Abba Alcott’s contribution – behind every great woman stands a mother

You know how they say that behind every great man is a great woman? How about behind every great woman? In studying the life of Abba Alcott through the reading of Marmee, the Mother of Little Womenby Sandford Meddick Salyer, there indeed was a great woman behind Louisa May Alcott. She was a mother whose vitality, intelligence, resourcefulness, support and example shaped one of the great authors of our time.

Excellent lineage

Abba, coming from May, Sewall and Quincy stocks, possessed great intelligence and a fighting spirit. She had a heart for others and their plights. These traits served her well through her difficult life.

Louisa of course, immortalized Abba as Marmee in Little Women and she was all those things. But Abba was also a pioneer in many ways, paving the way through her example of womanly autonomy and independence, all motivated by love.

Talent passed down

Louisa came by her writing talent honestly. Salyer describes Abba as a gifted wordsmith in her own right with a rich background of storytelling in her family:

“Abba was a born storyteller. She had once had aspirations to be a writer. Perhaps she should have been. It was her talent that Louisa inherited, her ingenuity, the vigor and dash of style which Abba could show at times but seldom did. It was certainly Abba’s suggestions and encouragement that helped make Louisa’s books. Alcott has told us that many of Louisa’s plots were suggested by her mother’s recital of incidents she recalled. Abba knew, too, many of Colonel May’s stories; and after her mother’s death Louisa sent Sam for her grandfather’s notebooks, from which she derived many more suggestions.” (page 75, Marmee, the Mother of Little Women).

Budding actress

Abba also had a flair for the dramatic and even nursed ideas of becoming an actress when she was a child (pg. 110). Anna and Louisa, of course, loved to stage plays and Abba fully supported them, knowing it was a good way to channel energy and imagination as well as stress. Undoubtedly, this proved to be an important coping mechanism through the difficult early years the family faced.

The May household was always filled with friends and neighbors eager to listen to Colonel May weave his stories. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

A mind for reform

A lesser known facet of Abba’s life is her pioneering work as a relief worker. With Bronson unable (or unwilling) to work for a living wage, she became one the first modern social workers out of necessity. Her family was often nearly as poor as the people she served. Salyer writes glowingly of  her work which showed a marked flair for organizing while caring for the poor from her heart. :

“For two years Abba continued her noble work. How noble it really was, only those could tell to whom she personally ministered. Her reports, vivid and vigorous as they are, cannot begin to show all she accomplished and all she learned. She came to know how true had been some of the portrayals of London slum life which she had before thought overdrawn and oversentimentalized. Louisa saw some of what to her mother had become familiar, and Abba later recalled scenes and incidents that Louisa used freely in her books, notably in Work[: A Story of Experience]” (pg. 148)

From mother to daughter

Louisa learned from her mother’s example and developed a passion for reform, seeking pragmatic rather than philosophical solutions. She worked for women’s suffrage both on a national stage and in her hometown of Concord (being one of the first women to vote). She would visit prisons and homes for orphans. She often signed her letters, “Yours for reform always.” And her writing, especially on the juvenile level, sought to expose young people to reformist ideas, especially about women (see post on An Old-Fashioned Girl).

These are just a few examples of the profound nature of Abba’s influence on Louisa.. She is the finest example of a mother who poured herself into her children and saw great results. Abba was very gifted and in today’s society could have enjoyed great success professionally. However, she used her gifts just as well, if not better, by pouring herself into her family.

Is there someone in your life who has stood behind you and made you great? “Great” has many definitions . . . think about it. :-)


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4 thoughts on “Abba Alcott’s contribution – behind every great woman stands a mother

  1. julie says:

    Another fascinating post! Abba was clearly a devoted mother, wife, and caretaker of the poor. But do you know, from Salyer’s book or other readings, what reforms she most passionately favored? I’d like to know especially whether or not she viewed women’s roles in the home, often as drudges as she complained at Fruitlands at least, as something that needed to change.

    • susanwbailey says:

      She believed in women’s suffrage and fought for the vote. She believed in women having a purpose in life and being autonomous. She championed the spinster and the professional working girl and wanted these to be viable options for women. She felt strongly about marriage being a love match (see her first adult novel, Moods – the whole story is about this) and a partnership where husband and wife share duties. In Colonial times, work was more home-centered (with farming, etc.) and the husband and wife worked side by side. Victorian times placed men and women in new roles – men were the breadwinners who went outside the domestic home to compete in the marketplace while women held down the fort, responsible for raising the children. She was considered more virtuous and it was up to her to teach her husband by example, thus keeping him in line. There was an unnatural separation of the sexes and Louisa wished that men and women worked side by side again, blending some of the roles instead of having such sharp divisions. In richer families, known as families of fashion, women were often relegated to shallow lives filled with parties, gossip and fashion. In many cases, they had nannies watch the children. Louisa wrote against this in An Old-Fashioned Girl (see post on this). She had strong ideas about child-rearing and its importance. You’ll see in that post I just referred you to that I referred to Charles Strickland’s book, Victorian Domesticity – this is where I learned about this stuff.

      There’s no doubt that her parents’ marriage affected her views, and Fruitlands must have been a particularly difficult trauma considering her age and the gravity of the situation. I think she was ambiguous about marriage – she didn’t feel it was right for her but yet she wrote at great length about it and family life. She supported the basic idea but felt it needed changes that would be more sympathetic to women (who, after all were nothing more than the property of their husbands in those days). Although her parents suffered through many difficulties, they loved each other – in fact, in Marmee The Mother Mother of Little Women, Salyer writes how Bronson wrote beautiful love sonnets about Abba after she passed away. They exchanged love letters and felt like they were courting again when he went away to England to see Alcott House (just read about that in Eden’s Outcasts). Louisa must have sensed their devotion to each other.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Gina says:

    I loved this book and i’m glad you are reading it too :). I honestly think that it was Abba that influenced Louisa the most.

    • susanwbailey says:

      Agreed. She was her mother’s daughter in so many respects. I loved this book. It read like a novel or a memoir and yet you can tell how much research went into it. Is the style considered dated (lack of footnotes, simply a bibliography)? Again I was surprised that the author was male (although the name was a dead giveaway :-)) – he was so empathetic.

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