March 29, 2010

Louisa May Alcott casts her first vote

Bronson Alcott's wife, Abby May, once declared, "I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me." She was 73 at the time and did not live to see her prophecy fulfilled. However, less than three years after her death, opportunity finally came for the women of Concord, Massachusetts. A change in the law granted permission for tax-paying women in the town to vote for the local school committee. The first woman to register to vote was Louisa May Alcott.

On March 29, 1880, Louisa May and 19 other women attended the Concord Town Meeting to cast their votes; she lamented that so few took part in the historic election. Her father was there, as she wrote, "with a fatherly desire to make the new step as easy as possible." In fact, it was Bronson Alcott who suggested that the ladies be allowed to vote first.

The 20 women lined up and cast their votes. "No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town," Louisa May humorously observed. Immediately after, Judge Ebeneezer Hoar motioned that the polls be closed. The motion carried. As biographer John Matteson wrote, "Not only had the women voted, but they had cast the only ballots to be tallied." Though some of the men present seemed uncomfortable that their right to vote had been denied, Louisa May noted that after nearly two centuries of exclusively male suffrage, the one day of exclusively female suffrage was the beginning of a balance.

The Alcott family was raised amid reform movements and took part in nearly all of them, from abolitionism to Utopian communal living. Many of Louisa May Alcott's writings feature women characters trying to find a way to access education or a variety of vocations. She herself supported her family and, in her adult years, was surprisingly financially secure for a writer, though she had to write continuously to do so.

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