In Honor of International Women’s Day: 8 Ways to Love Little Women

Little Women

Read a miniature abridged Little Women by flashlight. Snuggle under thick quilts during a summer storm, deep in the pine-scented woods on Maine. As rain clatters onto the log cabin’s roof, whisper the sisters’ names: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. 

Grow up with Jo. Return every summer vacation to this book and take stock of your life. Feed an urgent hunger to see Jo pursue her ambition, flail and flounder. Crave the catharsis of watching Jo say goodbye to her sister Beth. Cry so hard when Beth dies that you soak the pages of the book. Why does this pain feel so good and necessary?

Anticipate every deliciously horrible moment. When Jo’s curling iron burns off a whole chunk of Meg’s hair. When Amy tosses the only copy of Jo’s manuscript into the fire. When Jo holds a grudge against Amy, and then hates herself for it after her baby sister falls through a frozen pond—and nearly dies. When the father, who is fighting in the Civil War, gets wounded, Marmee goes to him, and Beth gets sicker, and the sisters are all desperate, without any idea of what to do next. This is what coming of age means, this anguish—but at least there are four sisters going through it together. They fight and peck each other, but they are (almost) inseparable.

Watch the 1994 version of Little Women starring Winona Ryder in the theater with your whole family and your Costa Rican exchange student, who also grew up with the book. Find yourself dazzled by the bright New England winter, the snowball fights and clomping horse carriages. Settle into a cozy contentment when the daughters cluster around their doting Marmee (Susan Sarandon) in her armchair, hanging on her every word. Stare and stare at Claire Danes, a devastating Beth with pale cheeks, strained voice and eyes that flash with life—only to quickly dim again. Worship Ryder, utterly convincing as a passionate young writer. She might be wearing a triangular nightcap and writing with quill and ink, but she is you.  

Meet women. Ask them which one they were: Meg, Jo, Beth or Amy? There are only four choices—all of them difficult. Learn that Alcott hated her own book, that she’d never wanted to write it in the first place. Her publisher asked for a “simple story about girls.” The idea bored Alcott, who wrote in her diary: “Never liked girls or knew many except my sisters.” She penned 777 pages about the Marches, and two sequels after that.

Meet men. Try to explain your Little Women fever. Find a man who will hold you when you cry during Beth’s deathbed scene. Marry him.         

Read aloud to your eight-year-old daughter from the original, 777-page version. Learn that the book was published in two parts. Lose interest when Little Women turns into Good Wives. Keep searching the whole world for all the adaptations, and fall in love with Rey Terciero and Bre Indigo’s queer, multiracial graphic novel version, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (Little, Brown 2018), which takes place during the Iraq War. Pass the book back and forth with your daughter until the ink stains your fingers and the magenta cover peels off.

Cuddle with both daughters in bed watching the 2018 PBS/BBC version, which opens with swift fingers lacing up bodices, and scissors snipping blonde, brown and red locks of hair. How does the journey to womanhood begin? How do we know for sure it’s underway? When your older daughter starts applying to middle school and wearing your clothes, scour the world even more fervently for all the adaptations and retellings.

Try Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women, which feels like familiar colors sliced into thin ribbons and rewoven into dizzying patterns. This version begins with the girls grown up and halfway out into the world—New York, Paris, marriage/motherhood and terminal illness—and the rhythms are mesmerizing and daring, but where’s the momentum? There is no pulsing anxiety about what the future will hold or what growing up will be, because everyone is smashed right up against their future, staring it down.

Regain your footing with chronological 777-page version, flipping through to scoop up favorite quotes (“I like good, strong words that mean something,’ replied Jo.”) Wrestle with feelings of failure for abandoning the book before the end. Consider that you might be reading this book for the rest of your life without ever finishing it or coming to any conclusions about what it means. 

After a decade of marriage, seven apartments and two kids, learn that your husband is trans—and a woman! Gift your new wife your well-worn, tear-soaked abridged Little Women, and balance together with your daughters on this bright, glistening, razor-sharp edge of becoming.