Deconstructing Jo Marsh’s Gender | ‘Little Women’ by Louisa May Alcott [Book Review]

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One of the first things that struck me about Jo was how often she was described as being male in some way–whether it was through the narrator’s description of her manner or her own comments about herself. I found this not only interesting because it is odd to find such descriptions of female characters in novels from this time period but also because it reminded me a lot of my own experiences growing up. Seriously, my brother refers to me as his “brother” regularly and the comment “you’re not a real girl” is thrown around all the time by my friends.

Like Jo, this never bothered me but it wasn’t something I really thought about until I was in high school and suddenly it wasn’t as much of a joke as it used to be. It was one thing to be a tomboy as a kid but I think everyone expected me to grow out of it–much like Jo does throughout the novel. Instead, I spent even less time around other girls, became worse at expressing my feelings, and, while I’m slow to anger and on the whole find aggression uncomfortable to be around, I picked my fair-share of fights (but that was mostly because I was angry 90% of the time for complicated reasons).

DISCLAIMER: I don’t identify as transgender or non-binary. I’ve always been fine with the label “female”. It was everyone else who seemed confused.

This seems to be a lot like what Jo went through too. So, really, it was my odd connection with this character that sparked my interest in this novel at all. Which is why I’d rather focus on this particular aspect instead of reviewing the novel as a whole. If you like classical novels with morals and episodic chapters than maybe this is something you would enjoy. Other than that, I’m focusing on this one topic.

Goodreads Synopsis

Generations of readers young and old, male and female, have fallen in love with the March sisters of Louisa May Alcott’s most popular and enduring novel, Little Women. Here are talented tomboy and author-to-be Jo, tragically frail Beth, beautiful Meg, and romantic, spoiled Amy, united in their devotion to each other and their struggles to survive in New England during the Civil War.

It is no secret that Alcott based Little Women on her own early life. While her father, the freethinking reformer and abolitionist Bronson Alcott, hobnobbed with such eminent male authors as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne, Louisa supported herself and her sisters with “woman’s work,” including sewing, doing laundry, and acting as a domestic servant. But she soon discovered she could make more money writing. Little Women brought her lasting fame and fortune, and far from being the “girl’s book” her publisher requested, it explores such timeless themes as love and death, war and peace, the conflict between personal ambition and family responsibilities, and the clash of cultures between Europe and America.

Jo’s Childhood Identity

I can’t get over my disappointment in not being a boy

Jo March,

What really makes Jo stand out in terms of gender identity is how self-aware she is about it. It’s one thing to have other characters and the narrator point how that she is “unladylike” but a completely other thing to have her plainly own to it herself.

More than that is that she doesn’t flinch from it or try to act against her nature in order to please other–even later in the novel when she starts to change. All her friends are boys and she acts as they do: whistling, slouching in her chair, using their slang.

For by eschewing the feminine and expressing masculine identifications and desires, the tomboy, by definition, points up that such categories as male and female, or masculine and feminine, are indeterminate and unstable.

Karin Quimby, “The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire.”

Jo as a Young Adult

This section of the novel includes a relatively off-course chapter in which Jo and Amy go around town making calls to different households. While not necessarily important to the overall plot, this chapter does display one key point about Jo’s gender in regards to her family: they prefer when she acts like herself.

While there is plenty of little, teasing comments made by her immediate family, they are remarkably comfortable with Jo acting in the way she does. The only one who expresses any kind of frustration with it is Amy. However, during this chapter, Jo puts on the airs Amy wants her to–playing the part of the average gossiping lady that grabs people’s attention or is completely serine. Which only helps to further frustrate Amy.

This leads to Jo’s sister insisting that she act herself–in which Jo spends her time with the men at the household and completely disregards what tramping around outside will do to her dress. She maintains her tomboy nature even into her early “womanhood”.

Moreover, because some tomboys refuse to perform femininity over a lifetime, preferring a variously male-identified expression both physical and psychic, they expose the assumption that such tomboyism is temporary and safely confined to childhood.

Karin Quimby, “The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire.”

The End of Jo as We Know Her

At about the halfway point in the novel is when things start to take a turn. This is mostly because–well, spoiler so I won’t get into the details–family “stuff” happens and Jo starts to feel more responsible for caring for her family. Her dreams of becoming a famous writer as put on hold as she tries to be a maternal presence in her household.

Not that there is anything particularly “feminine” about caring for one’s family and household but it was considered so by society at the time the novel was written–and it is certainly seen that way by Jo herself.

There are a lot of valid reasons for Jo changing at this point in the novel and I certainly wouldn’t say that she becomes lesser because of it. However, it does feel as if Alcott is trying to say that it was inevitable for Jo to make this change–as if it were pivotal to her growing up and maturing.

This is the part that rubs me the wrong way–and not just because I’m in denial about being a grown-up, but there is that.

Jo essentially becomes a career-mother, something she expressed no interest in for most of the novel, and gives up everything that is seen as “rough” and “manly” about herself. It is as if she gives in to what people expect her to be.

Granted, this novel was written about 150 years ago so maybe that was the way it had to be, but it definitely made the ending bitter-sweet for me. I wanted the Jo who was unapologetic for being exactly who she was. I wanted Jo to not give up her dreams and passions like her sisters did. I missed Jo’s titanium backbone.

Alas, she conformed like all the others.

Moving Forward

Not all hope is lost though.

I’m glad that in today’s world, while not perfect by any means, there are at least allowed to be stories that challenge gender norms–at least in my part of the world. Maybe if this story were to be written today, Jo would be allowed to keep her “tomboy” nature and live as she always wished she could: as a boy.

Let me know if you have come across any other stories (new or old) that have similar characters–I’d love to read them!


Quimby, Karin. “The Story of Jo: Literary Tomboys, Little Women, and the Sexual-Textual Politics of Narrative Desire.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 10 no. 1, 2003, pp. 1-22. Project MUSE,

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