The Alcott daughters as beneficiaries of their parents’ progressive ideas on education

Recently I read an essay called “Women, Menstruation and Nineteenth Century Medicine” by Vern Bullough and Martha Voght which discussed how misinformation regarding women and menstruation prevented them from receiving an education. The essay covered familiar territory with regards to how the world of medicine regarded women’s health in the nineteenth century. (See previous post)  As stated in that post,

“The foundation for all diagnoses of women’s ailments: “… began and ended with consideration of an organ unique to her, namely her uterus.” (from Women and Health in America, pg. 223)

False ideas

E. F. W. Pflüger, Wikipedia

Such misinformation was rampant, much of it due to Victorian modesty coupled with the lack of women doctors. Folklore abounded with little change in ideas since the time of Hippocrates or Aristotle (pg. 67), including the idea that a woman’s flow was caused by the effect of the moon. A commonly held theory promoted by E. F. W. Pflüger maintained that nervous stimulation triggered menses; as can be expected, this caused many physicians (and those they influenced) to oppose any emancipation of women. (pg. 68)

A danger to health

Sex in Education by Edward H. Clark, M.D.

It was argued that the education of women should be discouraged because of the supposed danger of mental stimulation on a woman’s physical health. In fact, it was declared a “disastrous error” by medical writers in 1870 to educate girls who were experiencing puberty: “the female between 12 and 20 must concentrate on developing her reproductive system … likewise, during the growth of the female reproductive system, brain work must be avoided.” It was also suggested that girls should be restricted in brain work due to their monthly cycles. (pg. 69).

Dr. Edward H. Clark, in his book Sex in Education, claimed that brain work left women in poor health for the rest of their lives and presented case studies to prove his point. Despite the fact that his book was denounced for its lack of rigorous scientific study, Sex in Education went through seventeen editions in thirteen years. (pgs. 70-71)

Keeping women in their place

Many of the theories equating the ill health of women with the “overstimulation” of their minds through education were unsubstantiated. Even when disputed by appropriate scientific research, the misinformation persisted because of the popularity of the ideas. (pg. 71) Along with warnings regarding health were concerns about the influence of higher education on a woman’s femininity, placing in doubt her ability to fulfill her roles as wife and mother. Education had the effect of making a woman “coarse” and “forceful.” (Ibid) Undoubtedly those ideas sought to keep men in power and women in the home.

Education of the Alcott girls

In the midst of all of this, Abigail Alcott sought to send two of her girls, Lizzie and Abbie May, on to higher education. She was determined that each of her daughters have trades and become self-supporting (Anna spent ten years teaching while Louisa perfected her writing craft which would eventually support the entire family). In 1853 Lizzie was to attend the newly opened Girls High School in Boston (aka, The Normal) to train as a teacher. Abbie May, attending the Bowdoin public school at the time, aspired to follow in her sister’s footsteps. Both had discussed together the idea of attending public school as May writes in her journal on September 13, 1852,

“Lizzie and I as we sat and sewed we talked about going to a public school, and think we had better go although it will be hard the first day.”

The Bowdoin School today, converted to apartments

The idea was suggested by a man – Samuel Joseph May. In a letter to his sister dated October 15, 1850 he writes,

“If your good girls are inclined to teachers would it not be well for them to spend a year under the discipline of the Normal School? I have thought if they would go there, I would see if I could by of my friends the means to support them there, each one year. But they may already be sufficiently skilled in teaching and managing children.”

Ambition of a mother

There was never a question in any family correspondence or journal entry as to the girls’ fitness to be educated; Abba in fact insisted on it. As a young woman she was denied the formal education that she craved. It was Samuel Joseph who allowed her to read his books and partake in his education, if only informally.

While neither Lizzie nor May ended up attending the Normal, they both, along with their older sisters, read voraciously throughout their lives. Lizzie and May received private tutoring in Boston, first by Elizabeth Peabody and then by a Miss Seymour before May entered the Bowdoin School in late 1852.

Laying a good foundation

Bronson had educated the girls when they were young, teaching them writing, spelling, reading and geography along with simple arithmetic and science. Daily journal writing was required. He and Abba both encouraged outdoor play with plenty of fresh air and exercise. The greatest gift both parents gave to their daughters was their lifelong support and encouragement of their creativity. Because Bronson had an affinity with younger children and thus lost interest in his girls’ education when they became teenagers, Abba stepped in.

Equal standards

Despite being educated by their father, Charles Strickland, author of Victorian Domesticity believed that Bronson’s teaching contained no sexual bias; he expected the same of his daughters as he expected of himself. (pg. 34, Strickland) Record of a School, which documented his tenure at the Temple School,  included transcriptions by his assistant, Elizabeth Peabody of class discussions demonstrating Bronson’s lack of bias towards his students. Both boys and girls attended his classes.

While the education of the Alcott daughters was spotty at times, they were exposed to the richness of literature that many other girls could only hope for. Louisa’s lack of formal education in her teens was more than made up for by Mr. Emerson’s library where she could borrow books at will and discuss them with the famous Transcendentalist lecturer and author who encouraged her writing. Her mother, sensing Louisa’s talent plus her need to vent her energy, encouraged her daughter’s writing with gifts of pens and comments in her journal.

A great return

Despite many years of hardship from poverty, the Alcott girls were exposed to educational opportunities not normally available to girls. There was never any consideration in the Alcott household that education endangered their daughters; rather education was seen as an opportunity for a better and more self-sufficient life. Both parents made it a priority producing daughters who were well read, imaginative and talented.

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2 thoughts on “The Alcott daughters as beneficiaries of their parents’ progressive ideas on education

  1. Judith Alcott Huff says:

    I must comment about this topic out of respect for my dad, David Wallace Alcott II, since he firmly believed that intelligence was neither gender specific nor reserved for the male child. He also instilled a personal pride in my femininity and demanded I think outside the box. Genetics at work? 🤔

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