Even if you've never read it, you've probably heard of Little Women; the title alone has become a cornerstone of American culture, spawning an entire industry of "girl books" and literature for and about young women. But all this girliness isn't just sweetness and light. Let's be real: the title Little Women is often criticized as suggesting the gender stereotypes that this book upholds. After all, if you interpret "little women" to mean "girls," then the implication is that girls are not free-spirited children but miniature versions of their adult counterparts. Alternatively, if "little women" describes the women that these girls grow into, then it seems rather demeaning – literally belittling the importance of the women.
Of course, Louisa May Alcott was really a very pro-woman writer and thinker, but even she became frustrated by the limitations of the world that she created in this book, and that troublesome adjective "little" holds the key to the problem. As you read the novel, or as you look back over it, think about what's "little" about these girls who grow into women – and also about what's larger-than-life.
There's also another title lurking in the shadows behind this book. Originally, Little Women was the title of Part 1 of the novel (Chapters 1-23), which was published on its own in 1868. It was an instant bestseller, and Alcott was swamped with requests for more. In 1869, she published a sequel, Good Wives. Today we read these two together, and editors add the text of Good Wives as Part 2 of Little Women (Chapters 24-47).
The title Good Wives rarely appears in the text of editions published these days, and it's interesting to think about why. Perhaps modern readers resist the idea that women all have to become wives, or perhaps it's just that we want to keep thinking of them as girls instead of married ladies.
Whatever the reason, Alcott herself shares our tendency to focus on the first half of the novel. After all, Part 1 is heavily autobiographical, recording Alcott's own girlhood and experiences with her sisters. However, because Alcott herself never married, but readers were clamoring to hear about the marriages of the characters, in Part 2 Alcott let her inventiveness take over and largely departed from her own personal story. As a result, it's the first part of the novel – the part originally titled Little Women – that really holds our attention and thus comes to be the name of the entire work.