The first book I fell in love with was written long before the word feminism was in common use. Louisa May Alcott was the daughter of high-minded parents and her novel, Little Women, was highly autobiographical. Her abolitionist, transcendentalist father—whose fictional counterpart is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War—was on the right side of history. But his idealism wasn’t paying the bills, and Alcott spent a good deal of her young adulthood working the crummy sorts of jobs (seamstress, domestic help) available to girls. Critics will tell you that Little Women is about sacrificing appearance for principles and about Christian ethics; yet it is also a protofeminist book about desire for a life outside the duty of family. I suppose if I had waited until I was older, a more seriously feminist-focused book would have better shaped me. Had I been born later, that feminism would have begun with the inclusivity of the third wave. But I was twelve, it was 1971, and I needed immediate guidance.
Less than a year before, my family had moved to one of the most conservative enclaves in the country, Orange County, California. It was a likely landing pad for my conventional parents. People in our little city were mostly white and affluent. In short, it was the kind of place where a hundred-year-old book could seem entirely fresh to a tween girl, more progressive than anything in her real life.
In the old (and I realize now, more diverse) neighborhood, my mother had had good friends. Their kids were all growing up, and with everyone in school all day, the moms got together to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes. There was nothing like this in the new neighborhood. Moms generally didn’t work, but they weren’t at home either. There wasn’t a welcome wagon or invitations to coffee. My mom spent the school hours with our much-loved little dog. When I came home from school one day, she was hysterical, pacing the street and calling “Spooky! Spooky!” telling me between sobs that he would never find his way home in an unfamiliar area. But he did make it back that evening. It was then that I realized that he was her only daily connection to the living while the rest of us were out meeting new friends.
Perhaps it was this aloneness that drove my mother to get her first job after nearly twenty years of marriage, even though she didn’t possess a driver’s license and had to bum rides from my older sisters. She became a secretary at what was then Chapman College, in the office that oversaw the World Campus Afloat, which offered students a seminar at sea, an opportunity to travel to various parts of the world while taking classes on a ship. As a private college, Chapman’s pay rate for the clerical staff was notoriously lousy, and I think many women who hadn’t worked outside the home for years were hired because those with up-to-date resumes could find better offers. But the campus was only ten minutes from home—a boon to someone who daily hitched a ride. More importantly, it got my mom out of the house and into a viable community.
Though bright, my mother–the daughter of strict Irish Catholicism mixed with alcoholism–had grown up outside of Pittsburgh in government-subsidized housing. She never had the opportunity to attend college, and she now enjoyed the milieu, the mix of students, educators, and not-quite hippy intellectuals, whose free thinking amused her without threatening her own established order. Her boss was a language professor, and she was fascinated by the way that, when she’d find him writing at his desk and ask him a question, he would answer in Spanish or French before he caught himself. “He thinks in other languages,” she told me.
And yet, that my mother got her first job shortly after we moved to the OC seeded in me the idea that we couldn’t really afford to live in our community, that we were imposters and didn’t belong. The affluence of school peers added evidence to this hypothesis.
Though my mother had found community, this was not her feminist moment nor a lesson for me about the expansion of women’s options. Rightly so, she railed against her overarching circumstances—her job was added to her duties while none of them were taken away. She was often furious; she screamed easily, with frequency. These days, she would call me a liar for saying so, but I learned my longshoreman’s language from my parents in my teen years. Because of my mother’s rage against the dual expectations of her, I learned a few survival skills, like how to do my own laundry.
Oddly, it was doing my laundry and keeping track of my own clothes that led me to find Little Women.
Southern California is known to be warm; nevertheless, it rains in the winter—or at least it did in the 1970s—and is certainly cold enough for sweaters and jeans, for waterproof jackets. On my own, I’ve never been very good at selecting clothes. To this day, my nieces think I should not be allowed to shop by myself because the result is always disastrous. But as a tween, I not only had no flair for fashion, I had no cognizance of the weather. Like my mother, I was always sprinting out of the house in the morning minutes after I should have left. I hurried to school every day and heated by the jog, didn’t immediately notice that I wasn’t dressed appropriately with my thin cotton and butterfly sleeves. But by the time that the nutrition break between second and third periods came, it was clear that it was too cold for me to stand outside and gossip with my friends. I took shelter in the only building open for purposeless students, the library, which was more like a big classroom full of books. Admitting how often I needed to do this brings my intelligence into question. Suffice it to say, it was more than once.
Since I was in the library with nothing to do, I would have a look at the books. I can’t remember why Little Women came to my attention. Perhaps it was on display. I think about the only YA novel out at that time was Catcher in the Rye. Even the YA-landscape-altering The Chocolate Wars was a few years from publication. No matter. In that community, if such a book had been on display, the library clerk probably would have been fired.
I want to say I loved Little Women from page one. It was, after all, a book I secreted and read into the night. But I didn’t love all the little women. Proper Meg and superficial Amy? No. I did feel sorry for Beth, but only because she died. It was Jo, and only Jo, that I loved.
As the novel opens, it seems that Jo wants to be a man, but it becomes clear that she just wants the opportunities that a man has. She’s often told to tone down her inner tomboy, and she agrees to try. The self-sacrificing and overtly sentimentalized Christian ethic that is immediately on display probably put off many modern teens. But I continued reading because, whatever Jo agrees to, impinging on her creative spirit is always off limits. She is allowed to read alone, undisturbed, in the attic, and no one thinks she’s weird. Even her cranky Aunt March, for whom she works as a companion, has a library full of good books which are at Jo’s disposal. In fact all the best houses in the novel are full of books, and Jo manages to get access. Better yet, her family actually supports her creative writing, even agreeing to act in her dramas. I wanted to be Jo partly because she is so creative and self-reliant, but also because her family is her first appreciative audience.
So here was a girl only a few years older than I who is allowed to read widely (which is another way of saying she is allowed to think for herself), who is given the opportunity and the encouragement to create, and whose family has nothing but reasonable discourse. No one in the March family is screaming or railing against their constraints. A tween’s dream family.
While tragedy arrives with the death of Beth, a common criticism of the novel is that its Pollyanna-infused worldview makes for a lack of conflict. All the characters continually review their behavior, reach for higher ground, and are capable of forgiveness. But for my twelve-year-old self, the most poignant conflict scene I had ever read comes when the youngest sister, Amy, is mad at Jo and burns all of her writing. The destruction of her creative output seemed an effort to destroy Jo’s essence, her authority over herself. That Jo ignores Amy the following day, leaving her to break through the thin pond ice while attempting to skate, struck me as karmic justice.
I have been such a slow learner all my life. It would be wonderful to say that I’d had a seventh-grade epiphany as I contrasted the March family with my own, the confines and the much-envied liberties of Jo’s life against the strictures of mine. In fact, it would have been great to have had any epiphany at some point. But I never have. I spent years doing cringeworthy things against my own best interest. Staying off and on—as he would have me—with a psychologically abusive boyfriend; judging badly men and their motives, seeing those twenty years my senior as father figures, incapable of conceiving that they thought of me as an appropriate sexual partner. And, perhaps ironically, certainly most importantly, landing in the same mistaken ‘liberation’ that had so angered my mother, of working around the clock with no time for self-determination. Books have taught me much, but only slowly, cumulatively. I picture them stacked with spines out and imagine them finally containing the swirling whirlwind of my imagination, which forms a new text.
And it’s that forming of a new text that circles back to Jo and her desire to write. Through Little Women, I understood that though high ideals didn’t pay the bills, there was no worthy life without them. I understood that beauty could be put off and on like a hat, even sold when necessary, as Jo managed to secure twenty-five dollars during a family financial crisis by selling her hair to a wigmaker. I understood that a man could be handsome, adoring, even wealthy and still be a bad personality match. The most significant thing I learned was something I couldn’t have verbalized then. If women are to live in equality to men, then the autonomy from which social and political rights derive begins when women are afforded the time and space to imaginatively create. This is the single feminist ideal I’ve returned to through all my many missteps. I was in college before I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and an adult before I sampled more contemporary fare. Until then, Little Women sustained me.