boys and girls in a way few other literary texts have done. In the words of Carolyn Heilbrun, it is “perhaps the one fictional world where young women, complete unto themselves, are watched with envy by a lonely boy.” Girls are for once at the center, and boys and men are on the margins. The March sisters have lots of conversations that have nothing to do with boys, so Little Women passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. One man said that he read Little Women when he was young precisely to get an inside view of how the opposite sex thought and acted, and he strongly believed that all boys should do the same.
When Laurie tells Jo that he is essentially a voyeur, peeping into the Marches’ windows—“it’s like looking at a picture to see the fire, and you all round the table with your mother”—we are supposed to feel sorry for him. “I haven’t got any mother, you know,” he says quite pathetically, and Jo instantly resolves to make him an honorary member of the family. For male readers, though, Laurie’s position vis-à-vis his female neighbors can be unsettling. The scholar Jan Susina believes that boys feel left out of the text, as he did, because the male characters (including Laurie, John Brooke, Mr. March, and Mr. Laurence) inhabit the place that female characters have always occupied in men’s literature: on the margins, looking in. “Alcott situates the male reader,” he argues, “in the role of Laurie, the fortunate outsider, who is simply allowed to observe the actions of women without speaking.” Ultimately, Susina believes that “Alcott infantilizes her male characters.”
I think what he really means is that she emasculates them, at least according to conventional notions of masculinity. He appears to have felt the same way himself in his graduate course on children’s literature when Little Women was introduced and “the balance of power shifted” because all of the female students knew the book but none of the men did. “The women in the class became the voices of authority,” he says. “The male students were effectively silenced.” Susina realizes that the experience was a valuable one to him, as someone who would become a professor of children’s literature and have primarily female students in his classes. Yet I can’t help thinking that it was also a useful lesson for all of the male students in the class to feel for once as if they were the outsiders. Most female students have felt this way in their literature classes, reading primarily books about men and rarely having the “authority” to speak about what makes the male protagonists tick.
Not all male readers feel excluded by Little Women as Susina assumes they do, however. For library director Philip Charles Crawford, Little Women was fundamental to his childhood; it was the first book in which he saw himself reflected. Unlike Susina, Crawford did identify with Laurie because he also didn’t enjoy sports and preferred playing with girls. Jo and Laurie were “a revelation” to him. “They were everything society told me I shouldn’t be. They were gender nonconformists, a tomboy and a sissy who were able to express their gender identities nontraditionally and get away with it.” In the characters of Jo and Laurie, Alcott portrays gender as fluid, something that must be learned but that can also be modified and even rejected to some extent. Jo is adamant about her desire to be a boy, while Laurie has been teased at school (the boys called him Dora) and is now affectionately called Laurie and Teddy by Jo, who seems determined to make him one of the sisters. Throughout, we see Laurie struggling to conform to conventional expectations for young men because he yearns to be a musician while his grandfather wants him to take over the family business. Little Women is the perfect text for examining with students how gender is constructed and how it is often imposed from without, not from within (something they already know innately but are quickly being taught to ignore). Crawford also sees similar acceptance of alternative femininities and masculinities in books such as The Secret Garden and The Penderwicks, yet he regrets that none of them helps children learn to deal with the bullying that inevitably results from gender nonconformity.
Sadly, such bullying can also result when boys read Little Women, and not only from their peers. The writer Luis Negrón has recounted his painful experience of having been discovered reading it when he was a boy. It was the first book he checked out from the library, and like so many readers before him, he spent hours completely absorbed in the story. When his father made an unexpected return home, he proudly showed him the book, but his father became enraged. “You raising a fag?” he shouted at Luis’s mother. After a stormy argument, his father drove off again, leaving his mother to turn her anger on her son. She screamed at him, “Queer! Little woman!” snatched the book from him, and tore it up. Another gay man who openly declared his love for Little Women, thankfully without retribution, was Leo Lerman, a son of Jewish immigrants and an editor for Condé Nast. He wrote of his deep affection for the book in 1973 for Mademoiselle magazine, under the title “Little Women: Who’s in Love with Louisa May Alcott? I Am.” According to one film critic, Little Women has been “universally popular” with gay boys and men, particularly since Katharine Hepburn’s portrayal of Jo in the 1933 film.
Perhaps this is why other men who admit to having read Little Women thought of it as so taboo that they could liken it only to sneaking illicit sexual material. Author Tracy Kidder was 14 when he fell in love with Little Women and found it “absolutely captivating,” but he was afraid of anyone knowing, so he “kept it secret like a piece of pornography.” Editor and critic Charles McGrath also tried to hide the book when he read it in fourth grade. He had been “enthralled” by Little Men so went back to Little Women, but “because the title made it sound like a girls’ book, I covered my copy with a brown wrapper, not realizing that this probably made ‘Little Women’ seem even more embarrassing. I could have been carrying around ‘Lashed by Lust’ or ‘Bondage Boarding School.’ ” As adults, at least, men can perhaps give themselves more latitude. The Irish writer Sean O’Faolain thought that if he were caught in his study reading Little Women, “I could hold it up with, at most, a self-deprecatory smile or an At-My-Age shrug and go on escaping, unabashed.”“I can’t help thinking that it was also a useful lesson for all of the male students in the class to feel for once as if they were the outsiders.”
There are also plenty of boys and men who have felt much less conflicted about their interest in Little Women. Two annotated editions of Little Women currently available, for instance, were edited by men, John Matteson and Daniel Shealy, two of the most prominent Alcott scholars. Both men first read the book, as Susina did, when they were adults; but some men report having read it as children, including film critic Roger Ebert, actor Gabriel Byrne (whose mother read it to him), and former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. George Orwell recalled how much of his early perceptions of America were colored by his childhood reading, which included Little Women and Good Wives, both of which he loved. The Australian critic Peter Craven vividly remembers how, at age eight or nine, “my best friend came up to me at primary school and told me he had read a really great book,” Little Men, to which Craven “crushingly” replied, “That’s a girls’ book.” His friend disagreed, and although he was still dubious, they read it “with great exhilaration” and then proceeded “at great speed, through the whole Louisa May Alcott corpus of classics,” including Little Women. He still believes, “If ever in the history of the world there was a girls’ book, it’s Little Women and its sisters,” but he isn’t afraid to admit having enjoyed them. BBC broadcaster Melvyn Bragg similarly picked up Jo’s Boys first and then got the courage to read Little Women. Later he found that many men admitted to having read it, “although most of them would qualify the admission by muttering on about sisters or cousins leaving it lying around . . . or the teacher ‘forcing’ them to read it at school.” The political operative James Carville, also known as the Ragin’ Cajun, read Little Women at school but doesn’t qualify his experience at all. He calls the book one of his childhood favorites. When his fourth grade class read it aloud, it made him cry.
Other men who have read Little Women at some point in their lives include the novelist Michael Dorris, who cited Professor Bhaer’s advice to Jo to “write what you know” when describing his own literary practice; Stephen King, who referred to it throughout his New York Times review of A Long Fatal Love Chase, including quotations and describing scenes; and Julian Fellowes, who, when accused of borrowing a scene from it for Downton Abbey, admitted to having read it years earlier. Best-selling author John Green goes farther than most, counting Little Women as one of his literary influences and saying he “didn’t understand why boys weren’t supposed to read [it].”
In the popular imagination, the idea of a boy or man reading Little Women is laughable, as demonstrated by comic references to the novel on television. In the popular 1970s BBC sitcom Porridge, set in a prison, Fletcher sells another inmate a copy of Little Women by convincing him it is an “erotic classic” about “the sex-starved lady pygmies of” South Malaysia. In a 1997 episode of Friends, Joey reads it on a dare. After Rachel opens the freezer and discovers The Shining, Joey’s favorite book, which he hides there when he gets scared, Rachel says she will read it if he will also read her favorite book, Little Women. The episode ends with Rachel putting Little Women in the freezer for Joey, who is scared that Beth is going to die.
Bart Simpson also reads Little Women, having been drafted to read a bedtime story to Lisa one night in a 2011 episode of The Simpsons. When he stumbles over every word, Lisa teaches him to read. Later, absorbed in the book, he is confronted by some bullies at school. “Are you aware that ‘little women’ is another word for girls?” one of them asks Bart snidely. They force him to read it aloud and then eventually get caught up in the story themselves. Finally, in a 2013 episode of Girls, Ray, a character known for his lack of (manly) ambition, is trying to get back from Hannah his copy of Little Women. He received it from his godmother, who had written in the back of the book some advice to him he desperately needs. Ironically, Hannah left the book in the apartment of her hyper-masculine boyfriend.
All jokes aside, if we agree that it is important for boys at least occasionally to read books about girls, particularly those in which girls appear as individuals rather than as extensions of boys’ lives, then Little Women is an ideal text. Jane Roland Martin, in her book The Schoolhome: Rethinking Schools for Changing Families, recommends that boys read Little Women, arguing, “Given that the ability to take the point of view of another is a basic element of morality itself, it is unconscionable—I would say positively immoral— to deprive them of the opportunity of identifying with the other half of humanity. . . . How can boys respect girls if they are never encouraged to see the world as girls do?”
Maybe boys will even recognize that the March sisters aren’t that much different from them after all. That is how Mark Adamo felt when he read Little Women and identified with Jo’s feelings about losing her older sister to marriage. He had felt the same way when his sister, with whom he was very close, became engaged. Ultimately he understood the book to be about balancing our fear of vulnerability with our need for love. “It is very much about adult emotions,” he said in the composer’s commentary to his opera. His capacity to see Jo not as a “girl” but as a person like himself enabled him to write a critically acclaimed opera about her.
If we keep Little Women private, almost as if it is a rite of passage for girls to keep secret along with their books about puberty and their changing bodies, are we not saying that it’s exclusively about female identity and thus not about “American” identity? Perhaps that is why it is rarely mentioned as a candidate for The Great American Novel and has never been a part of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program, which has sponsored 1,225 one-month programs in cities across the country. (Tom Sawyer, of course, has been a Big Read book.)
More than that, are we not also saying that female experience should be kept private? That it has no place in public discourse, meaning that men shouldn’t know about it? When we relegate Little Women to home reading and to girls only, we miss the opportunity to engage in the larger debates the book raises about gender and what it means to grow up. Little Women is one of the most valuable texts we have for helping readers young and old, male and female, to think about the complex issues of identity formation and maturation, and what role gender plays in them. Why then would we tell boys that it’s not a book for them?
From Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy: The Story of Little Women and Why it Still Matters. Used with permission of W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright © 2018 by Anne Boyd Rioux.