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Showalter and Alcott

I am grateful for Alicia Bessette’s article “March Family Values” in the Fall 2005 Bulletin.  Elaine Showalter’s (’62) Library of America edition of Louisa May Alcott’s best-known books is a wonderful reminder of growing up American in the 19th century. Little Women, Little Men and Jo’s Boys exemplify Miss Alcott’s ability to combine moral uplift with commercial success. These books were the Harry Potters of their time—bestsellers that kids loved and parents enjoyed too.

All of which is great, as far as it goes. Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March will continue to endear herself to future generations through print and film, much as Jane Austen’s Emma has—both heroines have such delightful flaws and find themselves in such recognizable struggles. However, I would like to invite readers to remember Alcott for her whole life, not just as an author of “girl’s books,” nor even, necessarily, as an author at all.

Louisa May Alcott had the good fortune to grow up in one of the most intellectually productive neighborhoods in U.S. history. The Alcotts lived on the Boston to Lexington Road (Route 2) at the east end of Concord, MA. Ralph Waldo Emerson lived across the road, Nathaniel Hawthorne lived directly next door and Henry David Thoreau lived part-time down the road in town, and part-time across the road with the Emersons. Walden Pond was on Emerson’s property.

Emerson and Hawthorne were of Louisa’s generation and Thoreau was in between the Alcott girls and their parents. Thoreau used to take the girls for hikes in the woods. Louisa babysat for the Emerson children; their father was the Alcott girls’ second father, providing money to the always-needy family, as well as an open library, a bountiful dinner table and much transcendental conversation. Hawthorne, while he did not much like transcendentalism, was a part of the community, and shared in neighborhood potlucks; his wife, Sophia Peabody Hawthorne helped Louisa pack her bags when she went off to work as a nurse at a Union Army Hospital in Washington DC in 1862.

The Alcott parents, Abba and Bronson Alcott, were no slouches themselves. Always generous with their slim larder, they took in homeless women and children, hosted John Brown’s widow, daughter-in-law and grandson after Brown was executed for his raid on Harpers Ferry, and strongly supported enlargement of women’s economic, legal and political rights. Both parents were active abolitionists from the early 1830s onward; Bronson bravely confronted armed U.S. Marshals in Boston street demonstrations against the Fugitive Slave Law.

Bronson was an educational theorist far ahead of his time—insisting his students needed active physical play (he invented recess!), as well as a chance to talk freely about the big issues of the day. His Boston school closed in 1837 when parents withdrew their children to protest his encouragement of open conversation, particularly about religion, the soul and birth, in the classroom. The final blow was Mr. Alcott’s admission of a black girl to the school.

Mrs. Alcott ran a social work agency, finding jobs and patching together social services for needy women and their children; her work supported the family until the money from Little Women took over in 1869. One of the families she helped likely introduced the scarlet fever virus that killed sister Elizabeth (Beth in Little Women).

Louisa hung on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s every word and was more than a little in love with Thoreau. She was far more interested in justice than in charity, and, like her Jo March, was always the daughter most likely to misbehave. Despite Concord’s hometown attractions, she found it a “gray” place and said she had to go to Boston to do her best writing.

As Ms. Showalter points out, Louisa wanted to be taken seriously as an adult literary writer. Her three attempts at adult fiction received mixed reviews, and are little read today. Henry James excoriated her first book, Moods, writing “We are utterly weary of stories about precocious little girls” and “the two most striking facts with regards to ‘Moods’ are the author’s ignorance of human nature and her self-confidence in spite of this ignorance.”  Her Modern Mephistopheles, however, was reviewed positively in The Atlantic Monthly: “the language is vigorous and clear, having a sculpturesque effect, and the succession of periods and paragraphs is often so admirable that many pages together seem to be set in solemn rhythm.” The lesson of the work, wrote the reviewer was that “wanton exercise of the intellect and a suppression of the better forces in the heart are very dangerous and devilish.” Work is the most quintessentially Alcott, though, detailing the themes she cared most about: women finding their way in the world, loving, losing and doing good work.

The good works she cared the most about, besides supporting her family, were abolition and women’s suffrage. She broke rules to become a nurse in a Union Army hospital, tried to work as a teacher in a school for freed slaves in South Carolina, and was always in the front row when Harriet Tubman or John Brown came to town to raise money for the cause. After the war, she took up women’s suffrage, riding around the countryside trying to convince women to register to vote and writing for Lucy Stone’s Woman’s Journal.

Louisa was the first woman in Concord to register to vote. It upset her that Ellen Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s daughter would not support the cause. “I don’t know why, but am very sorry for she has much influence in Concord & some already back out because she does. Isn’t it a pity? Yours disgustedly, L.M.A.”  Sometimes she signed her letters “Yours for Reforms of All Kinds.”

Although she never married, Louisa was hardly childless. Her mother and elder sister Anna were frequently working, leaving childcare of the two younger daughters to Louisa. Later, Louisa was an active aunt to Anna’s two boys, especially after Anna was widowed. Louisa wrote Little Men specifically to raise money for her nephews. She eventually adopted one of those nephews, to ensure that the Alcott family would continue to have clear financial claim to her copyrights. Then, in 1879, her youngest sister May died shortly after giving birth to a daughter named Louisa May. May’s dying wish was that her baby be raised by her sister, making Louisa a delighted, but very busy and tired single mother at age 48. Little Lulu, as the child was called, lived into her nineties, dying in Switzerland in the mid-1970s.

Here indeed is a story of American womanhood—active, energetic, engaged and thoughtful. She was both of her times, and beyond them. Would that we all could be as much.

—Kit Bakke, ’68

Kit Bakke’s book Miss Alcott’s Mail is due out from David R. Godine in spring 2006. It weaves stories of Louisa May Alcott’s life with Bakke’s own radical political experiences with the Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen in the 1960s and early 1970s, and her subsequent family life and career in nursing.


I enjoyed Alicia Bessette’s article in the summer 2005 Bulletin on Elaine Showalter ’62’s work with Louisa May Alcott. However, I was surprised that the article didn’t mention Showalter’s other important books, such as A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Bronte to Lessing, or Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage, or Sister’s Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women’s Writing. Perhaps these books have been mentioned in earlier issues of the Bulletin, but it’s good to remind readers. I was particularly pleased to discover that Showalter is a fellow Mawrter.

As always, an interesting issue, especially the article about Annabella Wood, an outstanding non-traditional student. Good job!

—Sara Jameson ’69


Yoga in public domain?

I see wisdom being sacrificed to cleverness in the Bikram Yoga case reported in the summer 2005 issue of the Alumnae Bulletin. Surely the question is not whether the Bikram sequence is similar to a dance performance or a dinner menu, but rather, whether Elizabeth Rader ’87’s clients’ contention that “yoga exists in the public domain” holds up to scrutiny. What is taught under the rubric of yoga in the United States is very often a swift display of unusually acrobatic calisthenics, with variations ranging from the comedic to the downright dangerous. The actual therapeutic systems of Hatha Yoga involve highly controlled breathing techniques, slow and deliberate movement, and still poses, all refined over millennia, which should be accorded the respect due to any discipline devoted to healing. From time to time, within living memory and therefore possibly for much longer than that, recognized leading experts have developed distinctive styles of practice, opened schools, and published manuals, none of which has any similarity to dinner and dancing. Regardless of the precedent soon to be set in the court where Elizabeth is reported to be arguing, among much else, that yoga is a form of exercise—presumably before a similarly misled jurist—we may see a different picture emerging as India’s formal relationship with the United States develops in the coming decades. Now that political, economic, and military ties with India are rapidly becoming more significant to the United States, many reciprocal agreements will inevitably be negotiated with respect to a broad range of issues, including those involving intellectual property rights. In time, many people here will very likely find themselves required to conform to certain standards which are, as of now, still meaningless to them.

I would rather see Bryn Mawr women at the forefront of that development!

—Amrita (Mithua) Ghosh Douglas ’77


Anti-tort reform

I am writing in regard to the summer 2005 issue of the Alumnae Bulletin that featured U.S. Representative Allyson Schwartz, MSS ’72, on the cover. I usually can’t wait to receive my Bulletin, and I look forward to taking time out from my busy life to read the stories and Class Notes. However, I am forced to write because Ms. Schwartz’s presence on the cover and the article about her by Tom Nugent was most disturbing. I had a written dialogue with Ms. Schwartz while she was running for her present office that resulted in my adamant opposition to her campaign.

As a thinking individual, I try to support candidates, usually Democrats, who believe in women’s rights, the sanctity of the U.S.  Constitution, etc., but after a few communications with Ms. Schwartz, I quickly realized that she should be nowhere near any public office.

After I was graduated from BMC, I spent 13 years training to become a neurosurgeon. I returned to Philadelphia to bring my skills “home”—to serve my community. I was devoted to providing the highest level of care primarily to young people who had suffered from intracranial aneurysms or who were victims of head and spine trauma. When many doctors were leaving Pennsylvania because of rising malpractice insurance costs, I came home to help what is now an underserved population. But we were beaten. Malpractice insurance costs did us in. Without any suits or claims against me, my premiums were more than I could earn because I was providing care primarily to the uninsured or underinsured—the young and lower socio-economic strata. So now people who cannot personally afford health care do not have access to top doctors as they have had in the past—the politicians and current laws tie our hands as caregivers.

The remedy to the situation is complex, but unquestionably the first step is to cap non-economic losses, a.k.a., “pain-and-suffering.” This has a ripple effect at multiple levels. Caps need to be instituted as soon as possible. Prior to the recent election, I contacted all the candidates, and, sadly, the Democrats—who also coincidentally get much of their campaign funds from trial lawyers and many of whom have themselves been trial lawyers—are against this critical first step in tort reform.

Allyson Schwartz in particular is one of the biggest adversaries of tort reform. Prior to the election, I wrote to Ms. Schwartz expressing the horror of the situation we are facing as doctors in Pennsylvania. She stated quite specifically that she opposes any caps on pain-and-suffering awards. Her point, in summary, was that if for example a drug dealer in north Philadelphia gets shot in the head, and I operate on him, and he gets an infection or something, since he has no “economic losses”—after all he is a drug dealer—then he can only get pain-and-suffering awards. She stated that it would be “prejudice” to “take away this type of patient’s rights.” She went on to say that she was married to a doctor and he agrees. I explained that perhaps she has not experienced the pain of a malpractice suit, and how more than 70 percent of cases that go to court are ruled in favor of the doctor, at a cost of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars anyway. So what happens? Good doctors like me leave. Because, guess what? That drug dealer does not pay for his care. I do not get paid for operating on him, and despite my good intentions, I open myself up to exposure not only for myself, but also my family, over these frivolous lawsuits. So I, like the other five neurosurgeons in my group, leave Pennsylvania for states where we can still afford to practice.

Allyson Schwartz supports health care for children? A physician in a rural region refused to operate on a 16-year-old with a head injury in an emergency situation and the patient had to be transported to another hospital. The operation, a relatively routine procedure that could have been performed at the first hospital, was performed at the second hospital. The child suffered as a result of this delay. The physician was cleared of any wrongdoing by the official boards. He stated that he wanted to operate, but he could not afford the additional insurance for pediatrics, so he could not risk his family’s future, his children’s college education, his house, etc., though he wanted to do the operation. These are the types of situations that Ms. Schwartz’s anti-tort reform policy advocates.

Allyson Schwartz is pro-choice? Who is going to do those abortions? In upstate Pennsylvania, a woman needs to drive three hours in labor to have her baby. There are no Ob-Gyns! Doctors can’t afford to perform regular deliveries, so who is going to do the higher-risk terminations?

I moved away from my home and family in Pennsylvania because of people like Allyson Schwartz. More importantly, the people who need health care the most—children and young people who are victims of some of the worst diseases and accidents—are the victims of health care policy promulgated by the likes of Ms. Schwartz.

I would simply suggest that Mr. Nugent more thoroughly research the facts regarding Ms. Schwartz’s record on health care before he publishes something like this. I am again very disappointed in Bryn Mawr over this article. It is nothing short of a travesty.

—Lauren F. Schwartz ’88, MD


Interpreting Scripture

This letter concerns a single quote from Beth Stroud ’91 in the article “Witness,” by Alicia Bessette in the summer 2005 issue of the Bulletin: “... it is heterosexism, not homosexuality, that is the sin in this case.” In good Bryn Mawr tradition, let us examine that statement. Consider four short questions:

1. Who does God say he is? The creator of the universe (Genesis 1-2, Job 38-41, Isaiah 65:17-66:1). Completely just, omniscient and all powerful, all-loving and all-merciful (Exodus 34:6; Job 42:2; Psalms 78:38, 96:13, 100:5-17, 139, 147:5; Isaiah 30:13-14; Lamentations 3:22-24; Romans 2:11, 3:25-26; 1 John 4:7-19). Masculine in nature, and heterosexual. The husband of Israel (Song of Solomon, Isaiah 60-63, 67:1-14, Ezekiel 54:1-8). The bridegroom of the Church (Mark 2:19, Ephesians 5:25-27, 2 Cor 11:2, Revelation 21-22).

2. Who does he say we are? Created in his image (Genesis 1:26*) and created male and female (Genesis 1:26-27). Creative, because in his image (e.g., Leviticus 35:30-36:1). Since the Fall, inherently sinful and irreparably flawed (Genesis 3:6, Romans 3:23, 1 Cor 5:21-22).

*This scripture is the only irrefutable argument against slavery and racism. As late as slavery was abolished in countries influenced by the Jewish and Christian scriptures, slavery was not, to my knowledge, ever abolished in any place, nor was racism ever condemned, except as influenced by movements based on Genesis.

3. If God is who he says he is, what basis do we have for changing what he says? Our creativity? Our love? In these we reflect God, since we are his image. But both, though real, are flawed by the Fall (Genesis 6:5, Romans 3:9-20, 5:12-17). Our freedom and dignity?—which are inalienable, since we are made in God’s image. Our dignity, though “higher than the angels”, is short of God’s own. (Psalm 8). The “truth that shall set us free” is through Christ, the bridegroom (John 8:32). Our desire for God’s justice? Our judgment about what we think God’s ways should be is fallible (Isaiah 55:8-9). Moreover, God is impartial (Romans 2:11) but we are not: even “the blameless and upright” “condemn God to justify themselves”(Job 1:1,40:2-8,42:2-3). Unless there is a stronger basis for revision, the heterosexual model stands as God’s model for our relationships with him and with each other. Upholding heterosexuality, therefore, is not sin.

4. If God is not who he says he is, then why pay attention to him? If God lies about himself—if his Word is not true—then there is no reason to worship him, no reason to be pastor or member in any church. One cannot be a true witness to a lying God.

—Ann Marie Thro ’71


We welcome letters expressing a range of opinions on issues addressed in the magazine and of interest to the extended community. Letters must be signed in order to be considered for publication. We may edit letters for accuracy, length and civility.



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