Abigail May Alcott, c. 1860
Abigail May Alcott really surprised me. Unlike the homely Marmee we tend to envision, the housewife and retiring counterpart to her brilliant husband, the real Marmee was a strong, complex woman with dreams familiar to women today. Deeply ambitious and therefore deeply frustrated, Abigail from girlhood desired things she could not have: an education, public power, and a voice in the world. As a young woman she questioned the institution of marriage and envisioned herself teaching or writing. Yet she was not able to find fulfillment in either love or work. Her marriage was marked by deep conflict, long separations, and open discussions of divorce. Bronson’s refusal to work for money left the Alcotts homeless and hungry. In desperation Abigail in late middle age became a social worker and employment agent to support the family, even though a married woman then was not supposed to work outside the home. Abigail's long struggle for financial and emotional security spurred her daughter Louisa to make money. As early as age ten, Louisa felt she had to fill in for Abigail’s absent husband and provider, and at fifteen she stated her life’s goal: to support the family and make her mother secure. There is no question that Abigail was central to Louisa’s story, if not in quite the way we thought, as the idealized Marmee of Little Women. Abigail’s greatest accomplishment, in her view, was raising daughters who had more options as women than she had had.
Eve LaPlante is the author, most recently, of the biography Marmee & Louisa and the editor of My Heart Is Boundless.