reading women

Elizabeth Alexander on the Book That Taught Her About Complicated Women

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Little Women was my first consciousness of what it meant to really love and inhabit and identify with a book. I read it 9 million times in my childhood. I must have been about 10, and my friends and I used to act out Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. We used to argue over who would get to play Jo. She was independent and freethinking, breaking with convention, but full of love and true to her family. Her writing was her passion, and the thing to which she was devoted. That book was so formative to me in thinking about what it meant to be an independent woman who loved your family, but defined yourself away from your family. And understanding that I would grow up and out of my family — which I don’t actually think is a given, at all, in the way that women think about themselves.

That whole family, all of those women, and Jo in particular, had a social-justice sensibility. I think about when Jo cut and sold her hair, and the backdrop of the Civil War. It was so vivid to me that she would take her very long hair, this marker of conventional femininity, and put it to use. She eschewed vanity, which was a very important and formative idea for me as a coming-of-age young woman. That vanity is not noble, and it would not get you far. That your looks are not the core of your identity.

I grew up in a family that was driven by a social-justice conscience and social-justice work, and Alcott’s characters, in a very different place and time, cared about the social context they were in. They understood themselves as young women, as agents of contribution and change. They understood that you didn’t exist outside of those responsibilities — and that figuring out those responsibilities was an exhilarating thing.

Louisa May Alcott was interested in the inner lives of young women and girls, and that did not exist outside a sense of living in a challenging world. I think that actually characterizes what all of my work is about. Inner life that is curious about and faithful to a self who lives in a tough world. I’m interested in how we are complicated, interior human beings who live on a timeline in society and history. And I think that’s something Alcott modeled.

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Elizabeth Alexander on the Book That Taught Her About Women