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Jo March, Everyone's Favorite Little Woman

Growing up with three sisters, Little Women was more than just a book; it was a parallel world. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy became templates against which to compare myself.

As the youngest I couldn't possibly be Meg, the calm collected oldest. But I was certainly no Amy — vain, spoiled and self-centered. Good, kind-hearted, Beth appealed to me. But in the end, she dies...

So, of course, like every other girl who ever read Louisa May Alcott's novel, I wanted to be Jo: creative, strong-minded and independent. She was an ideal, not only the kind of woman I aspired to be, but also the kind of woman Alcott wanted to be.

"[Jo] is very much a fantasy for Louisa May Alcott herself," says children's book expert Anita Silvey.

Little Women came about when Louisa May Alcott's publisher requested that she write a "girls' book," says Silvey. Alcott responded by drawing on what she knew — her life with her sisters — except the life she created on the page was an idealized version of their story.

"She very much wrote their story as she would have liked it to have been," says Silvey. "She really softens the hard edges of her life. She makes Jo a much more lovable, accepted character than Louisa May Alcott herself ever was."

At a time when women's lives were restricted to hearth and home, Jo represented the possibility of another kind of life.

"Jo always makes you think anything is possible and anything is possible for a woman," says Silvey.

But taking Jo March to a mother-daughter book club I discovered something of a backlash against this idealized vision of a woman who is at once a loving sister, a good daughter, a best friend, a career woman and a devoted wife.

Though the girls mostly liked Jo and appreciated her lack of vanity, some of them felt that she presented too lofty a role model:

"[Jo] spoke her mind... she doesn't care what other people think," says 11-year-old Emily Martin. "I really admire her and wish I could live up to her standards."

And there's the rub: Who could possibly live up to Jo's standards?

Mandy Katz, one of the mothers in the group, said re-reading the novel made her sad:

"It saddened me that I liked it so much when I was a kid," says Katz. "The sisters tell each other how important it is to be liked by people. And I think that we spend way too much effort and energy as women trying to live up to that ideal."

For Rachel Moon, returning to Little Women brought revelation: She realized that as a child she had liked the book because everybody told her she should — not because she really did.

"I didn't really like the book," says Moon. "That family was just too good... and I think part of the thing that bothered me when I was growing up was that it made me feel very guilty because I knew I couldn't be that good."

Katz found that as an adult, the woman she really wanted to read about wasn't the idealized Jo, but rather her creator, who, unlike her character, never married.

"Louisa May Alcott was the Jo that I would have liked to see — the one who stayed independent, who supported her family because she was a working woman who was able to earn off the output of her mind," says Katz, adding that she believes that Alcott "had to betray a little bit of herself to write Jo in as yet another little woman who marries and looks up adoringly at the man who comes into her life."

But Karen Deans argued that Jo deserves to be understood in the context of her time, when options were limited, and choosing not to be married meant the lonely existence of spinsterhood.

"I don't think she wanted to be alone," says Deans. "We can all look back from where we are right now and sort of say, 'Oh yeah, they were so stifled, they were so submissive' ... this was the time and this is what they had to look for."

And though Jo may have been an impossible ideal, she was also an inspiration.

"I think for all of us who had fond memories of her, she inspired us to go on and do something and believe in ourselves," says Vera Ashworth, another member of the book club.

As the girls in this book group were discovering Jo March for the first time, they were also watching Hillary Clinton's historic run for the presidency. Like so many other women her age, one of Hillary Clinton's favorite books is Little Women. And I'd be willing to bet her favorite character is Jo.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.