A UK TV adaptation of the classic ‘Little Women’ this winter has reminded me of how much I loved the book when I was little. How I read it and re-read it, over and over.
The series reminded me of how strongly and insistently Jo rejected ‘femininity’; how she wanted to run freely, up and down hills, regardless of her long hair and restrictive dress; how she wanted to reject the norms of patriarchal marriage and what it does to women’s freedoms. How she wanted to swear, put her hands in her pockets and interact with the world with confident purpose.
Kindly ‘Marmee’ was always on hand with a listening ear and to reinforce the morals of the time; particularly the morals of how young women should behave. How self-sacrificing and submissive they should be to men, and how they should suppress their feelings of frustration and anger for the sake of others.
For the first time in all of the many, many times I have read the book or watched a TV adaptation of it, I thought: ‘If Jo were here today, sympathetic Marmee would probably take her straight to the gender reassignment clinic because she ‘wishes to be a boy’.
When I was growing up this book gave me a mirror to look through and see how it IS possible to be a girl and reject ‘femininity’; to do as I please with my life and reject men, marriage, children, and avoid wearing clothing that restricts my freedom. Jo could only ‘wish I was a boy’ as a way out of her gender-prison. Over a century later, I could say to my own ‘Marmee’, growing up,: ‘I’ll never get married and have children. I’ll do everything myself, by myself’. And she would agree this was a good idea, if it was what I wanted.
As long ago as 1868, Louisa May Alcott, alongside other women writers, began to articulate new way forwards for women. It’s crucial that girls and women learn about how other girls and women reject patriarchal pathways laid out for them. It’s a message of hope and of course a feminist message.
It troubles me greatly that, on the eve of 2018 – 150 years exactly after the novel was first published – I have a new fear after absorbing the book so many, many times before. That fear is that the Jo of 2018 would be re-written and re-presented as she tries to live her life. Pressured, however kindly, to consider transitioning if she dares to say that she ‘wishes to be a boy’. Her ‘sympathetic’ but gender-reinforcing 2018 ‘Marmee’ would support her in achieving this, believing it’s for the best. Any other way forward is Marmee’s own ‘bigotry’. My dreams, the dreams of millions of other girls and women, of leading a life of freedom, would find no outlet. What we’d read in our contemporary novels is that to crave gender non-conformity is to really (want to) be a boy.
What a coup for patriarchy that 150 years after the book was written this is our one biggest, realistic, fear.
If ever there were a case for how far our rights as women have regressed after 150 years, this is it. Justine Greening: don’t roll back time.