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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Revealing the real Abigail Alcott to the world must include Bronson

Slowly but surely I am getting through Abba’s letters in relation to my research on Lizzie Alcott. These letters cover a period from 1853 to 1858. Abba’s handwriting is difficult; it appears she often wrote in haste. Her eyesight was poor so it’s amazing she could write letters at all considering she was writing either by daylight or candlelight. The funny thing is, the more time you spend reading someone’s handwriting, the easier it is to read. I started by only being able to make out less than half of the words and the task seemed overwhelming. Now, depending on the nature of her scrawl, I can make out eighty to ninety percent as I have figured out her patterns and the quirks of the era with regards to handwriting (such as in the case of words ending in “ss” – the first “s” looks more like an “f.” Figuring that out opened up a lot of words!).

Creating a two-way conversation

bronson letters and journalOne of the things I plan on doing once I complete these transcriptions is to group the letters together in such a way as to create a two-way conversation; in other words, match up the correspondences. All of Bronson’s letters have been gathered into Richard L. Herrnstadt’s fine volume The Letters of A. Bronson Alcott so it’s just a matter of matching up the dates so that you get the reply back to the letter. I believe this conversation is essential to understanding Abigail Alcott fully.

Just the beginning

marmee and louisaEve LaPlante’s ground-breaking Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother was excellent but there appeared to me to be a bias against Bronson (understandable). I don’t believe LaPlante is necessarily hostile towards Bronson (she was actually asked that question at a forum at Fruitlands when the book first came out and she denied she was hostile towards him but rather felt sorry for him). But Bronson is nearly left out of the correspondences in My Heart is Boundless Writings of Abigail May Alcott, Louisa’s Mother; after going through each page of the book I found only two letters from him. Considering the number of letters they exchanged, this is a real gap.

Bringing a private life to the forefront

my heart is boundlessDon’t get me wrong, I am not faulting Eve LaPlante. One must have a certain focus when writing a book of this nature; there is just no way to include everything. LaPlante desired and succeeded in showing the world the brilliant fire of Abigail Alcott and the suffering that women of her ilk endured in a male-dominated world. What I am saying is that more needs to be done.

Setting forth the challenge

If I could clone myself or if I was twenty years younger, I would take on the task of gathering together all of Abba’s letters to Bronson, coupling them with his replies and releasing them to the world. But my work on Lizzie must come first (and I have another book on a different subject I am also writing).

I will throw out this challenge however. If someone did desire to put together such a book, I would happily share all the letters I will have transcribed by the time my Lizzie book is done. Consider it and don’t be shy about asking.

A letter from Abba to Bronson

I transcribed a letter today from Abba to Bronson dated December 22, 1857. I’d like to share some of it with you:

“I am pinching all I can to meet up the demands on the 1st – Mr. Davis asks me constantly what you are going to do with his note – I told him you would do the best thing you were able to do what I could do nothing but take care of my family this winter – you would be here early in the spring – and if successful would pay him – Now go and doing the best you can – Money is needed in a heap to get all things …”

“Should this prove dear Lizzy’s last winter with us – they will be glad they did not leave her – I try to believe all will go well with the dear child and that father will return to greater joy than we have yet known.”

“Your letters are a great comfort to us – at times I feel too sad to live – then I think of you and how with Spartan intensity you have stood by your life-test – and that my girls are hopefully striving with circumstances – And their mother ought to be a staff of protection – if she cannot be a vehicle of progress for them so I cheer up and say from my heart “Lead thou me on”

“God help you friend – be careful of cold.”

All from Houghton Library, letter dated December 22, 1857, Amos Bronson Alcott Papers, MS Am 1130.9 (25-27) (used by permission)

A glimpse into a heroine

abbaWhat do these fragments tell us? They tell me that first of all, Abba was under tremendous pressure keeping the home front together while her husband was out on the road. She not only had to take care of a dying daughter but she also had to take care of the financials while at the same time, trying to keep a brave face for her other daughters so as to be a good example. Certainly a heroic effort and one that ultimately succeeded. But what I am constantly struck by, both in this letter and the many others, is her loyalty and devotion to Bronson. It almost never wavers. As much as we look back and shake our heads wondering how she could have stayed with him, put up with him, loved him, she did. She loved him. She encouraged him to do what he was doing because she felt it was right for him to do so. And she admired his adherence to his principles.

Bronson’s awareness of his wife’s worth

amos bronson alcottThese letters are an important part of Abigail’s history and legacy. Bronson obviously thought so as he chose to read through them and her journals after he died. We know that many were destroyed, perhaps at her request, perhaps to protect his reputation, it likely was both. But LaPlante writes on page 264 of Marmee and Louisa that “Bronson found the experience unexpectedly painful. Abigail’s accounts of him and their marriage filled him with shame.”

Troubled marriage, great love

Abigail and Bronson’s marriage was troubled but despite that trouble she was devoted to him. He may have had an eye for younger women when he was older (such as Ednah Dow Cheney to whom he wrote intimate letters and took long walks) but he did love Abba as much as he was capable. The problem of course was that she was far more capable of selfless love than he was. Likely they were a product of their time: women were trained to be self-sacrificing and live in a private sphere whereas men were trained to go out and conquer the world.


Completing her legacy

I hope that a by-product of my research on Lizzie will be a book someday by someone that will include a two-way conversation between Abigail and her husband. Her legacy is not complete without him.

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Cynthia Barton’s Transcendental Wife on the life of Abigail Alcott a must read

Reading Eve LaPlante’s duo biography on Abigail and Louisa in Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother, I kept seeing references to a little-known book about Abigail titled Transcendental Wife by Cynthia Barton, published in 1996. Having just finished the book, I can see why LaPlante and other Alcott scholars return again and again to this book.

Just about Abigail

transcendental wife cynthia barton0001Transcendental Wife is difficult to find but well worth the effort. Devoted to the life of Abigail May Alcott, Barton writes with economy staying laser focused on her subject which is Abigail alone. If you want to find out more about Louisa, you won’t find it here, at least not directly. By learning about Abigail, you will see how and why Louisa emerged to be the woman and writer she is now known to be.

No victim

The unintended tendency of biographers has been to portray Abba as a perennial victim of her difficult husband Bronson. Barton instead emphasizes Abigail’s hard fought victories, revealing a woman strengthened in her sense of self through adversity. The grueling poverty endured by the family as a result of a failed utopian experiment (Fruitlands) and a husband unable and/or refusing to support his family serves to hone Abba into a strong and independent woman. Once doubting her abilities to support her family both financially and emotionally, she emerges the victor.


abbaIn Barton’s description, Abba is, in fact, complicit with Bronson. She loved him to the end, for his principles and his dedication to them, and as a man. This was despite her many misgivings about his schemes and his inability to provide for the family. But as Barton pointed out during Abba’s stint as a social worker in Boston, Abba was equally dedicated to her principles and like Bronson, “failed” in her employment because of those principles: “Neither she nor Bronson would compromise their ideals. Both had found suitable work [he as headmaster of the Temple School, she as a social worker]; both had failed because of ‘the false requisitions of society …’” (Transcendental Wife, pg. 153)

Equal standing

Abba’s growing confidence in her abilities allowed her to evolve to a position of equality with her husband in every respect. Once worshipping Bronson’s morality and spirituality as a disciple, she grew to understand that her own practical brand of morality, of philanthropy, was equal in goodness to his mystical ideals. She was just as committed to reform as he. They both practiced their principles in the extreme, often placing their family in jeopardy, he condemning them to poverty, she exposing them to small pox and scarlet fever.

The ultimate reformer

abbaThe most compelling chapter in the book documents Abba’s work as a social worker, laying out a relentless and powerful argument demonstrating her commitment to reform. Abba’s view of reform gave the poor a name. They were not the masses, they were individuals who came into her home and partook of her bread. They were the young girls counseled to avoid a life of prostitution in favor of honorable employment. They were the hard luck cases, those who were out of work due to their own fault. They were even the much maligned Irish who, once Abba came to know them individually, were worthy of a new start.

A life well lived

Barton uses the last chapter to show the success of Abigail’s struggles. Pouring herself into her girls, she was able to take great pride in their success as useful, productive and happy women: Anna, content and competent in her chosen domestic life, Louisa, world-famous author and dutiful daughter, fulfilling her promise to care for her mother to the end, and May, accomplished artist, happily married and independent living her dream in Europe.

Deeply loved

abba graveAbba carried Lizzie in her heart, longing to be buried next to her in Sleepy Hollow. That wish was eventually granted. Louisa recalled a visit to the cemetery, “Among the tall grass over her breast a little bird had made a nest. Empty now, but a pretty symbol of the refuge that tender bosom always was for feeble and sweet things. (Ibid, pg. 172)

Transcendental Wife can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble but it is pricey. It’s worth the cost however if you are seriously interested in the Alcott family; I highly recommend this book as essential reading. It is cited by many Alcott scholars and for good reason.

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Six women writers (including Louisa May Alcott) and their journeys as writers on film

There is a wonderful film online featuring the stories of six prominent women writers (including Louisa May Alcott, of course!. It is called Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write. Here is the summary from the website, Films on Demand Digital Educational Video:

Behind a Mask: Six Women Finding a Space to Write

This program explores the obstacles overcome by six prominent female authors: Louisa May Alcott, Emily Dickinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and Alice Walker. On-location footage at sites such as Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, complements discussion from an array of critics and experts, including Dr. Carolyn Heilbrun, author of Writing a Woman’s Life; Professor Elaine Showalter of Princeton University; Dr. Sarah Elbert, author of A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott’s Place in American Culture; Madeleine Stern, Alcott’s biographer and editor; and Dr. Leona Rostenberg, who, together with Stern, proved that Alcott wrote many sensationalist stories under a pseudonym. Produced by the Open University. (50 minutes)

You can watch the film in its entirety here.

This is a breakdown of the film from Films on Demand:

Women Struggle to Write (04:19) 
Until the mid-twentieth century, women writers such as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin had to negotiate and justify their desire to write.

Louisa May Alcott (04:39) 
Alcott recreates her life with her three sisters and mother in “Little Women” depicting the hopes and dreams of a house full of females. She negotiates mental and physical space to write her novel.

Emily Dickinson (04:08) 
Dickinson created a reclusive space to write exquisite poetry reflecting women’s culture and women’s inner life. Hundreds of unconventional poems are published posthumously.

Alcott’s Sensation Stories (02:24) 
In the 1970s fascinating research by Stern and Rostenberg discovered Alcott’s sensation stories. Clues in “Little Women” reveal the writing activities of Jo March that parallels Alcott’s life.

Discovery of Letters and Pseudonym (04:13) 
Researchers discover letters to Alcott approving the publication of “Behind the Mask” and evidence of her pseudonym, A.M. Barnard. Alcott’s work is autobiographical and controversial.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (04:59) 
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Gilman is about a woman’s stifled creativity and the development of madness from domestic confinement. Gilman escapes her marriage through divorce.

Gilman Inspires Other Women (03:09) 
In the 1890s yellow represented decadence. The woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper” becomes obsessed and lost in it. Gilman continues to inspire women with further political works and feminism.

Virgina Woolf (04:20) 
In Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” she states that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction. She was a prodigious writer of essays, short stories, and novels.

Sylvia Plath (06:21) 
American writer Sylvia Plath greatly admired Virginia Woolf. In “The Bell Jar” and “Lady Lazarus,” she expresses madness as rage. Like Gilman and Woolf, Plath plans and commits suicide.

Alice Walker (02:04) 
Black women writers have had to deal with issues of gender, race, and class in ways that are not central to white women’s literature or men’s literature. Black tradition influences Alice Walker.

“The Color Purple” (04:09) 
“The Color Purple” is what Walker would call a “womanist” novel including issues of eroticism and a struggle missing from white feminism. Walker gives Celie space through her letters.

Quilting (04:02) 
Walker’s use of quilting is found in “The Color Purple” through the characters in both fragment and form. “Sister’s Choice” is a type of quilt that is a metaphor for the differences of women’s lives.

Watch the entire film here.

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Questions, questions … (part two) – turning to May

How did May Alcott get away with so much?

In 1868, she joined her sister Louisa in Boston to teach an art class. Louisa had just secured her position as editor of Merry’s Museum. She was 35 and May, 27.

Line of intrigue

Madeleine Stern wrote a rather intriguing line about May that sparked the above question:

May joined her to start a drawing class and gave every promise of abandoning her wild oats and settling down into a sober teacher of the art in which she was completely engrossed. (pg. 164, Louisa May Alcott A Biography by Madeleine Stern).

The bold is my emphasis.

Not so young, and free

May was 27, single, sowing her wild oats. She was free. How did she get away with it considering the many restrictions on women in the 19th century?

Acceptable for a woman

Was it because she pursued an interest that was considered acceptable? After all, many a fine lady took up drawing. In chapter 12 of Little Women, “Camp Lawrence,” Miss Kate, the fine (and snobby) Englishwoman is depicted as an artist.

The baby of the family

Was it because she was the youngest daughter that she managed to fly under the radar and avoid the responsibilities that Louisa and Anna had taken on with such gusto?

Attitude on life

Was it because May was blessed with that certain “joie de vivre” that made her appear younger than she was?

Oh so charming

Was it her expertise in the art of graciousness that could charm anyone?

What was it?

Your thoughts …

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My 3 days with Louisa May Alcott (part four): connections between Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

Note: This post is longer than usual. I had considered running it in two installments but thought it would lessen the impact of its message by doing that.

So sit back with a cup of coffee, relax and read. 🙂

Two ladies,
same vision

Two New England feminists, both heavily influenced by transcendentalism.

Both in the company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Bronson Alcott.

Both very reform-minded.

Both would forever change history for women.

Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller were neither friends nor colleagues yet they shared a similar passion for women’s rights, believing it was best for society.

Continuing with the theme of yesterday’s post, Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson drew connections between these two women while highlighting their different approaches.

What was Margaret Fuller’s vision for women?

Margaret Fuller, much like Bronson, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. She was the most passionate of the transcendentalists, that passion often spilling over to the individuals themselves.

Much more than a flirt …

Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

It is titillating to read about her intense relationships with Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne (not a transcendentalist, but he did base the heroine of The Scarlett Letter on Margaret – see Wikipedia on Margaret Fuller) but it is also distracting. Margaret may have been a flirt but she was brilliant.

Living her words

A woman’s voice was needed in the Transcendentalist movement and she brought it. While Bronson and Emerson talked a great game regarding the value and worth of women, Margaret lived it, educating women through her writing and her brand of “conversations.”

The vision laid out

Women in the Nineteen Century is Margaret’s tour de force, where she lays out her vision for women.

Matteson laid out Margaret’s demand for full rights for women, well beyond the political and economic; this would include equality spiritually and intellectually.

Bringing virtue to the marketplace

A reformer at heart, she believed that women needed to be in marketplace in order to bring about reform. Taking the traditional role of the wife leading the husband to greater virtue, she extends it out to the greater society: women in business would lead the marketplace (and the men in it) to greater virtue.

Man versus Men, Woman versus Women

Margaret was a philosopher greatly influenced by Transcendentalism. She, like Bronson Alcott, believed in attaining spiritual perfection. Part of that perfection involved gender. Daily reality had placed men and women in narrow roles and neither gender was free because of what she called, “debased living.”

Note that the original title of Women in the Nineteenth Century had been “The Great Lawsuit: Man versus Men, Woman versus Women”; it was originally a series of essays serialized in The Dial, the Transcendentalist magazine that Margaret edited for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Effects on marriage

The distortion of the genders in turn, warped the institution of marriage Margaret believed that the dependency of women on men had debased marriage and sex. She remained single for several years until she had a child with Italian revolutionary Giovanni Angelo Ossoli, a marquis who had been disinherited by his family. While it is assumed they were married but there is no hard evidence that they did (source: Wikipedia).

Lead by deeds

Placing reform above all else, Margaret felt that women did not necessarily need to rule but to lead by example. In order to do that, it was imperative not to impede the soul. Each man and woman had to be free to realize their full potential, be who they were meant to be.

Benefits to society

This freedom, however, was not meant just to satisfy individual wants. Here Margaret led by example. She denounced not only the treatment of women but African and Native Americans as well. She advocated for reform in prisons, visiting women in Sing Sing in October of 1844 and even staying overnight (source: Wikipedia). She raised concerns for the homeless, especially in New York (Ibid).

On the same page

If you are familiar with Louisa’s beliefs on women and reform, you can see in similarities already between the two women from Matteson’s description of Margaret’s vision.

Louisa’s vision for women and society

Spiritual father …

Louisa came from one of the founders of Transcendentalism, Bronson Alcott. He was all about spirituality, perfection and becoming divine.

… and reformer mother

But she also came from her mother Abba, a pragmatic reformer. Unlike her philosophical husband whose head was in the clouds, Abba practiced her Christianity day to day, often giving to others out of her family’s own want (Bronson practiced this also, believing that God would always provide).

Bronson exuded serenity as he sought to perfect himself. Abba passionately wrestled with life and others to bring forth reform. Her most noteworthy efforts were in Boston in the 1840s as one of the first social workers.

Societal change needed

Coming from such a background, it is no wonder that Louisa felt that society must be reordered. It began with freeing the slaves.

Belief coming from experience

Matteson noted an incident when Louisa was 3 which most likely opened her eyes to African Americans as equals. While living in Boston, she fell into the Frog Pond; she was rescued by a black boy. She notes in her writings that this boy lit the flame of abolition in her heart.

Living out that belief

Throughout her life, Louisa helped her parents shield and transport runaway slaves to Canada; their home in Concord, known then as Hillside, was on the underground railroad.

Illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard.

With pride, Louisa notes that she served tea to John Brown’s widow at Orchard House.

An rare open statement

Louisa didn’t usually state her feminist views blatantly in her fiction writing. One exception was Hospital Sketches where she writes, “I’m a woman’s rights woman, and if any man had offered help in the morning, I should have condescendingly refused it, sure that I could do everything as well, if not better, myself.” (from Chapter 1, Hospital Sketches)

Another was a short story, “Happy Women.” This excerpt explains in a nutshell Louisa’s vision for womanly happiness:

This class is composed of superior women who, from various causes, remain single, and devote themselves to some earnest work; espousing philanthropy, art, literature, music, medicine, or whatever task taste, necessity, or chance suggests, and remaining as faithful to and as happy in their choice as married women with husbands and homes.

Subterfuge in her writing

Most of the time she teased out her views in her writing. She would describe the lives of purposeful women who earned their keep and remained independent. Matteson described the importance of work to Louisa saying that life was full of work that needs to be done, and it needs to be done by both sexes.

Becoming the best she can be

Louisa believed as did Margaret that women needed to develop themselves for if a woman developed her talent fully and used it for others, she would be happy. And just as Margaret led by example, so did Louisa, becoming a best-selling author.

Using her bully pulpit

In that position, Louisa could wield a lot of influence and she took every advantage to use it. While Jo March is often cited as the best example of an independent woman, Matteson used the example of Polly from An Old-Fashioned Girl who takes her well-off, bored and disgruntled friend Fanny to visit her sisterhood of working, purpose-filled women. Fanny’s life is changed forever after seeing that life could be so much more than the emptiness of parties and fashion.

Giving your best

Louisa was also greatly valued sacrifice. Like Margaret, a woman’s right to reach her potential was not just for herself; she was to give her best to those around her. This belief plays out again and again in her books.

Duty’s faithful child

Bronson distrusted Louisa’s selfless intentions until she became a nurse. When he saw how she was willing to give up her own life for others by nursing, he wrote his famous sonnet to her, “Duty’s Faithful Child.”

Using her right to vote

Matteson ended his lively presentation with an ironic anecdote. Noting that Louisa was the first woman to register and then to vote in Concord, he quipped that the registrar gave her a literacy test! She also was required to sign her name to prove she could write.

It was the one time in her life that she was in a hurry to pay her taxes so she could qualify. 🙂

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My 3 days with Louisa May Alcott (part three): John Matteson talks about his two favorite ladies

Pulitzer prize-winning author John Matteson

This was the day I was waiting for.

Ever since I started reading Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father, I have been dying to talk to John Matteson.

His penetrating insights into Bronson and Louisa have forever changed the way I look at them (most especially Bronson).

Unique understanding

In my opinion, he is the only biographer I’ve read who commands an understanding of spirituality, a necessary part of the puzzle when analyzing the life of the complex, often exasperating Bronson Alcott.

Matteson has referred to Bronson as a mystic. Mystics often teeter between sanity and madness; Bronson certainly fit that description.

The Lives of Margaret Fuller

Since writing Eden’s Outcasts, Matteson has released a new book called The Lives of Margaret Fuller.

Brilliant mind

Fuller, probably the most intellectually brilliant of the transcendentalists, has largely been ignored. Yet her treatise on women’s rights, Woman in the Nineteenth Century, inspired many feminists including Susan B. Anthony. Fuller’s book was the first major feminist work in the United States (source: Wikipedia).

First foreign correspondent

Matteson mentioned that Fuller, in spending her final years in Italy, was not only the first female foreign correspondent for a newspaper, she was the first foreign correspondent, period.

Links between Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller

He thus used his lively presentation to discuss his two favorite ladies, Louisa and Margaret, and the ties between them.

Not necessarily colleagues

Louisa and Margaret didn’t actually know each other. Twenty-two years her senior, Fuller had left Concord by the time Louisa was twelve.

First meeting

But they had met. There is a bit of lore from Eden’s Outcasts about the first meeting between the two in 1840 when Fuller was introduced to Bronson’s “model children.”

illustration by Flora Smith for The Story of Louisa May Alcott by Joan Howard

As the introduction was about to take place, those children came racing to the front of the house in active play. Louisa, acting the part of the horse, pulled the wagon carrying Anna (the proper young lady), Lizzie (the dog, barking as loudly as her little voice would allow) and baby Abby May. Upon seeing their father with Margaret, Louisa stubbed her toe and fell, dumping all the occupants out of the wagon. Much laughter ensued amongst the tangle of legs. Louisa’s mother Abba grandly announced, “Here are the model children, Miss Fuller!” (Eden’s Outcasts, page 209, ebook)

Similar ideas through different approaches

Louisa and Margaret may not have been friends or colleagues but they both had similar ideas about the right of a woman to determine her own destiny, and how this would benefit the greater community. Where they differed was in their approach. Margaret the philosopher favored cultivating oneself while Louisa the pragmatist, emphasized service. She believed a woman could still fulfill her duty while cultivating her intellect.

Louisa praises housework

Providing a simple illustration, Matteson cited a letter Louisa had written in which she lauds housework as a great opportunity to think on and discuss high-minded topics. She herself often “simmered stories” while fulfilling her domestic duties.

Their vision of women’s rights

Both women agreed that women’s rights were not necessarily for the individual but for the community. It was deeper than gaining economic opportunities (although such opportunities certainly facilitated independence).

Complex fathers

Amos Bronson Alcott

Louisa and Margaret were also alike in the kind of support (or lack of) that they received from their fathers. Both women received a rich education from their fathers and were consistently encouraged to use it.

Both women also had fathers who were poor providers.

Persistent poverty and its consequences

Bronson’s lack of ability (some say desire) to provide financially for his family is legendary. He was incapable and unwilling to work for a living wage and the family was destitute for years.

Matteson remarked that the constant poverty gave Louisa a “depression-era mindset” where she obsessed over money, counting every penny. She overworked herself with constant writing long after the fame and fortune that came from Little Women.

Humiliation through dependence

In Margaret’s case, it was a father who reneged on his responsibility to secure a will before he died. This left Margaret, her mother and her siblings at the mercy of her father’s brothers who took control of the property and finances, forcing Margaret and her family into the humiliating position of being dependent on them. Inevitably these legal problems deprived her of educational opportunities.

Rising above their circumstances

Despite these difficulties both women fought for a better life for themselves, their families and most especially for society. The education so generously bestowed on them by their fathers bore its fruit through the written (and in Margaret’s case, also the spoken) word. Theirs was a message of women’s rights, autonomy, and reform.

In the next post, I will detail Margaret and Louisa’s vision for women and the benefit to society as laid out by John Matteson in his presentation.

Click to Tweet & Share: How are LMA and Margaret Fuller connected? Biographer John Matteson knows both women intimately and discusses how.

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