...in 1880, Louisa May Alcott and 19 other women attended the Concord Town Meeting. The year before, the Massachusetts legislature had made it legal for women to vote in school committee elections. A strong supporter of woman suffrage, the author of Little Women was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. She rallied other women to exercise the limited franchise they had been given. When the day came, a group of 20 women, "mostly with husbands, fathers or brothers" appeared, "all in good spirits and not in the least daunted by the awful deed about to be done." When the votes were cast, she later reported, "No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town."
The Alcotts of Concord were dreamers and doers, too. Instead of just preaching or writing about abolition, education, health care, dress reform, and diet, the Alcotts sheltered fugitive slaves, opened experimental schools, bathed in cold water, wore linen bloomers, and at least when Mr. Alcott was at home ate a Spartan diet of whole grain bread, vegetables, fruit, and water.
Early nineteenth century Massachusetts was a crucible of reform movements. The Alcott family was involved in almost every one of them. As an adult, Louisa May sometimes signed her letters, "Yours for reforms of all kinds." Towards the end of her life, however, she turned her attention and energy to the issue her father called "the reform of reforms," and her mother called essential to "the welfare and progress of the state." Louisa joined the fight for woman suffrage.
Louisa's mother, Abigail May Alcott, had been an early champion of woman's rights in marriage and in the workforce. Abby Alcott was one of the first paid social workers in the city of Boston. One of Louisa's early novels, entitled Work, follows the trials of a young woman not unlike her mother who must find a way to support herself.
In 1853 Abby Alcott authored a petition seeking a change in the state constitution to grant equal political rights to women. "On every principle of natural justice, as well as by the nature of our institution, she is as fully entitled as man to vote, and to be eligible to office," she wrote. Abigail Alcott was always ahead of her time. In the 1870s she declared, "I am seventy-three, but I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me."
Mrs. Alcott's daughters did not have the chance to carry their mother to the polls, but they did carry on her dream. Although Louisa May Alcott was usually too busy earning a living to attend woman's rights conventions, she lent her support by writing pieces for the events and articles for The Woman's Journal, the leading suffrage paper.
When she looked about her in Concord, she feared that her hometown was "degenerating into a museum of revolutionary relics . . . " Concordians seemed to be "content with the reflected glory of dead forefathers and imported geniuses," she complained in 1880.
She was dismayed when organizers excluded women from the parade and presentation planned to celebrate the centennial celebration of the Battle of Concord. "As I looked about me," she wrote in The Woman's Journal, "it was impossible to help thinking that there should have been a place for the great granddaughters of Prescott, William Emerson, John Hancock and Dr. Ripley, as well as for . . . the scissors that cut the immortal cartridges, and the ancient flag some woman's fingers made. It seemed to me that . . . the men of Concord had missed a grand opportunity of imitating those whose memory they had met to honor."
The men who sat in the Massachusetts legislature were not much more supportive of woman's rights than the men of Concord, but they believed that women, as mothers, had a special interest in and understanding of educational matters. In 1879 the legislature passed a bill to give Massachusetts women the right to vote in school committee elections.
Louisa May Alcott took the opportunity seriously. She went door-to-door urging women to register and then held meetings at her house to teach new registrants how to cast a ballot.
On March 29, 1880, 20 women appeared at the Concord Town Meeting, previously an all-male domain. After two hours of other business was conducted, the meeting turned to the school committee vote. Louisa May's father, Bronson Alcott, requested that the women be allowed to vote first. All 20 rose and filed to the front of the room. According to one local paper, "many a feminine heart [palpitated] with excitement . . . in preparation for the trying ordeal of passing in front of . . . nearly 200 great horned men & boys to deposit their maiden vote."
As soon as the women had cast their ballots, a motion was made and with a quick second, the voting closed. Women alone had elected the school committee. Most of the men seemed to find the whole thing amusing, but when the superintendent of schools objected, he was "gracefully informed that it made no difference as the women had all voted as the men would." With a trace of bitterness, Louisa reported in the Woman's Journal, that it was "a perfectly fair proceeding . . . since we were allowed no voice on any other question."
She was disappointed that more women did not turn out for this first election; she hoped "next year our ranks will be fuller." But she never had much success in motivating the women of Concord to vote; in 1883 only seven women cast their votes for the school committee.
Louisa Alcott herself had little time for suffrage work. In the early 1880s, at the age of 48, she became guardian of an orphaned niece. Childcare responsibilities kept her from attending woman suffrage conventions. She continued to put her pen to the service of the cause. "I should be a traitor to all I most love, honor and desire to imitate if I did not covet a place among those who are giving their lives to the emancipation of the white slaves of America."
Louisa May Alcott died in 1888. American women would not be fully enfranchised until 1920.
A Hunger for Home: Louisa May Alcott's Place in American Culture, by Sarah Elbert (Rutgers University Press, 1987).
"Concord Women Cast their First Votes," by Maria Powers in "The Concord Magazine," March/April 2001.
Concord: Stories to Be Told (Town Memoir), by Liz Nelson (Commonwealth Editions, 2002).
Lousia May Alcott, by Madeleine B. Stern (University of Oklahoma Press, 1950).
L.M. Alcott: Signature for Reform, ed. by Madeleine B. Stern (Northeastern University Press, 2002).