September 30, 1868
A. M. Barnard wrote what was described as thrillers, spy novels, and revenge stories.
But, no one knew the author was actually a woman.
She did what she had to, to support her family, who lived in poverty.
She was born on the same day as her father. Her father was a transcendentalist and educator and her mother was a social worker. Both her parents were strong supporters of women’s rights and opposed slavery.
She and her family served as station masters on the Underground Railroad, housing a fugitive slave for one week. She even had discussions with Frederick Douglass.
Her father was also opposed to the Mexican–American War, which he considered a blatant attempt to extend slavery. He asked whether the country was made up of “a people bent on conquest, on getting the golden treasures of Mexico into our hands, and of subjugating foreign peoples?”
Her mother helped immigrants.
Her father had difficulty staying employed because of his progressive teachings; the final straw was when he insisted on allowing a black child to attend one of his schools, which caused an uproar and students to withdraw. He was never able to get back on his feet financially after that.
During the 1860s, women were often looked as second-class citizens, looked looked down upon if they wanted a real education or a professional career. They also did not have the right to vote, to determine their own future. Society thought they would be perfectly happy finding a husband and focusing on the home and family.
Not A. M. Barnard.
In order to support her family, she started work at an early age as a teacher, seamstress, governess, and domestic helper.
During the Civil War, she became a nurse despite “the very idea of a female nurse was considered shocking and utterly inappropriate,” according to the Washington Post. “Even when the Union Army began the controversial practice of hiring women as nurses, they were paid less than men and were required to be, among other things, at least 30 years of age and plain looking.”
After her brief stint as a nurse, she became an author, writing about her experiences and observations as war-time nurse. She had previously tried her hand at writing before, but the editor of the Atlantic dismissed her writing and suggested she stick to teaching.
Her publisher would ask her to write a book for young girls, but she was very reluctant, saying, she didn’t want to write “moral pap for the young”. She even wrote in her journal “that she never liked girls or knew many, except my sisters.”
Her publisher, with a little pleading from her father, eventually convinced her to write the book.
She only agreed on her own terms, that she would be able to write a book for “girls” with the message that girls and women of all ages could talk, dream of doing something different, allowing them to consider the possibilities that were never available to them before. It was one of the very first books that made women’s rights integral to the story,” according to one source.
For the book, she also finally decided to use her real name, rather than her nom de plume “A. M. Barnard”, which she used so that her readers would not question why a woman was writing for men.
Her real name was Louisa May Alcott.
The title of the book was “Little Women”. The first volume was published on September 30, 1868.
“‘Little Women’ was one of the first popular novels that didn’t create a divide between males and females, and one of the first to portray women as complex, capable and ambitious,” according to “Influential Women”.
She was ahead of her time.
Louisa May Alcott was a writer, a feminist, and an abolitionist.
She belonged to the New England Woman’s Club, one of the first organizations of women with professional and political goals. She courageously served as a Civil War nurse when the profession had just opened to women.
Alcott read and admired the “Declaration of Sentiments”, published by the Seneca Falls Convention on women’s rights. She actively supported the American Woman Suffrage Association, endorsing gender equality in education and employment, as well as women’s right to vote. She associated with other feminists of her time such as Harriet Beecher Stowe. She would also become the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts in a school board election.
She was also one of the founders of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union in Boston.
Alcott never did marry, choosing to remain single throughout her life, explaining her “spinsterhood” in an interview with Louise Chandler Moulton, “I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body . . . because I have fallen in love with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
Her book “Little Women” may have been classified as a children’s book, but girls and women knew what it was about, it was about the empowerment of women and girls around the world, and it became one of the most widely read novels.
Women writers who cite “Little Women” as their inspiration includes J. K. Rowling (whose Hermione Granger reminds many of Jo), Simone de Beauvoir, Nora Ephron, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, Gloria Steinem, and Patti Smith, who wrote, “It was Louisa May Alcott who provided me with a positive view of my female destiny.”
When an aspiring writer wrote her for advice, she would respond back:
“I worked for twenty years poorly paid, little known, & quite without any ambition but to eke out a living, as I chose to support myself & began to do it at sixteen. This long drill was of use, & when I wrote Hospital Sketches by the beds of my soldier boys in the shape of letters home I had no idea that I was taking the first step toward what is called fame. It nearly cost my life but I discovered the secret of winning the ear & touching the heart of the public by simply telling the comic & pathetic incidents of life.
“Little Women was written when I was ill, & to prove that I could not write books for girls. The publisher thought it flat, so did I, & neither hoped much for or from it. We found out our mistake, & since then, though I do not enjoy writing ‘moral tales’ for the young, I do it because it pays well.
“But the success I value most was making my dear mother happy in her last years & taking care of my family.”
After her mother died, her father, broken-hearted, was never the same. He would become bedridden in his final years. He would tell his daughter how proud he was of her. His last words to the daughter who helped him and their family survive was “I am going up. Come with me.” She responded, “I wish I could.”
Two days after her father’s death, Louisa May Alcott died of a stroke at the age of of 55.
She would say, “We all have our own life to pursue, our own kind of dream to be weaving . . . And we all have the power to make wishes come true, as long as we keep believing.”