The core of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism explains her timelessness

After writing yesterday’s post on Polly’s modern sensibilities, I thought about what Louisa May Alcott’s core belief was which motivated her feminism, and why she was so effective in imparting it.

Autonomy

My conclusion? Louisa’s feminism was based on autonomy – the right of every woman to be autonomous,  the freedom for each woman to realize her true potential as a whole person. And even as I write this, I reflect back on Sarah Elbert’s essay on Moods where she incorporated Louisa’s transcendental upbringing into the mix.

Transcendentalism played a crucial role

As crazy as her father Bronson could be, he certainly associated with some very fine people (Thoreau, Emerson, Margaret Fuller, etc.). He also managed to have a brilliant idea or two. ;-)

Transcendentalism focused on individual development which involved introspection and scrutiny. Crucial to that development was the intimate connection with something greater than Self  by reconnecting with the natural world. God was to be found in that world but not as He had been traditionally understood.

But did Transcendentalism truly include women?

Since the vast majority of transcendentalists were male, they did not necessarily promote the same kind of individual development for women. It was probably too much to ask that they totally divorce themselves from the thinking of the day (especially when it benefited them so directly!).

A role model

However, Margaret Fuller spent many years giving ‘conversations’ to promote the idea of education for women. Her informal gatherings gave women some of the very few chances they had to learn, to reflect, and to share ideas on realizing their individual vocations. She presented quite a glamorous figure and was someone the then teen-aged Louisa admired and wished to emulate. Legend has it that when Louisa reflected on her life, making her 3 wishes at the wishing wheel located in the meadow above Hillside, that she wished for fame and travel – a life like Margaret Fuller’s.

Her upbringing influences her writing

So it makes perfect sense that all this seeped into Louisa’s writing, becoming an on-going theme. Much as she complained about writing “moral pap for the young,” these stories did much to promote her thinking that all women deserved a chance to be all they could be, leading deeper, more meaningful lives. It was far more than “moral pap”: it was a way of educating and influencing young girls, showing them that there were, in fact, choices they could make in their lives.

Timeless messages

Louisa did a lot of public campaigning for women through her attendance at national conferences, and she set the example by being the first woman to vote in the local Concord election. She courageously served as a Civil War nurse when the profession had just opened to women. And of course her tenacity in carving out a life as a best-selling literary spinster speaks volumes.

In the end however, it’s the simple and subtle messages inherent in her writing to children that continue to stand the test of time.  Just about every woman pioneer since Louisa’s era remembers reading Little Women and they point to Jo March as a pivotal inspiration.

Re-embracing feminism

Since I met Louisa long before I met Jo, Louisa is my pivotal inspiration. She was very much outside the mainstream and so am I (though in a quieter way); she gives me greater pride and confidence in that fact. Now that I am meeting her family of characters for the first time, I find it possible to re-embrace feminism; she has brought me back to its purer roots. Certainly the different political gains are important (the right to vote being crucial) but in the end, it’s really about a woman being given every chance to realize her full potential, just as every man is given that chance.

Louisa’s writing  makes me laugh, cry and think, and gives me a safe haven. This is one crazy and chaotic time that we’re living in – how wonderful that an author who lived 150 years ago could offer inspiration and safety to me, and to so many others too.

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6 thoughts on “The core of Louisa May Alcott’s feminism explains her timelessness

  1. SilverSeason says:

    Everything you say reminds me of incidents in An Old-Fashioned Girl. The irony of the title is that the old fashion becomes the new fashion because it means thinking for yourself, being self critical, aspiring to be better, and actively working to solve problems, including the problem of insufficient money. There is nothing passive about any of this.

    • susanwbailey says:

      That’s exactly what I was thinking last night while driving home from work! Makes me wonder if there’s a possible, deliberate hidden meaning to the title. More and more I’m seeing that the genius of Louisa May Alcott is not necessarily her writing per se (because I don’t think she is the most brilliant writer in the artistic sense) but so many other things which I blog about in the future once it’s all clear to me. And the sad thing is I don’t think Louisa ever really appreciated her true genius but instead was hung up on writing that one great novel. I remember this scene from Amadeus where Salieri can’t understand why God gave him the desire to praise Him with music but didn’t give him the talent. Instead he had the gift of recognizing it in Mozart when no one else seemed to. Instead of appreciating that special insight given to him, he instead went mad with jealousy because Mozart had the talent he didn’t. He couldn’t appreciate what he really had.

  2. Gina says:

    You should read Marmee, the mother of Little women by Salyer, Sandford Meddick , if you haven’t already. It is very interesting to see Abba. The book also has some of her journal entries and maybe a letter or two. Anyway, you can see how strong, independent and at the time, radical. Its no wonder Louisa turned out the way she did. :)

    • susanwbailey says:

      Awesome, my library has a copy. I just reserved it.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Just started “Marmee, the mother of Little Women” by Meddick and it’s a good read. It reads like a novel. I didn’t realize Colonial May was so connected to King’s Chapel in Boston. One of my best childhood friends died too early from breast cancer and her memorial service was at King’s Chapel (this was several years ago). She was a very promising historical mystery author, her name was Kate Ross.

  3. […] where the story got interesting. It was not hard to read between the lines and see what Louisa’s core beliefs were about women, men, and families both wealthy and poor. And Strickland’s book offered great background into […]

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