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No, Louisa May Alcott was not a man. She was a woman ahead of her time.

In this May 17, 2018 photo, an illustration and title page to the book Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, appear in an 1869 edition of the book at Orchard House, in Concord, Mass. Since “Little Women” was published 150 years ago, the coming of age book has been translated into over 50 languages. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

In the New York Times on Dec. 24, journalist and author Peyton Thomas argues that “Little Women” author and female American literary great Louisa May Alcott is best understood as a transgender man.

It is true that both the historical Alcott and her semi-autobiographical self, Jo March (the heroine of her most famous novel, “Little Women” (1868), about four sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War) felt great and persistent “disappointment in not being a boy.” Near the end of her life, Alcott did describe herself as having “a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body.”

Moreover, Jo’s hot-tempered, adventuresome and blunt nature mean that the “Little Women” protagonist plays male parts on stage (at least until an actual boy becomes available); longs to be at the Civil War’s front with her father instead of home knitting with her mother; and deeply disdains many of the female conventions of her time, including the assumption that marriage should be the sole ambition and focus of young womanhood.

But any anachronistic reading of Alcott and/or of Jo as a “trans man” misses entirely the far more radical and empowering point of “Little Women,” and of Alcott’s broader corpus: that growing past the indulgence of feelings to self-sacrificingly shoulder responsibilities is the path to both godliness and happiness for women no less than for men.

In the second half of the 19th century, the United States had newly industrialized. On the farms of the 18th century, most women had been what we would now call “working mothers,” because they did agricultural labor that economically benefitted their families while also rearing children. The Puritan sensibility of the time considered the era’s predominantly agricultural labor to be wholesome — for men, women and children alike.

By Alcott’s era, however, middle and upper-middle-class women newly aspired to be the so-called “angels of the house” who had nothing to do with the business of money-making. Wage-earning labor had moved outside the home, and Christianity had morphed accordingly, such that holiness, far from being bound up with production, was now defined by distance from it.

Hence, women who exemplified what scholars have called “the cult of true womanhood” (that is, the economic ability to remain cossetted away from wage-earning labor and the temperament to “imbibe, from early youth,” in the words of Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “The American Woman’s Home,” the notion that solely domestic work is comprised of “the most difficult, and the most sacred and interesting duties that can possibly employ the highest intellect”) were newly considered the moral superiors of men.

Meanwhile, women who could not achieve this kind of cloistered femininity (such as Irish and Eastern European immigrant women, Black women and poor women of all backgrounds) were excluded from the era’s racist and classist conception of womanhood altogether.  

So, indeed, in a historical moment when a true “woman’s soul” was considered to be one that yearned for nothing beyond the kitchen walls; epitomized an ability to “feel right” without doing anything civically or politically useful; and was inextricable from a kind of well-funded, white and feminine gentility to which Alcott had proximity (by virtue of her birth) but not access (by virtue of her poverty and her subsequent role as family bread-winner), Alcott spurned this so-called female spirit. What person of such extraordinary substance and vision, of whichever sex, wouldn’t?

Then, in Jo March, she gifted countless tomboyish, quick-tempered girls who would grow into low-maintenance, self-assured women (like me) a refreshing and relatable heroine to lead the way.

In the first chapter of “Little Women,” Marmee reads her daughters an excerpt from their father’s letter: “I know [my daughters] … will do their duty faithfully, fight their bosom enemies bravely, and conquer themselves so beautifully, that when I come home I may be fonder and prouder than ever of my Little Women.” The language here is adapted from John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678), an allegory about a sinner named Christian who encounters various physical dangers on the road to salvation and was standard educational fare in Alcott’s day.

“True women” of the 19th century were not presumed to need to “conquer themselves,” because they were thought to be so unimpeachably moral and so credulously innocent that no such growth was necessary. To depict a spirited woman assuming the grave mantle of self-knowledge, followed by the hard work of self-improvement (as hot-tempered Jo, and Marmee before her, do in “Little Women”) is to make the revolutionary argument that moral and characterological heroism is as accessible to women as it is to men.

By the end of “Little Women,” Alcott’s Jo learns to “move with ease, if not grace,” recognizes that she has “talent” but not “genius” and embraces “something sweeter” (i.e., marital, maternal and communal responsibility) than the pure “freedom” that she chases early in the novel.

Readers did not want this ending for Jo; they wanted her married off to her handsome childhood best friend, Laurie Lawrence, not her moralistic companion, Professor Bhaer. But Alcott refused to capitulate to her fans, and crafted an ending for Jo that is less about feminization than about maturation. (She doesn’t need to be a man to conquer herself, because she did conquer herself and she isn’t a man.)

The radical contention of “Little Women” is that natural vice, hard-won virtue and mature conquering of self to elevate the latter over the former know no sex. Consequently, women need heroines no differently than men need heroes.

Alcott provided such heroines to posterity because she was a woman far ahead of her time. And sadly – as evidenced by this desire to marginalize her from womanhood simply because she rejected the intellectual, moral and physical infantilization of a deeply regressive iteration of femininity that took root less than 200 years ago – she was apparently a woman ahead of our time as well.

Elizabeth Grace Matthew writes about culture, politics and religion for various publications, including America magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethGMat.

Tags Transgender rights Transgender rights movement

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