The Politically Radical Family That Inspired “Little Women”

The Marches were loosely based on Louisa May Alcott's real family: suffragists, abolitionists, and passionate troublemakers

Orchard House. (Photo by Smart Destinations)

When Greta Gerwig’s Little Women hits the screen this Christmas, it will mark the eighth time Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1869 novel has been adapted for film since 1912. The story about four sisters has also been made into TV shows, plays, operas, and even two anime series. Widely beloved for its plucky heroine and romantic realism, the tale has such staying power that the book has never been out of print in the 150 years since its original publication. Little Women has proven timeless in its appeal; the story conjures images of New England fall, the scent of gingerbread, and the cozy warmth of a crocheted blanket. But the writer behind the wholesome bestseller and the family she based it on were political radicals. While Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel is charming, it’s also more revolutionary, and more relevant, than it may seem.

When Thomas Niles of Roberts Brothers Publishers first asked Louisa to create a “girls’ story,” she was resistant, writing in her diary, “I don’t enjoy this sort of thing.” After the critical success for her Hospital Sketches, she typically wrote “blood and thunder tales” under the pseudonym A.M. Barnard. Eventually, though, she conceded: “Lively, simple books are needed for girls and perhaps I can supply the need.” And supply she did, by fictionalizing (and in some cases, sanitizing) her family, her town, and the events of her life. Despite Louisa’s initial misgivings, her “girls’ story” about four sisters living in genteel poverty in a small New England town became one of the most widely-read novels in the American literary canon. Little Women’s illustration of “the domestic sphere” has resonated with readers across centuries, inspiring authors from Cynthia Ozick to Ursula Le Guin. Today, literary scholars, fans of her oeuvre, and viewers of the screen adaptations recognize that this “girls’ story,” a complex portrayal of domestic mundanity and women’s interiority, is subversive in its own right. But the Marches were not nearly as subversive as the family they were based on.

We don’t tend to remember how much trouble the Alcotts were making in 19th-century Massachusetts.

“We don’t tend to remember how much trouble the Alcotts were making” in 19th-century Massachusetts, notes Pulitzer Prize winning Alcott biographer John Matteson in the Emmy-award-winning documentary, Orchard House: Home of Little Women. But Louisa’s parents, Amos Bronson Alcott and Abigail “Marmee” Alcott, were political outliers even in liberal Concord and constantly challenged the status quo. Bronson was a teacher, philosopher, educational reformer, and failed-utopian-commune founder; he was the first educator in Boston to admit a Black student into his class, and we have him to thank for inventing recess. Abigail was one of the first paid social workers in Massachusetts, as well as a passionate suffragist. Both were Christians, transcendentalists, abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, and vegetarians; it was with these beliefs that Bronson and Abigail raised their four daughters, affording them with much more freedom and agency than young women at the time were generally given. As Matteson asserts, the Alcotts “were rocking the boat in a society that was, for the most part, really very comfortable with the idea of women being subordinate in the home, with the [idea] of slavery.”

Nowhere are the family’s radical politics better showcased than in Orchard House, their home from 1858 to 1877 located in Concord, Massachusetts; screenwriter Olivia Milch calls it “the epicenter of a great American intellectual tradition.” And, indeed, philosophers, intellectuals, and writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Julia Ward Howe, and Margaret Fuller were frequent visitors at the renovated farmhouse. Jan Turnquist, creator of the aforementioned documentary and longtime Executive Director of the house museum, is eager to chat with me about the Alcotts, their beliefs, and Orchard House when we speak on the phone. “It is still just the way it was when they lived in it,” she says, mentioning that it is one of the first house museums in the country and one of the first dedicated to a woman. The Alcotts “moved around a great deal before they lived in Orchard House, but it’s where they lived the longest. They had already lived there ten years when Louisa wrote Little Women, so for her it was natural to use that house as the setting.” Turnquist points out that “visiting Orchard House is a little bit like walking through the book.” 

The Alcotts acted as station masters on the Underground Railroad.

But in Orchard House, unlike in Little Women, there are indicators of the family’s radical beliefs everywhere. The walls of Bronson Alcott’s study, for example, are decorated with images of his intellectual contemporaries and friends: Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Franklin Sanborn, one of the “Secret Six” who funded militant abolitionist John Brown. In fact, a portrait of Brown himself hangs in the same room, evincing the Alcotts’ anti-slavery beliefs, which even in the North, were considered “extremist” in antebellum America. The Alcotts acted as station masters on the Underground Railroad and hosted fugitive slaves; Bronson started an anti-slavery society with famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison; and Louisa volunteered as a seamstress and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. Turnquist informs me that when John Brown was eventually hanged for treason and murder, Louisa published a poem in Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, memorializing the man whom she called “Saint John the Just.”

Throughout Orchard House, visitors will also find subtle reminders of the Alcotts’ commitment to women’s rights and their belief in equality. Louisa’s sister May’s original pencil drawings still adorn the walls (yes, she drew on the walls), and Louisa’s writing desk, crafted by her father, still stands in her room. Today, Little Women fans view the white, half-moon table where Louisa wrote her most famous novel as a kind of shrine—the place where the magic happened. But Louisa’s desk and May’s preserved sketches are more than just displays of the Alcott girls’ hobbies and talents; they’re evidence of parents who not only allowed, but also actively encouraged their daughters to draw, to write, and to think at a time when women weren’t encouraged to do much of anything. 

Empowered by their parents and a community of literary and social revolutionaries, Louisa and her sisters broke down barriers.

Empowered by their parents and a community of literary and social revolutionaries, Louisa and her sisters broke down barriers and earned the respect of their male contemporaries. May, for instance, became a talented artist herself, and many of her most famous paintings can be seen hanging in Orchard House. She also tutored Daniel Chester French, who pursued art because of her teachings and went on to sculpt the Lincoln Memorial.

Bronson and Abigail didn’t just apply their beliefs about women’s liberation to their own family, and the proof of their impact extends beyond their daughters’ accomplishments. Both parents were advocates of college education for girls, women’s right to vote, and even equal pay, principles they passed on to their children; Abigail once said, “I mean to vote before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me!” She never made it to the polls, but Louisa became the first woman registered to vote in Concord in 1879 and regularly rallied other women in town to cast their ballots with her. In regard to the Alcott’s progressive views on gender equality, Turnquist offhandedly mentions that the family not only sheltered escaped slaves, but also abused women who had no legal recourse against their husbands. “Louisa doesn’t put any of that in Little Women,” she quips.

There was a good reason for that, Turnquist adds: “She wanted her books to sell.” Bronson’s controversial schools, which prioritized a conversational style of teaching and avoided physical punishment (the inspiration for Little Women’s sequel Little Men), were often shut down when parents discovered his “controversial” methods and labeled him a “fanatic,” forcing the family to relocate. As a result, the Alcotts were poor—it was the need for money that motivated Louisa’s writing career. Thanks to the Alcott daughters, who were willing to work outside the home, Bronson was able to pursue idealistic projects and rarely compromise his values. 

Perhaps the best example of this is Fruitlands, Bronson’s short-lived transcendentalist commune. Co-founded by Louisa’s father in 1843, the utopian community was rooted in the ideals of environmentalist, morality, and selflessness. According to Turnquist, in order to avoid exploiting other living beings, the residents of Fruitlands abstained from nearly all “luxuries” of the time: They didn’t wear wool or cotton (in solidarity with slaves), or use soap, animal labor, or artificial light. Residents adhered to a nearly vegan diet. Needless to say, after seven months, the socialist commune shuttered and the family moved again. In Louisa’s Transcendental Wild Oats, a satire based on her experience living at Fruitlands, she critiques ventures fueled by male arrogance and (ironically) enabled by women’s exploitation. The old saying goes, “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” But in mid-19th century Concord, it would have been more apt to say “Behind every great man, there’s an Alcott woman.”

The Alcotts’ unwavering sense of morality propelled them to champion progressive causes.

Although the Alcotts’ views are well documented, it’s impossible to know exactly what they would think about contemporary politics, and Turnquist doesn’t want to speculate. But she notes that the family’s “radical” belief system really “boils down to kindness.” The Alcotts’ unwavering sense of morality, grounded in faith, propelled them to champion progressive causes and, in some cases, break laws that they deemed discriminatory. If the Alcotts have something to teach us today—maybe even obliquely through Gerwig’s movie—this is probably it: The importance of kindness not just as a personal value, but also as a political framework.

During this conversation, Turnquist remembers a quote by Bronson’s friend, William Lloyd Garrison. When once asked to be more “moderate” in his abolitionist beliefs, he exclaimed: “No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm.” “That level of immediacy and urgency is how the Alcotts felt” about all forms of injustice, Turnquist asserts. 

In An Old Fashioned Girl, published a year after the second half of Little Women (Good Wives) hit shelves, Alcott wrote “Women have been called queens for a long time, but the kingdom given them isn’t worth ruling.” Louisa and her family strove to change this, to create a kingdom that was worth ruling, and not just by women, but by everyone. When Gerwig’s Little Women arrives in theaters this winter, let us not forget that the creator of this gentle story was a progressive firebrand, a suffragist, a proud spinster, and a passionate abolitionist. May the film provide us a much-needed escape from devastating news cycles, and the memory of Louisa May Alcott and her radical family inspire us to action.

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