Struggling to be Accepted as an American: Tye Leung Schulze

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Those welcoming words are enshrined on the Statue of Liberty that towers over New York harbor. But despite that generous offer, America has made it very difficult for many people to enter the country. And few groups have been as badly treated as Chinese Americans.

From 1882 until its repeal in 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned all immigration from China. It was the only United States law ever to specifically ban one ethnic group. While new immigrants were banned, Chinese Americans who were born and raised in the United States were subject to hostility and prejudice. Among those who suffered was a tiny Chinese American woman named Tye Leung Schulze who spent most of her life trying to help Chinese Americans to become valuable members of the community.

Tye Leung Schulze

Born in San Francisco in 1887, Tye Leung was unable to attend public school because California’s segregated school system did not provide schools for Chinese students. Fortunately, she discovered a Presbyterian Mission School where she found education and encouragement.

In 1910, Leung took the civil service exam and became the first Chinese American woman employed by the federal government. Assigned to the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay, she became a translator. Two years later she made history by voting in the 1912 presidential election. (California women had gained the right to vote in 1911). She was the first Chinese woman in vote in a United States election, and perhaps the first to vote anywhere in the world.

Leung valued the importance of voting and she expressed her faith in the importance of women’s suffrage in an interview shortly after she had voted: I think…that we women are more careful than the men. We want to do our whole duty more. I do not think it is just the newness that makes use like that. It is conscience”

While she was working at Angel Island, Leung met her future husband, Charles Schulze, an Immigration Inspector. But once again the government opposed her because of her Asian roots. At that time, California banned intermarriage between whites and Asians. To escape this law, Leung and Schulze had to travel to Washington State to celebrate their marriage. And to add further injury, both Leung and Schulze lost their jobs with the Immigration Service when they returned to Angel Island.

Eventually, Tye found work with the Pacific telephone exchange. She and her husband lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown and raised four children. Although her husband died in 1935, Tye continued to work with the Chinese American community as a bookkeeper for the Chinese Hospital and an operator for Pacific Telephone’s Chinatown exchange. During World War II, she helped Chinese brides to enter the country and become citizens. She remained an active force in the community until she died at the age of 86.

Tye Leung Schulze’s life story has been told in a documentary film available on YouTube .

You can also read more about her life in Julia Flynn Siler’s book The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2019).

In 1987, Leung Schulze was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project. She is a woman well worth remembering and honoring.

Giving Women Control—Margaret Sanger

For more than a century, suffragists fought for women’s right to vote, but voting wasn’t the only thing on women’s minds at that time. What good was the right to vote if women weren’t entitled to get an education so they could learn about political issues and develop their opinions? And being able to vote was small comfort to women who were barred from holding a job that would make it possible for them to earn a living. But even the right to learn and to get a job were not enough to give women control of their lives.

Margaret Sanger

Deciding when to have a child and how many children to have made a huge difference in women’s lives. Today It is hard to realize how the lack of birth control affected families. Employers often refused to hire married women because they might become pregnant. Graduate schools rejected married women applicants with the excuse that an unplanned pregnancy could derail a degree plans at any time. And lots of women, especially poor women, often had far more children than their family could support. But during the 19th and early 20th century it was very difficult to get information about birth control. Christian reformers had passed laws declaring that information about birth control was obscene and therefore distributing it was illegal. In many states even married couples were forbidden to use contraceptives.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, progressives began to recognize this problem. One woman, Margaret Sanger, devoted most of her life to changing the way women experienced motherhood. Born in 1879, the sixth child in a family of Irish immigrants in Corning, New York, she saw at first hand the result of having a large family. Each year as another child was added to the family, Michael Higgins, their father, who was a sculptor of gravestones, became less able to support them all. Maggie Higgins, Margaret’s mother, gave birth to 22 children of whom eleven survived to grow up. She died at the age of 48 leaving the family to struggle on without her.

First Birth Control Clinic

Margaret Sanger was fortunate in having older sisters who helped her to get an education and to become a nurse. After getting her degree she married, quit work, and settled down to raise her three children. For several years she was a traditional housewife and mother, but she wanted a more active life. When she went to work in New York City as a visiting nurse, she saw for herself the way women’s lives were restricted by the number of children they bore. Most of the women she worked with were immigrants with little money and no way of finding out how they could limit the number of children they had. Sanger decided that she had an obligation to give these women information. In 1916, she opened the first birth control clinic in the city and was promptly arrested for distributing obscene material. That arrest inspired her to become a lifelong crusader for birth control.

Sanger has become one of the most controversial leaders of the early feminist movement, but much of the criticism directed at her has been misinformed. She has been reviled for supporting abortion, but in fact she always opposed it. She knew that many women were driven to having abortions because they had suffered through too many pregnancies. These illegal abortions sometimes led to illness and death. Sanger promoted birth control as a way of preventing abortions by allowing families to limit the size of their families. She founded birth control clinics in Harlem and in the Lower East Side. She worked with African American leaders to make sure that both Black and White women could control the number of their pregnancies.    

Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League which later became Planned Parenthood and has become a national source of support for women’s health across the United States. Sanger’s interest in the eugenics movement during the 1920s, has led to much criticism, but she was only one of many people who were searching for ways to encourage Americans to have fewer, but healthier babies. She was a woman of many enthusiasms who spoke out about her beliefs and incited both strong support and bitter hatred. Several biographies have been published. For a well-balanced account of her life and accomplishments, you might want to try one of the more recent ones—Jean Baker’s Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion (2011).

Breaking Up the Big Boys—Ida Tarbell and the Defeat of Standard Oil

During 2020, we celebrated the suffragists who a century ago won the struggle to give women the right to vote. But voting is only part of what increased women’s power to shape their own lives. Many women were unable to get a job and earn money, so whether they could vote or not they continued to be dependent on their fathers, brothers, or husbands to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables. This year we should celebrate some of the women who opened up new economic opportunities for women.

Ida Tarbell was someone who showed how powerful a woman’s voice could be. Like many women she used the power of words to even the playing field.  But unlike most women of her time, she did not write fiction, nor did she write about “women’s issues”. She plunged into the wider world of industrial competition and politics and she succeeded. Her writing and editorial work made her one of the most powerful voices influencing politics and business practices during the late 19th century.

Born in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1857, Ida Tarbell was encouraged to go to school and to read widely. Both her mother and father had been schoolteachers, but when oil was discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, her father became an oil dealer. After Ida graduated at the top of her class in high school, she went on to Allegheny College where she was the only woman in a class of 48. She studied biology and earned an MA as well as a BA. Job opportunities were limited after she graduated. She tried teaching, the traditional woman’s career,  but didn’t like it, so she decided to earn her living by writing.

Ida Tarbell

Tarbell began her career by writing articles for The Chautauquan, a magazine designed for readers interested in home study courses. Her scientific studies had trained her to search for facts and to check them carefully. In 1891, after she  had established her credentials as a writer, Tarbell decided to move to Paris and try to earn her living by independent writing. Although she dipped into fiction, she soon realized that her real talent lay in nonfiction.

While she was in Paris, Tarbell had an active social life and met many French intellectuals as well as visiting Americans. One of the visitors was Samuel McClure, the founder and publisher of the influential McClure’s Magazine. Recognizing the value of Tarbell’s work, McClure invited her to work with him. Even though she was reluctant to leave Paris, Tarbell decided to move back to New York where she became one of the most influential writers of the years around the turn of the 20th century.

During the 1890s, magazines were becoming the most important form of mass media in America. Unlike newspapers, which were limited geographically and by the tight schedules they had to maintain, magazines could publish authors who had time to investigate the background and history of current events. Ida Tarbell’s series of articles on Napoleon and on Abraham Lincoln made her one of the best-known and most influential writers in the country.

The story for which Ida Tarbell is best known is her account of the growth of the Standard Oil Company monopoly. Because her father had run a small oil company in Pennsylvania, Tarbell was especially interested in how the Standard Oil Company had taken over oil production and had destroyed many small oil companies. She spent months investigating how the Company had developed. She researched articles diligently, interviewing executives and reading archives. Between 1902 and 1904, her work was published in nineteen articles in McClure’s Magazine. They were also published as book, The History of the Standard Oil Company, which became a best seller. The impact of her work changed the way politicians and the public viewed the large corporations that had reshaped American business.

Ida Tarbell’s attitude toward women’s suffrage puzzled her friends and has caused consternation among some later writers who studied her life. Although her mother was strong in support of women’s suffrage, Ida Tarbell herself often downplayed its importance. She believed that many women found fulfilment and lived full lives without the vote, and that they would not gain much by suffrage. Perhaps one of the reasons for her attitude was that her life was very different from the lives of other women of her time.

Most women at the turn of the century knew men only as fathers, brothers, husbands, or sons. Ida Tarbell, however, worked with men as colleagues, bosses, and employees. She played an active and influential life, one that would not be changed much by an ability to vote. And at times, she seems to have seen the suffrage movement as an anti-male campaign. After the 19th Amendment was passed, however, she did support other women especially working women who had no choice but to work outside the home.

Ida Tarbell is a fascinating figure who had a great impact on the world of business and politics. There are several good biographies available. One recent one, which gives a lively account of her years with McClure’s Magazine, is Stephanie Gorton’s Citizen Reporters: S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell and the Magazine that Rewrote America (2020).  

Women’s Work Is Never Done—or Paid For. Ellen Swallow Richards

These days as we try to cope with a frightening pandemic, we are accustomed to seeing pictures of women hovering over test tubes in laboratories developing vaccines and other medicines. News broadcasts feature pictures of doctors, both men and women,  swaddled in bulky protective equipment administering treatment for Covid 19 patients. Women in labs and hospitals have become the norm.

Now that science and medical services, not only in America, but around the world, are heavily dependent on women, it’s hard to believe that generations of women had to fight to be allowed to study and become part of these life-saving processes. What on earth were the men thinking?

Ellen Swallow Richards

In 1870, when Ellen Swallow, a graduate of Vassar College, who also held a masters degree in chemistry, tried to find further education, she was turned away from every laboratory and school where she applied. After great effort, a former professor of hers was able to get her admitted into the brand new Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but only on the grounds that her admission “did not establish a precedent for the general admission of females”. Were men really so frightened of women taking over their schools?

After two successful years of studies at MIT, Swallow’s thesis was accepted, but she was not given the PhD she had earned, because the school did not want to award an advanced degree to a woman. Nonetheless, Swallow stayed on at the school, married one of her fellow students, and continued to do research and to teach. She did not receive a salary but was supported by her husband who also continued to teach at MIT. It seems the men who claimed women did not have the ability to teach or do research, were perfectly willing to accept the benefits of women’s unpaid labor.

As time went by, Swallow was able became a consultant and helped to develop safe and sanitary water systems. In Massachusetts, she was responsible for the first state-wide sanitary water system in the United States. She applied her scientific knowledge to helping women to improve the domestic sanitation in their homes. Her book Food Materials and Their Adulterations (1885)  led to the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in Massachusetts.  

Swallow continued to be tireless in her work to develop the scientific study of Home Economics and has often been called the founder of the ecology movement. During her long career, she received many honors and became a mentor to women who wanted to enter the fields of science and medicine. I have to wonder whether the men who tried so hard to keep her from studying science ever wondered how they could have gone so wrong.

There seems to be no easily available biography of Ellen Swallow Richards, but there is a long article about her in Wikipedia which includes a list of her many publications. For lighter touch, you can also read about Ellen Swallow as a character in Matthew Pearl’s mystery story, The Technologists (2012). Although the story is fiction, Pearl sticks close to the facts about the background of life at MIT in the years after it was founded and the experiences of Ellen Swallow.

When the Doctor is a Woman–the Blackwell Sisters

During 2020 we celebrated the suffragists who worked to gain votes for women. They won that right in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was passed. But during the same years that the suffragists were fighting for women’s right to vote, many women paid little attention to voting but pursued other paths to empower women. When we consider how women’s lives have changed over the past century, we can see that women’s right to participate in business and professions may have been just as important as winning the right to vote.

One example of women’s changing role is the number of women doctors in the United States. In 2019, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one-third of practicing physicians were women. And in that same year, the Washington Post reported that the majority of medical students were women. We take these figures for granted now, but the battle to allow women to practice medicine was long and difficult.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to become a medical doctor, made great strides for women, but never bothered to support women’s right to vote. This year has seen the publication of a new biography of Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily, both of whom were pioneer doctors. Janice Nimura’s recent biography The Doctors Blackwell: How Two Pioneering Sisters Brought Medicine to Women and Women to Medicine (Norton 2021) gives a vivid picture of how difficult it was for women to be accepted in the medical profession.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Through the years, centuries even, men have found it hard to accept women into the schools and professions. Elizabeth Blackwell was accepted as a student at Geneva Medical College in New York mainly because the medical students were allowed to vote on whether or not she should be admitted. Faculty members refused to make that decision, but many students thought it would be a good joke to have a female student in their classes. No one apparently expected Elizabeth to become a real doctor. That idea was outlandish.

After completing medical school and earning high grades in her classes, Elizabeth Blackwell was unable to find a hospital that would allow her to observe patients and to learn from practicing doctors. She had to travel to Europe—to both England and France—to find hospitals that gave her the chance to observe patients and practice her skills.

Elizabeth Blackwell demonstrated an almost superhuman persistence and strength in seeking entry to the field. Early in her life she decided that women should be treated by female doctors who could understand their symptoms and establish more useful doctor-patient relations than men could. She did not, however, seem to believe that many other women could follow her path. Her relations with women did not demonstrate great understanding or sympathy. Although she found a number of male mentors in her tireless pursuit of medical training, she was critical of the women she encountered. When she met the wives of doctors with whom she worked, she complained about their dress and manners. “Women so dressed out,” she declared, “don’t look like rational beings and cannot be expected to be treated as such.”

The Blackwells were a large family and they worked together well. Elizabeth encouraged her younger sister, Emily, to become a doctor even though she recognized how hard a path that was. After several attempts to be accepted at an American medical school, Emily was finally able to earn her degree. Like Elizabeth, she had to go to Europe to find the practical experience to complete her skills. Along the way, both Blackwell sisters encouraged other women to follow their path.

Emily Blackwell

Ever so slowly, women gradually entered the medical field. More of them became nurses than doctors, but nonetheless, generations of women discovered they could support themselves and sometimes their families by entering medicine. This movement into economic freedom was probably as important in most women’s lives as the movement to gain votes. Nimura’s book about the Blackwell sisters shows us both the importance and the difficulty of their pioneer work. It is well worth reading.   

Pointing the way toward a new world—Shirley Chisholm

Like most Americans, I spent the early days of this past week worrying. Would there be violence at the Inauguration? Would armed intruders try to disrupt the ceremony?  It wasn’t until after President Biden was safely sworn in that I was able to take a long, peaceful breath.

Although the ceremony was held the midst of a pandemic, as well as in the aftermath of an unprecedented assault on the U. S. Capitol, everything went well. The in-person audience was small, but the virtual audience was huge. History was made and a new team entered the White House. Life is returning to normal.

Now I’ve had a few days to savor the feeling of having a Vice President who is the first woman, the first Black person, and the first Indian American to hold that office. It is time for us to rejoice and to pay homage to some of the pioneers who paved the way for that innovation.

Kamela Harris

I am not alone in celebrating the foremothers who provided models for Kamala Harris. Many women at the Inauguration ceremony wore purple, a color that has become associated with women in government. And, according to the New York Times, Representative Barbara Lee of California wore a pearl necklace which once belonged to Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman who was a serious candidate for the presidency.

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm made history by becoming the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. Once there, she made her mark by refusing to be quiet and follow the dictates of politicians in her party. She fought to serve her constituents by supporting bills to provide federal funds for childcare facilities, and she opposed the Vietnam War writing “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our own country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.

When she was unable to change the focus of the country through legislation, Shirley Chisholm decided to run for President. Her 1972 campaign was not taken seriously by political leaders. She spent very little money on the campaign and was not able to hire strong staff for her efforts. The country was not ready for an African American president and especially not for one who was a woman. Despite her failure to gain support for her nomination, (Senator George McGovern became the Democratic candidate.) Chisholm continued to be an active member of Congress until 1982 when she retired.

Shirley Chisholm continues to be an inspiration to Kamala Harris and all the other women who are moving into public office in the country. Because of her strength and courage America’s government has become more representative of all the people of the country. This week is a good time to remember and honor her.

Stacey Abrams–a Star for the Future

Events in Washington D.C. this past week have been so disturbing that they have dominated all American news outlets. On Wednesday, when Congress gathered  to cast ceremonial votes to accept the reports of the Electoral College, President Donald Trump called on his followers to protest the vote. And protest they did—they broke into the Capitol building, knocking over desks, scattering papers around the floor, and carrying the Confederate flag through the halls.  Their aim, apparently, was to reverse the findings of the presidential election and throw out the votes that had brought Joe Biden a victory. They did not succeed in overturning the election, but they left the country in a turmoil that will last for weeks and affect the political life of the country for months and years to come. 

While we can’t ignore the drama of the attack on the Capitol, it is important not to forget the momentous news that came earlier in the week. In Georgia’s runoff election for the Senate on Tuesday, the two Democratic candidates were elected. This will give the Democrats control of the Senate for at least the next two years. When President Biden takes office on January 20th, he will have more Senatorial support for his policies than anyone had anticipated. The times they certainly are a-changing. What is it that has brought about this change?

Stacey Abrams

One cause of the change was the overwhelming turnout for the election. And much of the credit for inspiring that turnout should be given to Stacey Abrams. We should not become so preoccupied with the crisis at the Capitol that we forget to pay tribute to this young political star who is having a huge impact on the future of Georgia and perhaps of the entire South.

Stacey Abrams was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1973, but grew up mainly in the South where both of her parents were Methodist ministers. She was the valedictorian in her high school class and later graduated magna cum laude from Spelman College where she participated in political activities including burning the Georgia state flag to protest the Confederate flag that was part of its design. She later earned a law degree from Yale University.

After serving for ten years in the Georgia General Assembly, Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia in 2018. Winning the Democratic Primary for that race made her the first Black women ever to be nominated for governor by a major political party. Winning the governorship was a more difficult challenge.  Her opponent, Brian Kemp, was not only the Republican nominee but was also the Secretary of State and therefore was in charge of voter registration for the election. Thousands of registered voters were removed from the roles in questionable actions during the year preceding the governor’s race. Abrams lost the election by 50,000 votes, but she gained countrywide fame and was one of the speakers at the 2020 Democratic convention.

In the years since 2018, Abram was worked energetically to increase voter turnout for all elections, especially in the South. She founded an organization called Fair Fight 2020 to support Democratic candidates. And she continues to encourage all voters, especially those in minority communities, to participate actively in elections. The remarkable turnout in the 2020 election owes a great deal to her hard work and advocacy.

Let’s celebrate Stacey Abrams for what she has achieved and look forward to her further achievements in the years to come.

2020–A Year We May Want to Forget

2020 has hardly been a year to remember, but it has been a year we will never forget. Our usual holiday celebrations have been downsized. Zoom calls have to substitute for hugs and kisses—not a good bargain. Many people have less money to spend on presents and many are worried about the future.  And worst of all, many families will be missing people who were part of the celebration last year.

There have been many bad years in the past. Our parents and grandparents lived through New Year observances that came in the midst of wars, depressions, and plagues. During the mid-nineteenth century, Christina Rossetti described the way she felt about an incoming year.   

Christina Rossetti

New Year met me somewhat sad:
Old Year leaves me tired,
Stripped of favourite things I had
Baulked of much desired:
Yet farther on my road to-day
God willing, farther on my way.

Christina Rossetti

Let us all hope that 2021 will find us farther on our roads. With a new administration in Washington, a Brexit agreement in Europe, and several new vaccines giving us some relief from the pandemic, we can hope to move into a new period of peace and healing throughout the world.

Wishing Everyone a Hopeful New Year!

Books I’ll remember from 2020

Reading the year-end lists of best books in newspapers and online during the past few weeks has inspired me to think about the books I read in 2020. Some of them are almost forgotten, but a few I remember well and think of often. Today I want to share some thoughts about three of the most memorable books of the year for me. I wonder whether any of them have caught your attention through the long months of this strange year.

FICTION

I’ve read very little fiction this year except for escapist mysteries that took me away from thoughts of shutdowns and pandemics but disappeared from mind soon after I turned the final page. There was one remarkable exception—Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara—a book that starts with a mystery but opens up a new view of the world we live in.

The book is set in a poor neighborhood in India. and the story is told by ten-year-old boy, Jai,  who decides to become a detective after one of the children in the neighborhood disappears. As he and his friends search for clues, several other children also disappear. The scenes of parents grieving for their children and struggling to provide some security for them are heartbreaking. Policemen routinely mistreat everyone from their poor neighborhood despite expecting bribes for the slightest service. The kids continue to be upbeat and energetic during their pursuit, but while the reader watches, the mystery grows deeper and more threatening. This book is gripping, and I am sure I will remember it long after 2020 is gone.

In an afterword, Anappara, a former journalist, tells us she wrote the book because she wanted a chance to focus on the common story of child-disappearances in India. While one book cannot begin to solve such a serious problem, it can at least make more people aware of what life is like in a part of the world that most of us seldom visit.

HISTORY

Every year brings new books about Shakespeare’s plays, but this year’s big Shakespeare book is different. Instead of focusing on the plays, James Shapiro’s Shakespeare in a Divided America, looks at American history through the prism of those plays.

Taming of the Shrew

Shapiro describes how the productions of Shakespeare’s plays in this country have changed over the years. One of the first chapters describes how Othello was receivedin the early 1800s. The play roused great emotions about miscegenation and led to arguments about whether or not Othello was Black. Many years later, productions of The Tempest influenced the anti-immigration furor of the early 1900s. And then came arguments about the staging of Taming of the Shrew revealing different attitudes toward women and their place in the world.  Each generation has found a Shakespearean play that speaks to its current  preoccupations. And through all those generations, Shakespeare’s plays have been more influential in the United States than in any other country in the world.  

MEMOIR

I’ve admired Samantha Power ever since I read her startling book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide in 2013. After reading that, I followed her career as a journalist and her work as U.S. representative to the United Nations. But it wasn’t until I read her most recent book, The Education of an Idealist, that I learned much about her private life and development. This book is a straightforward memoir recounting her childhood in Ireland and covering the years up until 2016 when she left public life.

Uited Nations session

Power was born in 1970 and grew up in Ireland but moved to the United States with her mother and brother in 1979. She attended high school in Atlanta and then went to Yale University. After graduating from Yale, she decided to go to Bosnia where she began writing articles for prestigious newspapers and magazines. When she returned to the U.S., she went to Harvard Law School and continued her career as a writer and government official during the Obama administration. Her focus was on foreign policy and what the U.S. should do to fight genocide throughout the world. Her memoir gives the reader an account of the wins and losses she had to deal with in trying to hang onto her ideals and to influence government policy during those tumultuous years.

One of the things I liked best about this book is that Power gives us a glimpse of the day-to-day issues that arise for a woman combining marriage and motherhood with a demanding professional life. She avoids the trap of the “disappearing child” syndrome which causes many public figures to mention the births of their children but never to admit the overwhelming influence childrearing has on careers and lives. Power, in contrast, writes about her pregnancies, childcare, breast feeding and other aspects of motherhood which are usually ignored. I enjoyed the frank discussion of some of the decisions parents face as they combine family life with an active career.

BOOKS MENTIONED

Anappara, Deepa. 2020. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line (NY: Random House).Power,

Power, Samantha. 2019. The Education of an Idealist; A Memoir (NY: Dey St William Morrow).

Shapiro, James. 2020. Shakespeare in a Divided America (NY: Penguin)
 

Despite all the bad things 2020 has brought, it has at least given many of us more time to read. And authors have kept us supplied with fascinating books. Let’s hope that 2021 continues to supply us with even more books to keep us reading.

Happy Birthday Louisa May Alcott!

November 29 is  the birthday of Louisa May Alcott, one of the most popular authors America has ever produced. And unlike many best sellers of the 19th century, Alcott’s books are still familiar to most Americans.

Louisa May Alcott

Success did not come easily to Alcott, but once it arrived, it lingered for more than her lifetime. Her most famous book, Little Women, lives on not only in print, but in a long parade of film versions. Looking at the last several versions shows an interesting perspective on the storylines and actresses favored over the years. The leading character in each of these adaptations is Jo, the tomboy who grows up to be a writer. The actresses who have played  Jo mirror some of the changes in the way we have viewed women over the years.

During the difficult years of the 1930s when Americans were struggling with lost jobs and few opportunities, many of them turned to the movies for encouragement. The 1933 version of Jo was played by Katherine Hepburn, who brought to the film the sharp-tongued, cleverness of an actress who exemplified the never-say-die attitude that helped us survive the difficult 1930s.

By the time 1949 had rolled around, America had recovered from the Great Depression and World War II was over.  The sweet-faced June Allyson was a perfect example of a spunky American girl who no longer needed the sharpness of Hepburn. She made her way through life with a sunny smile and obstacles melted in her path.

When Greta Gerwig remade the story for a new film in 2019, Jo had changed into a very 21st century woman who knows her own mind and finds her own independent path. Played by Saoirse Ronan, she no longer needs the sharp tongue of Hepburn or the sweet smiles of Allison. Striding into the future that she is determined to build no mere man would dare to question her right to her ambition or to her success.

I can’t help wondering what Louisa Alcott would have thought of these versions. Growing up in a family plagued by poverty even though her father was part of a vibrant group of New England intellectuals,  she wrote her most famous book under the pressure of need. She resented having to write a book for children, but her family needed money and she felt she had no choice. Success came quickly as Little Women became a best seller and gave the family security, but Louisa was never quite content. During a long life of writing bestsellers and supporting her family, she was never able to fulfill her deepest ambition to write meaningful adult novels.

Bronson Alcott

The story of Louisa May Alcott and her father Bronson Alcott has been well told in John Matterson’s 2008 book Eden’s Outcasts; The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father. Matterson’s biography is an adult version of what life was like for the Alcott girls as they grew into womanhood. It offers a poignant recasting of how one American family grew during the turbulent 19th century. If you read Little Women when you were a child,  perhaps it is time to read Eden’s Outcasts. It will broaden your understanding of how real life interacts with the fictions that grow out of it.

In the meantime, let’s all raise a toast to Louisa May Alcott on her birthday this weekend.