Little Women: Jo the Feminist Wife

Like most girls in America seem to do, I read Little Women when I was growing up. For whatever reason, it spoke to me just as it seems to speak to most women who read it (making it the enduring classic it has remained for nearly one hundred and fifty years), despite the fact that I didn’t think I liked it the first time I read it. It’s hard to say I didn’t like it when it stuck with me so fastly and I remember the characters so well and so fondly in ways that I remember few other fictional characters. And like most girls, it seems, Jo was my favorite (although this opinion is slightly less universal than the appeal of the book generally, since many women do find other characters more appealing). I started thinking about Jo March again recently because of the introduction written by Linda Medley that appears at the beginning of the book Amy Unbounded: Belondweg Blossoming.

Medley discusses Jo and her ultimate fate at the end of Little Women quite a bit in this introduction. She states that while Jo is set up as a feminist character, her marrying a “stodgy old dope” like Professor Bhaer is a particularly unfeminist thing to do. She even goes so far as to wonder if some of “modern feminist literature has sprouted from… deep-rooted adolescent disappointment in Jo’s fate”. She begins all this musing by quoting her mother as saying (in “a tone of bitter disgust”) “Jo should’ve married LAURIE. Not that – that OLD MAN!”, to which she replies “Right on.”

This got me thinking. Was marrying Professor Bhaer a particularly unfeminist thing for Jo to have done? Was it unfeminist at all? The more I thought about it, the less convinced I was. In fact, the statement “Jo should’ve married LAURIE” feels far more unfeminist to me. So I dug out my copy of Little Women (which is dated 1911, so I’m guessing it’s the later version that we’re still all reading today).

I really couldn’t find any evidence that Jo ever wanted to marry Laurie, nor is she upset at all when he marries someone else. So why is the opinion that she should have so common (because it really is)? Do we feel so strongly that she needs to be married to someone that we have to pick who we think is the most appropriate partner for her, even if she doesn’t agree? Jo and Laurie have a great friendship that stays strong right up through the end of the book. Laurie clearly fell for Jo, but Jo never expresses any romantic ideas or feelings about Laurie. She also states a couple of times that she doesn’t want to be or marry rich, which makes sense. She has ambitions of her own (she’s a feminist, remember?), and rich mens’ wives couldn’t really spend their times writing books and things when they should be maintaining a large household of servants and keeping up appearances.

Can you really see Jo in silk gowns with bustles every day attending balls and giving instructions to nannies? It doesn’t sound like her, but it’s what Laurie’s wife would do. Amy can paint as a rich man’s wife because painting can be excused as an “accomplishment” when necessary, but you can’t do that with writing. Not to mention the kinds of things Jo wrote (remember, her stories were full of scandal and melodrama)! So, in the absence of romantic love and faced with a lifestyle that doesn’t match what she wants for herself, there would be no sense in Jo’s marrying Laurie. I can only conclude that we, as modern readers, want her to do so because he is young and handsome and rich and those are the qualities we have deemed most desirable in a husband (particularly a fictional one).

Jo knows what she wants and needs much better than we do, though. She meets Professor Bhaer halfway through the second part of the book (which was originally published as a second, separate book). They don’t fall in love right away. They develop a friendship through sharing interests, having great conversations and just generally getting to know one another. This is clearly an adult friendship, whereas Laurie’s friendship with Jo is one of those “we’ve been friends since childhood” friendships. There’s a different quality to it. Friendships in adulthood usually grow because of common interests or activities, whereas childhood ones are often started because of proximity (you make friends with the kid next door even if you don’t really have much in common, because it’s convenient and you’re too young to travel to find someone who shares your interests). This doesn’t make one type better than the other, but it does make them different.

Not only do they develop an adult friendship, but Jo and Professor Bhaer both actually develop romantic attachments to each other. Jo pines for him when she is separated from him, even though she doesn’t believe (or even imagine) anything romantic will ever come of their relationship and clearly Professor Bhaer dreams of Jo. The professor’s proposal isn’t particularly romantic in a conventional sense, but the whole scene with them discovering that they love each other as they stand in the rain is marvelous. Clearly this is a happy match for both. Even better, it is a match that will make both happy – they understand each other and will be able to support each other in their dreams and their work. Not only will Jo be able to keep writing, but she will have a husband who understands, encourages and supports her along the way (a rare thing for the time period).

I think that in choosing to marry the man that she loves and who will understand and support her in her dreams, Jo is doing something very feminist. It is not unfeminist to get married, just to get married to someone for the sake of being married (because you’re supposed to be a wife). Jo makes her decision for all the right, feminist reasons and, in the end, everyone is happy. I think that the reaction women have today of being disappointed that Jo married the professor instead of Laurie has more to do with our romantic ideas about love and marriage than about feminism. We look at Jo and the choices we believe her to have had and our cultural teaching tells us that you choose the man who is young, handsome, rich and romantic, not the man who is older, maybe not so classically handsome and not rich at all. Ideas of who you are actually in love with or who might make you happy don’t really enter into it (it’s generally assumed you will fall in love with the former anyway). But they should, a feminist examination would say that you look at the person for who they are, not what they look like or how rich they are.

I honestly believe that Jo is a great feminist character and that choosing to marry Professor Bhaer is one of the most feminist decisions she makes in the whole book. Little Women is a realistic story. The characters are supposed to reflect life. I’m glad that one of the most important fictional icons for girls in this country since the mid-1800s has been one who made decisions based on what she wanted and needed and, in following her heart, managed to find love. She may not be perfect, but no one is in real life either, so perhaps her very imperfections are what make her such a great icon. And if you need more proof that she made the right choice of husband, Louisa May Alcott wrote two more awesome books about Jo and Professor Bhaer and their lives together: Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Both are well worth reading!

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