Little Women: Does Louisa May Alcott present the first transgender protagonist?

Little Women is pretty much the grandmama of all YA novels with an intrepid female protagonist, wouldn’t you say? What girl didn’t grow up cheering on the feisty Jo March as she rebelled against the corsets and constraints of mid-19th Century American thought? Louisa May Alcott herself was the prototype for Jo, and Jo gives voice to many of the concerns the young Louisa experienced.

Amos Bronson Alcott, Louisa’s father, was a big mover and shaker in the American Transcendentalist movement in the Boston area, alolittle_women-cover1ng with more famous names such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Louisa was, in fact, a pupil in the school run by Thoreau and his brother John. Louisa’s upbringing was unconventional. Her father was an abolitionist, an experimental educator, and a free thinker, but he was also largely unsuccessful at supporting his family above the poverty level. Jo March’s ability to add to her family’s meager income with her published work is a page directly out of Louisa’s life.

In re-reading Little Women this time around, I found the literary evidence for the possibility that Alcott depicts Jo March as transgender quite compelling. Jo, like many tomboys before and after her, chafes at traditional definitions of femininity, but her feelings go beyond that, and so does Alcott’s depiction of her. She makes no bones about calling her “gentlemanly,” and Laurie often refers to her as a “fellow.” Her family and close friends seem to have no issue with the fact that Jo is really more of a man than a woman. Still, Alcott marries her off, albeit unconventionally, in the end.

The literary evidence is even more striking when you consider the beliefs of the Alcott family. For a brief time, the Alcotts established Fruitlands, an experimental community of like-minded folks, who strove to live off the land apart from the larger society and according to Transcendentalist ideals. Fruitlands was modeled after the famous Brook Farm project founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley. So scandalous were the living arrangements at Brook Farm that author Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia left the project. In short, the Alcotts were extremely liberal, even by today’s standards, and while there is no record, there is also no reason not to imagine that a young Louisa May could have been introduced to transgender people and did not find anything particularly unusual about that situation.

There is plenty of hard evidence that Louisa May Alcott was an abolitionist and a feminist. She might well have been a lesbian. Unlike her literary twin, Alcott never married. Were she and Jo transgender as well? Perhaps not with exactly the physical and psychological nuances we understand in our modern age, but it does seem with whatever the 19th Century experience of gender fluidity and expression might have looked like. I find it at least a distinct possibility. Louisa May Alcott leaves behind the fictional legacy of Jo March, her unconventional role model for free-spirited tomboys everywhere, but also this real-life quote: “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”

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