Elif Armbruster is a new voice to the Summer Conversational Series. An Associate Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston, she specializes mid-to-late 19th and early 20th century women’s literature. With the conception of both the “Nasty Woman” and #metoo movements, Elif developed a course on notable Nasty Women in literature. Of course, Jo March was one of them.
Personal impact of Little Women
Elif first encountered Little Women at the age of 10 with her mother reading it to her. She has since been reading it to her daughter with the old movies helping out a great deal. The book truly resonated when she was a teenager, seeing much of herself in Jo March: “materialistic, grumpy and prostrate.”
Brief introductory history lesson
Elif began with a quick history of women through the ages and how they were perceived: Witches in the 17th and 18th centuries if they did not “tow the line,” the “True Woman” of the early and mid 19th century, and the “New Woman” of the 20th century, and today’s “Nasty Woman.”
Controversial ending to Jo’s story
A great deal has been written about the domestic ending for Jo March in Little Women, much of that being criticism and disappointment over Jo March’s marriage to Professor Bhaer. Elaine Showalter, in her introduction to the 1989 edition of the book summarizes the feminist criticism of Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer and supposed sacrifice of her literary career as capitulating to the middle class ideals of womanhood. Martha Saxton wrote that Little Women was a “regression of Louisa May Alcott as an artist and a woman” while Judith Fetterley descibed Jo’s decision as “self-denial, renunciation and mutilation.”
A different take
Elif disagrees, believing that Jo was empowered by her decisions, making the best of all the options available to her. Rather than getting in the way of a fulfilling life, marriage, children and running the school with her husband greatly added to it, thus making her a better writer and a more well-rounded person.
Beginnings of a movement
In describing the beginning of the “Nasty Woman” movement, Elif recounted Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election debating Donald J.Trump and his subsequently calling her a “nasty woman.” In solidarity with Clinton, women ran with this idea. She described the criticism heaped upon Clinton for acting in a masculine fashion: outspoken in her ideas and seeking the most powerful position in the country as president of the United States.
Consequences for outspoken women
Elif cited Martha Cutter, author of Unruly Tongue: Identity and Voice in American Women’s Writing, 1850-1930 who summed it up best: any woman who speaks up or is exhibiting unruly behavior threatens patriarchal power. Such “unruly” women were branded as witches in the 17th and 18th centuries, paying the ultimate price.
The narrowing role of women
Restrictions on the behavior of women became more formalized beginning in 1780 with the rise of “The Cult of Domesticity.” Women were expected to cultivate and exhibit purity, piety, and submissiveness, living in the private sphere of domestic life. Women were taught that true happiness lay in submission to others and serving their needs, even to the expense of their own. Prominent writers lHarriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Child wrote advice books to this effect.
Mistress of the unruly
In the midst of this thinking comes Jo March which Elif dubbed as “the mistress of the ‘unruly’ woman.” Right away in chapter one of Little Women we see examples such as Amy and Jo arguing over Jo’s use of slang and her general rudeness. Butting up against older sister Meg, Jo voices her dismay over being a girl, disappointed that she was not born a boy so that she could fight in the war with her father.
Jo fights against womanhood declaring herself to be “man of the family.” In their many theatricals she took on the roles of male villains, even wishing to be MacBeth so that she could kill, and have adventures.
Jo’s traits were traditionally male; she also harbored male ambitions. Elif described her behavior as ‘freakish” at times with a strong desire to burst out with bold and revolutionary speech. Jo chafed against all the restrictions involved in becoming a grown woman.
The beginning of change
Little Women was written when the perceptions of women were beginning to change. By the turn of the century, “The New Woman” broke with the domestic realm as documented by Caroline Ticknor in 1901.
In describing Jo’s marriage to Professor Bhaer, Elif pointed out that he was an equal to her. He discerned that she possessed a good mind and encouraged her in intellectual pursuits, ultimately helping her to discover her best self. He was warm, sympathetic and a good friend; poor but always giving things away. He was esteemed for his character. In essence, he provides a wonderful role model for boys.
Depending on your age
Jo’s choosing of Professor Bhaer over Laurie of course outraged Alcott’s readers. Elif found however that while younger readers preferred Laurie as Jo’s husband, mature readers could see the wisdom in her final choice.
Poverty facilitates purpose
Bhaer’s poverty was important to Jo as she strongly desired to carry her share of taking care of the home. She could not enjoy herself if she did not contribute in all ways which shatters the cult of true womanhood
Elif pointed out that ultimately Elaine Showalter thought Jo fulfilled her life with her marriage and that turning down Laurie was a more mature choice. Showalter perceived that Laurie was not as masculine as Bhaer and thus, would not have been a good choice for Jo.
Along with Showalter Elif believed that Jo was better off in not giving herself solely to her writing but rather, leading a more balanced life. She had made her peace with not being a genius, believing that hard work along with a complete and full life was a better way to produce good writing.
Inspiration to Clinton
Elif pointed out that Jo is consistently presented in a male context just as Hillary Clinton has been; it is well-known that Clinton was highly impacted by the story of Jo March.
Mr. March, in seeing the growth in Jo remarks, “I rather miss my wild girl.” Elif believes that girl still exists at the end of the book.
Elif Armbruster is an Associate Professor of English at Suffolk University in Boston. She has published several essays on prominent 19th century women and is the current Vice President of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association.
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