American author Louisa May Alcott understood the life-shaping power of growing up with sisters. Like her, I grew up as one of four sisters. Kit had three older sisters who collectively provided lively, literate, exuberant memories during his early life that live on to this day. His mother, a poet and outspoken social activist, wrote newspaper editorials questioning policies of the Catholic Church and warning about the rise of Fascism in Europe in the late 1930s. Kit’s beautiful sisters, all in their teens when he was born in 1938, were as diverse in temperament and ambition as the March family in “Little Women.”
Alcott (1832-1888) grew up in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts in the company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Parker and Henry David Thoreau—poets and essayists who were part of the Transcendentalist movement in the 1820s and 30s. Her father Amos Bronson Alcott, an impractical follower of the movement, founded a utopian community that failed. Unable to provide for his family, Louisa Alcott would spend her life providing for the welfare of her mother and sisters.
After teaching briefly and working as a domestic, Louisa Alcott followed her passion and became an ‘ink-stained scribbler,’ publishing stories in “The Atlantic Monthly.” Alcott believed people were at their best when truly self-reliant and independent. To support her family following the Civil War, she wrote the autobiographical novel “Little Women” (1868-69). Based on recollections of her own childhood, the novel was an immediate success and allowed the author to pay off the family’s debts.
The author captured the joys and pains of growing up in a household filled with sisters and a mother keenly involved in social causes. The book resonated with readers in the post-Civil War period, and realistically reflected the painfully limited life and career options open for women. In “Little Women,” Jo wanted to fight in the Union Army, but is excluded because of her sex. Vowing never to marry, she opts to write and publish a novel, own the copyright and be financially independent. The themes remain as relative today as they were then.
Recently, Kit and I saw director Greta Gerwig’s new film version of “Little Women.” Like NYTimes film critic A.O. Scott, we found the film “an absolute gift.” Scott wrote, “Gerwig has fashioned a story that feels at once entirely true to its 19th-century origins and (yet) utterly modern…. The sisters live mainly to delight (and sometimes to torment) one another. The spectacle of their natural, affectionate, clamorous intimacy is a joy to behold.” He concluded, “Don’t let the diminutive title fool you. ‘Little Women’ is major.”
Why does “Little Women” still matter today? While Alcott’s success as a novelist afforded her financial independence, she was never granted the right to vote. Throughout her lifetime, women had been organizing, petitioning, going on hunger strikes, and picketing to gain the right to vote. Finally, on May 21, 1919 (three months before my mother was born), the House of Representatives passed the 19thAmendment, and two weeks later the Senate followed. This year marks the 100thanniversary of the 19thAmendment.
But a century later, the struggle for women’s equality continues. On January 18, 2020, women’s marches will take place in locations around Missouri and across America in support of the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, proposed in 1972. This proposed amendment seeking equal rights for men and women reads, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” To become law, it must be ratified by 38 states. To date, it has only been ratified by 37 states. Missouri is not among them.
In an NPR “KBIA On Point” interview (1/9/2020), Jessica Neuwirth—president of the ERA Coalition—pointed out the importance of this moment in history. “At the level of principle, I think just to send the message out that 200 years after the Constitution was written and women were intentionally left out, we want to correct the record and make it very, very clear at the highest level of our law that women are no longer second-class citizens and should be treated with respect and equality.”
Women around the country are preparing to march this coming Saturday. What would Louisa Alcott do? What will you do? As long as women are denied equal rights on account of sex, we all need to show up, speak out and keep marching.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.