‘Lit­tle Women,’ Al­cott res­onate 150 years later

The Standard Journal - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Sarah Be­tan­court

A cen­tury and a half be­fore the #MeToo move­ment gave women a bold, new col­lec­tive voice, Louisa May Al­cott was lending them her own.

So­ci­ety had far dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions of women in 1867, when pub­lisher Thomas Niles asked Al­cott to write a “girls’ story.” At a time when women were ex­pected to marry, often did not hold em­ploy­ment and could not vote, Al­cott had her doubts about the suc­cess of “Lit­tle Women.”

Since then, the com­ing-of-age book has been trans­lated into more than 50 lan­guages and made into films, a mu­si­cal and a re­cently aired PBS “Mas­ter­piece” minis­eries. The novel con­stantly finds new au­di­ences as women world­wide con­front sex­ual mis­con­duct, misog­yny and pay in­equity.

Mayela Boeder, 34, of Ap­ple­ton, Wisconsin, read “Lit­tle Women” as a girl and thinks it’s still rel­e­vant. “You could say that strong fe­males in lit­er­a­ture, TV and ev­ery other medium have slowly shaped the minds of mod­ern strong women,” she says.

Al­cott drew heav­ily from her ex­pe­ri­ences liv­ing in poverty with pro­gres­sive par­ents Bron­son and Abigail Al­cott and three sis­ters in Con­cord, Massachusetts. Although her fa­ther led his fam­ily through 30 homes, one stands out as the place where “Lit­tle Women” was writ­ten: Or­chard House.

Al­cott was 26 when her fam­ily moved into the then-di­lap­i­dated house in 1858. The en­ter­pris­ing fam­ily turned the ten­ant farm­house, once slated for destruction, into a place where Ralph Waldo Emer­son, Henry David Thoreau and other lit­er­ary neigh­bors would drop by for in­tel­lec­tual dis­cus­sions. Bron­son en­cour­aged his wife and daugh­ters to join and built Louisa a desk at a time when writ­ing was con­sid­ered by sci­en­tists to be in­ju­ri­ous to the fe­male psy­che.

Look­ing back, says Or­chard House Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Jan Turn­quist, the Al­cotts were fem­i­nists. She tells of how Louisa May Al­cott was the first woman to reg­is­ter to vote in Con­cord in 1879, when Massachusetts gave women the right to vote in town elec­tions on ed­u­ca­tion and chil­dren is­sues.

Al­cott did other un­con­ven­tional things. At 30, she served as a nurse in the Civil War. She trav­eled alone when most women could not. And she wrote sto­ries that are the equiv­a­lent of a mod­ern-day James Patterson thriller at a time when fe­male au­thors were not pop­u­lar.

Although there’s no ev­i­dence Al­cott was ever sex­u­ally as­saulted, she was ha­rassed and had to en­dure misog­yny as an am­bi­tious, un­mar­ried woman.

Af­ter writ­ing the first part of “Lit­tle Women” in 1868, Al­cott re­ceived a flood of let­ters ask­ing if the main char­ac­ter, Jo March, would marry neigh­bor boy Lau­rie. Pulitzer Prize-win­ning Al­cott his­to­rian John Mat­te­son says, “Her pub­lisher said, ‘You have to marry her off,’ and wanted the char­ac­ter to marry Lau­rie.”

Al­cott was mor­ti­fied that her mother had to scrape to keep the fam­ily go­ing fi­nan­cially. “She knew what a trap mar­riage could be,” Mat­te­son says. “She very much in­tended not to marry Jo off at all.”

Al­cott ap­peased Niles, the pub­lisher, by writ­ing in Pro­fes­sor Friedrich Bhaer, a homely Ger­man pro­fes­sor, as a hus­band.

One of Al­cott’s goals was to lift her fam­ily out of poverty. She took jobs as a teacher, seam­stress, writer and, in one in­stance, a live-in com­pan­ion for the sick sis­ter of a man named James Richard­son.

In­stead of hav­ing her tend to his sis­ter, Richard­son had 18-year-old Al­cott do house­keep­ing and spend evenings lis­ten­ing to him read­ing ro­man­tic po­etry. He started slip­ping sug­ges­tive notes be­neath her bed­room door and added back­break­ing work to her chores as she re­jected his ad­vances. She quit, making only $4 for the seven-week stay.

While she hes­i­tates to call that a #MeToo en­counter, Turn­quist says it was “sleazy and not ap­pro­pri­ate.”

Al­cott wrote an es­say on the ex­pe­ri­ence, which friend James Field, ed­i­tor of The At­lantic, as­sessed and said: “Stick to your teach­ing. You can’t write.” Nev­er­the­less, she per­sisted.

“She would be so sup­port­ive of the #MeToo Move­ment and equal pay for equal work,” Turn­quist says.

/ AP file-Steven Senne

Mu­seum vis­i­tors stand near a por­trait of au­thor Louisa May Al­cott by Amer­i­can artist Ge­orge Healy at Or­chard House, in Con­cord, Mass. A cen­tury and a half be­fore the #MeToo move­ment gave women a bold, new col­lec­tive voice, Al­cott was lending them her...

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