From Women and Health in America (first edition) there is this intriguing essay titled “What Ought to Be and What Was: Women’s Sexuality in the Nineteenth Century” by Carl N. Degler.
Quoting Dr Charles Taylor, 1882—
“It is not a matter of indifference whether a woman live a single or a married life … I do not for one moment wish to be understood as believing that an unmarried woman cannot exist in perfect health for I know she can. But the point is, that she must take pains for it.” “some other demand for the unemployed functions, must be established. Accumulated force must find an outlet …” (pg. 50)
Following the doctor’s orders
We already know that Louisa May Alcott channeled her tremendous energy into her creativity–writing. Louisa, however, was not the only physically vibrant and passionate Alcott sister. What about May?
May, of course, was driven by her art, experimenting with many techniques (crayon, pastel, charcoal, clay, plaster, etc.). She covered the walls of her bedroom with pencil drawings of gods and goddesses while painting flowers by the desk where her sister Louisa wrote Little Women. She painted a Screech Owl, often seen in trees outside of Louisa’s window, on the mantle of her sister’s room.
Immortalized in Little Women
Louisa included a humorous story in Little Women of May’s alter ego, Amy making a plaster cast of her foot; unlike Amy, May did not get her foot stuck in the plaster. The foot is on display at Orchard House.
May was often away in Boston taking art instruction and she taught students including Daniel Chester French. Within her was serious ambition along with well-developed work ethic and a highly competitive spirit. Louisa would not be the only famous Alcott!
“Beautiful girl runner”
Dr. Taylor recommended exercise as an outlet for sexual energy, both of which Louisa and May employed. Louisa regularly took runs in the forest first thing in the morning before settling down to write–in fact, regular boarder Llewellyn Willis dubbed her “the most beautiful girl runner” he had ever seen. Louisa herself mused about being a horse in another life because of her love of running.
May kept right up, horseback riding and rowing (even alone while in England).
The Alcott sisters benefited from a father who was years ahead in his thinking. Bronson Alcott had always advocated physical exercise for his students and introduced gymnastics into the Concord schools when he was superintendent. All the girls were encouraged to take long walks (Louisa walked the 36 miles from Concord to Boston to attend a party and returned the same day, apparently with little effort.) and spend time outdoors in play.
May and Louisa threw themselves into their creative passions (and May had plenty left over to flirt with numerous admirers). They created lasting works of beauty. Dr. Taylor would have been proud.
A woman of zeal
Speaking of pouring themselves into their passions … their mother Abba also provided a compelling example. Consider how she emptied herself for her children, and the zeal by which she tackled her work as a missionary to the poor.
And yet, Abba had plenty left over for her husband who, for a time, had a healthy sexual appetite. How did Abba feel about that?
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