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Two Women Who Would Have Made The Real Housewives of Beverley Hills Blush

Wednesday’s “Profiles in Courage” has morphed, my friends. I’ve found just too many amazing women in history, film, TV, and books that beg to be applauded for their pioneering efforts. So, here is the first installment of “Wednesday’s Wonder Woman.”

In an effort to rectify my poorly-chosen snap judgments against two women whose writing I once dismissed as “childish,” or “sappy,” I present you with two candidates for Wonder Wom-en today.

I urge you to re-discover the authoresses behind two of the most famous children’s books of all time: Louisa May Alcott and Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Stop! Don’t leave yet. I promise, should we really learn about these ladies, we’d find they would make the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills blush with their candor.

In an effort to entertain my school-age daughter this summer, we’ve re-watched family movies from my childhood. When we found Anne of Green Gables, I prepared to have my soppy-sugary “sentimental tosh” (to quote V.S. Naipaul) quotient filled within five minutes. But Kevin Sullivan’s adaptation of Ms. Montgomery’s work captured me once again.  Even my skeptical husband laughed out loud when she broke her slate over Gilbert’s head. I scurried to find the books on my Kindle. They are far better than I remember.

And I realized, somewhere around page fifty or so, Lucy Maud simply could not have written a heroine so impetuous or rebellious unless she possessed similar traits herself.

Which, if we think about it,  such behavior would have been revolutionary in Ms. Montgomery’s time.

Speaking of revolutionary, the eighth book in the Anne series, Rilla of Ingleside, was the ‘only Canadian novel written from a woman’s perspective about the First World War by a contemporary.’ (see ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ ‘s article on Wikipedia).

Not too shabby, Lucy.

This accomplishment is not to be taken lightly, my friends. Women had only recently won the right to vote in Canada. It wasn’t like today, where a plethora of women authors grace the walls of Chapters and Barnes and Noble alongside their male counterparts. Lucy’s breakthrough in a publishing world heavily weighted towards men is nothing short of daring.

But if we realize Anne Shirley’s creator for the radical she was, let us back up sixty years or so, and jump across the border.

Here we find the innovative, even avant-garde Ms. Louisa May Alcott. (Did you guys know that ‘avant-garde’ means unorthodox or experimental? I didn’t until today.) I have long thought the author of Little Women as demure or retiring. Well, one visit to her Wikipedia article informed me I was vastly mistaken. I am now both intrigued and scared to read her biography.

Like Anne Shirley’s character in Lucy Maud’s books, the semi-autobiographical sketch of the March sisters  in Little Women is proof enough of Louisa May’s progressive ideas. Her self-identification with her character, Jo, reveals a woman unafraid to speak her mind in mixed company. This female behavior was unheard-of in her day.

Ms. Alcott proudly admited herself an abolitionist and feminist. In the mid-1800’s, this would have caused more than a few whispers and snickers.

But Louisa was not the only member of her family who stood out. Her father, Amos Bronson Alcott, was a prominent transcendentalist. He led a spiritual movement committed to developing the ideal of one’s intuition.  Amos kept high-brow company: Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman, and Ralph Waldo Emerson were all famous transcendentalists. Henry David Thoreau was said to be the Alcott sisters’ primary educator.

I have to sit down to absorb all this. The two women who authored books we tend to designate ‘old-fashioned,’ were anything but old-fashioned. Two authors we assume write only for women were as prominent in their fields as any men.

My apologies to you both. Lucy, Louisa: had we been contemporaries, I think we may have been friends.

Do any of you feel like me? Or are you still unconvinced? Please leave your comments, and let’s get this ‘way-to-go-women-of-history’ party started.

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4 Comments Post a comment
  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read Louisa May Alcott, but Lucy Maud has been a favourite for decades! I have a biography of her, and Anne does have a lot of similarities. I label the books as old-fashioned simply because of the era, not the content. I totally agree with you – they were rule breakers in their day, and it can be easy to forget. I think what I love about Anne is that she never loses her spunk 🙂 FYI, Lucy may be her first name, but she went by Maud. Just a little trivia for ya!

    July 27, 2011
    • Really? She went by Maud? Interesting. My grandma, who was born around the same time (okay a decade or so later), had Maude as a middle name. I wonder if it was popular? Like the ‘cool girl’ name??

      July 28, 2011
  2. David #

    I always thought of those as retiring and gentle stories, too. Why is it that as stories age they seem to become children’s books? Why is a book written by a woman automatically for women? Is it that there is no epic quest, no dragon to slay, no ring to destroy, no princesses to save?

    Man, the way Ann Shirley talks, you’d think she had fireworks in her stomach. I guess I misjudged those old books. Maybe I have to read them now.

    July 28, 2011
    • Excellent point -stories age and they somehow find themselves in the children’s category. And if Anne were alive, she’d add an ‘e’ to the end of her name in that comment, because, well, she just can’t let stuff go. I’d be both terrified and delighted to know her had she been real.

      July 28, 2011

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