Lousia May Alcott, best known for her novel, “Little Women,” was born
on Nov. 29, 1832, in Germantown, Pa., and raised in Boston and Concord,
Mass. (“Poor dull Concord,” as she put it. “Nothing colorful has come
through here since the Redcoats.”)
As it turned out, it was Louisa May who added more color than the
town’s Victorian patriarchs could handle. She became, in 1879, the first
woman in Concord to register to vote. “I believe,” she said, “that it is
as much a right and duty for women to do something with their lives as
for men and we are not going to be satisfied with such frivolous parts
as you give us.”
A good century ahead of her time, she saw one of those “frivolous
parts” to be the role of the quiet and well-behaved homemaker.
“Liberty,” she explained, “is a better husband than love to many of us.”
For Louisa May, “liberty” was going door to door to encourage women
to register to vote, speaking out for school reform, fighting for
freedom for blacks, and, especially, writing for The Woman’s Journal —
all things looked upon as rather devilish.
“There traditionally has been a connection between the act of writing
and ‘evil’ in patriarchal cultures,” writes Alcott biographer Kim Wells.
“What history suggests is that in patriarchal culture, female speech and
female ‘presumption’ are inextricably linked and inevitably demonic.”
No small charge, “demonic,” at the time, one will recall, given the
cultural guardians’ eagerness to run for the firewood at the slightest
hint of free thinking. Lousia’s mother, Abigail May Alcott, was
descended from the witch-burning Judge Samuel Sewall. Louisa’s father,
Amos Bronson Alcott, a noted preacher, called her the “Possessed One,”
one too “passionate” to satisfy his temperament and standards of
Louisa May’s reaction? “I’m learning how to sail my ship.”
And sail she did! The excerpt below is from “Breakfast for
Christmas,” from “Little Women,” an autobiographical novel of Louisa
May’s childhood (and nothing to scare the horses):
“Merry Christmas, little daughters! I’m glad you began at once, and
hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down.
Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little new-born baby.
Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they
have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there; and the oldest boy
came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you
give them your breakfast as a Christmas present?”
They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for
a minute no one spoke; only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously, “I’m
so glad you came before we began!”
“May I go down and help carry the things to the poor little
children?” asked Beth eagerly.
“I shall take the cream and the muffins,” added Amy, heroically,
giving up the articles she liked most.
Meg was already covering the buckwheats, and piling the bread into
one big plate.
“I thought you’d do it,” said Mrs. March, smiling as if satisfied.
“You shall all go and help me, and when we come back we will have bread
and milk for breakfast, and make it up at dinner time.”
They were soon ready, and the procession set out. Fortunately, it was
early, and they went through the back streets, so few people saw them,
and no one laughed at their queer party.
A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire,
ragged bed-clothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale,
hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm.
How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went
“Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us!” said the poor woman,
crying for joy.
“Funny angels in hoods and mittens,” said Jo, and set them laughing.
In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been at
work and there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and stopped
up the broken panes with old hats and a cloak. Mrs. March gave the
mother tea and gruel, and comforted her as if it had been her own. The
girls, meantime, spread the table, set the children around the fire, and
fed them like so many hungry birds — laughing, talking, and trying to
understand the funny broken English.
“Das ist gut!” “Die Engel-kinder!” cried the poor things, as they
ate, and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze.
The girls had never been called angel children before, and thought it
very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered a “Sancho” ever
since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t
get any of it; and when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think
there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry
little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves
with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
Ralph R. Reiland is the B. Kenneth Simon Professor of Free Enterprise at Robert Morris College in Pittsburgh.