What 'Little Women' can teach us about the power of sisterhood

The classic story highlights the complex and intimate relationship between sisters — and reminds us what is so special about the sisterly bond.
Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in "Little Women."
Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in "Little Women."Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures
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By Vivian Manning-Schaffel

For over 150 years, “Little Women” has enchanted readers with the coming-of-age tales of the March sisters, set in 19th century New England. The story is a deep-dive into sisterly relationships based on the real-life escapades of author Louisa May Alcott, and director Greta Gerwig’s recent cinematic take on the classic infused humor and heart into her interpretation of the stories, so lovingly embodied by top-notch actors like Saorsie Ronan, Meryl Streep and Laura Dern.

Beyond the heart-warming entertainment the film offers, it also provides exploration of an intimate and complex relationship type: that of siblings, and more specifically sisters.

As it turns out, science favors positive sibling relationships — one study showed that when teen siblings have positive interactions it promotes prosocial behavior, academic achievement and empathy. And you can see how that manifests in this realistic depiction of sisterhood. “Sisters have the most intimate relationships compared to brother-sister or brother-brother pairs,” says Sarah Killoren, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Science at the University of Missouri. “Sisters are friends, caregivers, sources of support and advice, but there can also be conflict and jealousy in their relationships. 'Little Women' shows all of these different aspects of sisters’ relationships,” Killoren says.

Like so many of you, we've read the book and saw the film, and it reminded us how much Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth exemplify what it means to have and be a sister — and the complexities of navigating the sisterly dynamic. Here are some of the plot points that rang true:

Jo and Amy’s squashed sibling rivalry

Jo and Amy develop a harsh rivalry that drives the plot of “Little Women.” They are alike in their passion but hold different values: Jo, the writer, would willingly cut off her long hair, her “only beauty,” to help provide for her family without much concern for vanity, while Amy, the artist, shamelessly celebrates and covets beauty, going so far as to cast the image of her own “pretty foot” to impress a crush. Angry that her big sister Jo wouldn’t take her to the theater (and jealous over Jo’s relationship with her handsome best friend Laurie), Amy goes so far as to burn Jo’s long-belabored manuscript in retaliation. Yet, when Amy nearly drowns in her attempt to make amends, Jo forgives this unforgivable act.

“Siblings typically fight about two things; whether things are fair in terms of them having the same opportunities and when siblings try to take something that is theirs. Both of these apply when you are talking about Jo and Amy,” says Killoren. Aunt March is no help, pitting them against each other as she dangles the possibility of a trip to Europe over their heads. Eventually, when Amy moves in on Jo’s soulmate Laurie (after Jo had rejected him), Jo owns her part in the situation and finds a way to forgive her once more, saying, “life’s too short to be angry,” ultimately driving home that the only antidote to sibling rivalry is forgiveness and unconditional love.

Jo’s nurturing relationship with Beth

It’s not unusual for an older sibling to ‘adopt’ a younger sibling, by either taking them under their wing or, even further, assuming more of a parenting role by caregiving, especially if one sibling has chronic illness or disability, says Killoren. The sweet, nurturing relationship between Jo and Beth is no exception. Theirs was an unconditional support system largely unmarred by conflict or competition, so they could lean on each other. Plus, it takes a mature child with empathy, common sense and ease with providing “personal care” to a family member or sibling to fall into that role, according to a 2002 study, so when Beth’s life was at stake, Jo was ready, willing and able to step up.

Meg and Jo’s steadfast support system

The two oldest March sisters have different personalities and goals in life — most siblings do, thanks to genetics. Yet, they confide in each other and bond hard through shared teenage experiences (like attending parties and the theater when the two youngest can’t). But when Meg falls in love and Jo fears losing her to marriage, Jo doesn’t get mad but listens to Meg when she defends her choice, as quoted in Gerwig’s film: “Just because my dreams are different than yours, doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” After all, she’s not the first sister to fear losing her sister to marriage — and she won’t be the last. “For families, a major change like this disrupts family life and there is a time of uncertainty until family members get used to the new way of life,” Killoren explains. “During life transitions, like an older sibling moving out of the home and getting married, relationships change. Typically, they improve because there are fewer opportunities for conflict.”

Every March for Marmee

When their mom, or “marmee,” is called away to attend to their gravely ill father — and Beth develops scarlet fever — the March sisters show us what it means to band together, rally and hold down the fort (with housekeeper Hannah’s help) until their dad gets better and their mom comes home. Killoren says a shared crisis can clarify priorities and inspire siblings to squash petty quarrels. “When families experience a crisis, the resources they have and how they think about the crisis are important factors in how the crisis affects the family,” she says. “Siblings can provide support for one another and help each other to reflect on what this means for the family and how to get through it. Because siblings are leaning on one another for support, it can bring them closer.”

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