I got through jury duty by rereading Little Women, the 1869 YA tome that, like much of the best literature for young ladies, cloaks its subversions in pretty bows, scapegraces, and misbegotten crushes. Jo March, the literary alias of author Louisa May Alcott, was the bluntest, most boyish, and most fiercely independent of the book’s four New England sisters. As a young girl growing up within miles of their fictional home (Concord, the very heart of New England’s transcendental movement), I identified with Jo powerfully, especially with her dreams of becoming a writer and with her unwillingness to cowtow to the constraints of prescribed femininity. Goddess knows I never bought the ending in which she gave up her literary dreams to marry a plain, moralizing German nearly twice her age.
“I”ll never marry!” I’d declare upon snapping the second volume shut, and though I was reading her tale 100 years later, grownups still tsk-tsked. “You’ll grow out of that attitude once you meet the right boy.” Well, I never met the right boy nor the right girl, and it gave me great satisfaction to learn Louisa never did, either. Instead, she trumpeted statements like: “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe!”
Was it because she harbored secret same-sex longings? Because, as many of her biographers argue, she longed for the real-life Laurie who loved her sister best? I prefer to think Louisa May Alcott was like me: Someone for whom gender was a disease if allowed to dictate who she could be and how, not just who, she could love. I am a feminine woman who will never play femme, a butch who likes to wear long dresses and lipstick, a domestic daddy long legs who loves motherly men and stand-up bois best. And even a century after Alcott strode this earth, my love and literature can’t find a home in this oddly literal world.
I’m approaching the last age Louisa ever reached, but still I pray to her teenaged Jo to guide me through my own book, my own life. Maybe genius isn’t burning, but it’s desire all the same.