XX. Confidential

By Jeanne Birdsall

Louisa settled at her desk, preparing to slog through another chapter of Little Women, this book she was writing only for the money. It was meant to be read by girls, which meant she needed to stay away from high drama and thunder, her usual ways to advance a story. She rubbed her temples—a headache threatened—unwittingly mussing her hair. Who was she to write for girls? A woman who’d never been a conventional girl, who barely knew what such girls talked about and wished for.

Stop fussing, she told herself, and get to work. Where was she in the story? The mother of the March family, Marmee, had just rushed home from Washington, where she’d been nursing the girls’ father, to find that Beth had miraculously escaped death from scarlet fever. The chapter needed to begin with quiet joy and gratitude. Louisa picked up her pen and wrote: Chapter 20, Confidential. I don’t think I have any words in which to tell the meeting of the mother and daughters . . . Oh, blast! What a pitiable beginning. She didn’t think she had the words? She’d better find them. She’d put too much labor into this book to abandon it now.

It took a while, but the words did come, as they always did for disciplined, hard-working Louisa. As she went, she found bits she could be proud of. Meg and Jo feeding Marmee like dutiful young storks. Amy, in exile at Aunt Josephine’s to keep her safe from scarlet fever, generously letting Laurie sleep off his exhaustion. But it was later in the chapter, when Jo talks to Marmee about John Brooke’s wooing of Meg, and what need be done about it, that Louisa’s words flew across the pages. Jo was always easiest for her to write, with all that stomping around and telling of blunt truths–as when she tells Marmee, “I don’t know anything about love, and such nonsense!” and “I wish wearing flat-irons on our heads would keep us from growing up.” Who wouldn’t like writing about Jo?

Soon Meg is innocently proving to Marmee that she’s not in love with John (but soon will be), and Louisa could bring Chapter 20 to a close. She stood up to stretch, unfolding herself like an animated puzzle. After her initial reluctance, she was pleased with the day’s work. Despite Jo and flat-irons, she’d been able to subtly pivot the March sisters away from girlhood and toward incipient womanhood. Who knew what the readers—the girls—would think about that? Louisa didn’t care. It was her story.

She sat down again, picked up her pen, and wrote: Chapter 21.

Jeanne Birdsall shares Louisa May Alcott’s birthplace – Germantown, Pennsylvania – and used this as an excuse to borrow lavishly from Little Women for her own New York Times- bestselling Penderwick series. The National Book Award Jeanne won for the first of the Penderwick books is held jointly with Alcott, whether she knows it or not.


Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Little Women (1933), directed by George Cukor.

XV. A Telegram

By Ashley Cook

In the fall of 2006, I enrolled in an American survey course; one of the selections on our course list was Little Women. I had no idea when I picked up that used Norton Critical Edition in the campus bookstore what a place Alcott’s writing would have in my life. Her words provided inspiration for a Maid of Honor toast during a friend’s wedding—thankfully my friend married before she became a “haggard, worn, and moody woman of thirty”—while Eight Cousins became the foundation for my Master’s Project. Some might view Alcott’s work as moral guidance for the young, but I see in it resistance and a desire to change the status quo—a bit of “sticking it to the man,” if you will.

Within the pages of “A Telegram” is a scene that remains etched in my mind even years after my first reading of Little Women. When Jo reveals to her family that she has cut off and sold her hair so that Marmee will have money to support her rush to Mr. March’s bedside, some members of her family are first shocked—perhaps even appalled—that she would cut her “beautiful hair…[her] one beauty.” While the others focus only on how Jo looks with her cropped hair, Marmee alone understands the magnitude of Jo’s sacrifice and the resolve Jo must have had to follow through with her decision to sell her hair. Marmee knows the gift of the lone lock of chestnut hair is more than just a bit of hair—it is a piece of Jo herself that she sacrificed for her family.

As an adult, I see younger Jo as someone who struggles to find her identity in a world that tells her she isn’t pretty enough or feminine enough or, simply, enough. I’ve always thought Jo’s decision to cut her hair served two purposes. First, she was able to give a bit of herself to help her family. Second, what better way to thumb her nose at a society that tells her she MUST present a certain way than to cut her long hair? Jo is sure of her decision to sell her hair and shed conformity until her family’s negative reaction gets in her head. Only then does she lament the loss of her “vanity” as she describes it.

Why is long hair so associated with womanhood and femininity? Is Jo’s only motivation to provide money for her family? Jo’s haircut leads me to think of other women who have shorn their long hair in response to something traumatic in their lives. Frida Kahlo cut her long hair off shortly after her divorce from Diego Rivera. Carrie Bradshaw flaunts a cute, short haircut after her second break-up with Aidan. Mulan cuts her hair to pass as a man so she can take her father’s place in battle. These are just a few examples.

I do believe that the chief motivation behind Jo’s decision to cut her hair is to provide for her family, but I also see it as an act of defiance. In a time when her options are limited, Jo’s haircut is a rebellion against societal norms.

A former Kansas State University student, Ashley Cook spends her time riding bicycles, fostering cats, and reading books.