Not So Little Women

As she approached her 60th birthday my Bryn Mawr classmate Kit Bakke was being introspective in the way we often are at significant birthdays. She was looking to see where her role models and inspirations had been and not surprisingly hit upon Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women among many other books about feisty women that she wrote in the 1870s and 80s.  Every woman I know of my generation read Little Women.  It was made into at least two fabulous films, one starring June Allyson and one Katherine Hepburn in the role of the irrepressible Jo March whom we all wanted to be. Kit identified however, with the author who had worked for women’s rights, was an abolitionist, a nurse briefly in the Civil War, and ultimately a writer. Kit had been an activist in college—a member of the Weather Underground, a pediatric oncology nurse and a writer. So she wrote a book called Miss Alcott’s Email in which she miraculously communicates with Miss Alcott over time and space about what they shared and what was different. It was a book that seemed written for our age group, those of us who were of the early baby boom wave growing up in the  40s and 50s and sliding toward adulthood in the sixties.

I grew up on Alcott—read everything she wrote and I have visited Orchard House where she grew up in Concord, MA. She lived a stone’s throw from her mentor  Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house and Walden Pond where her friend Thoreau hung out. I sat at the desk where they say she wrote Little Women. When I was awarded  my doctorate in American Studies my wise husband took me to the Concord Cemetery where they are all modestly buried along with Nathaniel Hawthorne in a plot the size of a small New York bedroom.

Jo March, her protagonist was also the central character in the two sequels—Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  Jo was a contrarian who hated to do those things women were supposed to do. She was a rebel. In the sequels she heads a school for boys that is non-traditional and economically diverse and liberal in its pedagogy. There was something about her breaking the rules of what was expected of women that drew us all in.

But she was not the only character that we grew up with that did that. There was also Nancy Drew, the detective who lived with her lawyer father and solved crimes as a teen. I am sure she is responsible for my love of Janet Evanovich’s much racier mystery series now. Anne of Green Gables ultimately grew up, married her childhood sweetheart Gilbert Blythe and had a family but on her terms having gotten a college education, worked for her own money, lived away from home and broken all sorts of rules along the way. The little girls Betsy, Tacy and Tibb  of the series bearing their name  authored by Maud Lovelace, ran around all over their town and countryside all by themselves having adventures in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was nothing demure or restrained about them.

I am sure that Jane Austin and the Bronte’s whose women were also rule breakers had the same appeal for us and remain timeless. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden and Little Princess  , with their brave girls, were childhood staples for us and reappear today.

My parents insisted when I was about 8 that for every 3 books of fiction I took out of the library I had to take out one  non-fiction and that led me to biography and the “orange books”. They are actually called the Childhood of Famous American’s series and are now in blue paper backs as opposed to the orange hardcovers that I knew. There I found Jane Addams, Molly Pitcher, Dolly Madison, Florence Nightingale and, of course,  Louisa Alcott. I am amazed by how many of my friends also knew and loved “the orange books” and how many of them are also writers and educators and activists.

These were the books—to name a few—that were read and loved by my generation. We often think of The Feminine Mystique as the clarion call of the women’s movement, but I think it came before.

When my class entered Bryn Mawr in 1964 it was at the peak of the seven sisters women’s colleges—the women’s counterpart to the all male Ivy League. We had made a choice to go to a women’s school which had a history of marrying off its graduates appropriately, maybe sending some off to grad school but also preparing them to be women who were generally unsung leaders (except Katherine Hepburn) in all sorts of fields including the military. As we arrived at the college the rules were in place to assure that the MRS would be as valid for us as our BA or maybe MA or PhD. The thought was that educated men should have educated wives to keep them company.  There was a marriage course required for seniors, strict curfews, permission required for weekends at Princeton or other appropriate Ivies, no men in the dorms outside the public rooms and  skirts required for class unless there was a foot of snow.  We even had African American maids cleaning our rooms and serving our meals. By 1968 when our class graduated none of those rules or practices applied. People slept over at Haverford, wore jeans to class and maybe shoes or maybe not. Once the existing staff was appropriately redeployed in good jobs around campus, we cleaned our own rooms and waited tables ourselves.

We were Miss Alcott’s army of Josephine Marches. We were going to wear our hair long and free, and wear pants if we wanted and have real jobs. We would march against the Vietnam War or for Civil Rights. We would become feminist attorneys, Ivy Deans and presidents, corporate leaders, groundbreaking scientists, political analysts, judges, NY Times columnists, and philanthropists making our own decisions about money as did Louisa Alcott’s Rose in her Rose in Bloom.

At the time sending us off to a women’s college, our families thought it was all very genteel. But, that class entering college in 1964 was raised on the literature of female hell-raisers. Seeds had been planted of rebelliousness and a different view of what girls/women could and should do and what we should stand for and/or tolerate. We had seen our mothers, many like mine, who were the subject of the Feminist Mystique, being educated and underutilized and often depressed or angry. The same women who had run the factories during the war were expected to return to roles of docility and secondary citizenship. We did not like what we saw at home often and not what we saw on TV—Donna Reed and her ilk. Even Dale Rogers was a secondary citizen behind Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger. We loved our Jo and Nancy Drew and as we got older Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Erica Jong took their places and we followed their lead. When Ms Magazine first published in 1971 the key article for many of us was about the Click point—that moment when it hit you that you were being patronized or discriminated against or sexually harassed or even abused. We all knew what ours was. It was a moment like the “Me Too” movement now.

We are the grandmothers now but we are also the leading edge of the next feminist revolution and this one may be political. I revel in the options my granddaughters have in front of them. While the books I had which gave me my role models were limited and the Childhood of Famous Americans series had far fewer girls than boys, today when I go to a book store there are shelves of biographies of noteworthy women of every age, ethnicity and gender orientation either as individual stories or anthologized. And sure enough my granddaughters down to the tiniest have books telling those stories of resisters… sometimes with matching T-shirts.  Louisa Alcott was a resister, we grew to be like her Jo and now we can tell our own stories to what many of us hope will the next generation of resisters. Sisters.

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