Louisa May Acott‘s novel Little Women was originally published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869. Alcott wrote the books over several months at the request of her publisher. It is about the lives of the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. It details their passage from childhood to young womanhood and is loosely based on Alcott and her three sisters. It remains one of the most read novels in history.
Little Women was a huge commercial and critical success, with readers anxious to know more about the characters. Alcott wrote two sequels to her popular work, both of which also featured the March sisters: Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Although Little Women was a novel for girls and sissy boys, it is not really a children’s book. It takes on themes of domesticity, work, and true love, all of them necessary to the achievement of its main characters’ individual identities.
Even those Brontë sisters could never have imagined a girl like Jo March, the tomboy hero of Little Women, who exclaims:
“It’s bad enough to be a girl, anyway, when I like boy’s games, and work, and manners. I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy.”
Jo March became one of the most enduringly popular girl characters in literature. She seems to have fueled the imaginations and excite the desires of generations of young female readers precisely because of her refusal of normative girlhood identifications and desires. Jo March wants to be the man of the family, not the little woman; she wants to be a soldier, not a seamstress; and she wants to be like the young man Laurie, not have him. Little Women offers up a whole family of girls that most readers love because they love Jo March.
Jo’s appeal as the quintessential tomboy has always presented a particularly queer dilemma. She is a figure defined by conundrums. She is, by turn: cute and dangerous, understandably boyish and abnormally male-identified, merely passing through a common stage of girlhood development and a shining example of lesbian girlhood. How queer that a book considered wholesome and beloved by generations of girls, still manages to undermine society’s fantasy of stable identities of gender and sexuality. By doing away with the feminine and expressing masculine identifications and desires, a tomboy points up that such categories are both masculine and feminine and indeterminate and unstable.
Jo March exemplifies the notion of gender identity. By refusing to learn and enact femininity, she destabilizes gender as “natural”. Because some tomboys refuse to demonstrate femininity over their lifetime, preferring variously male-identified expressions, they expose the assumption that tomboyism is temporary and confined to childhood. Some tomboys do dramatically change their gender expression convincingly, usually in response to the disciplining pressures of “concerned” family and friends.
Although Alcott never explicitly stated her sexuality, there has long been speculation on her being a lesbian. She never married and never seemed to have any important relationship with a man. Jo marries at the end of Little Women, but Alcott remained single throughout her life. She explained her “spinsterhood” this way:
“I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body. I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
The lesbian-coding of the character Jo has been a piece of evidence pointing to Alcott’s own lesbianism. She proudly proclaimed herself as living a life of “spinsterhood”.