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150 yrs on, ‘Little Women’ resonates

DC unveils special exhibits as ‘Hamilton’ comes to town

CONCORD, Mass, June 12, (AP): A century and a half before the #MeToo movement gave women a bold, new collective voice, Louisa May Alcott was lending them her own.

Society had far different expectations of women in 1867, when publisher Thomas Niles asked Alcott to write a “girls’ story.” At a time when women were expected to marry, often did not hold employment and could not vote, Alcott had her doubts about the success of “Little Women.”

Since then, the coming-of-age book has been translated into more than 50 languages and made into films, a musical and a recently aired PBS “Masterpiece” miniseries. The novel constantly finds new audiences as women worldwide confront sexual misconduct, misogyny and pay inequity.

Mayela Boeder, 34, of Appleton, Wisconsin, read “Little Women” as a girl and thinks it’s still relevant.

“You could say that strong females in literature, TV and every other medium have slowly shaped the minds of modern strong women,” she says.

“We grew up with Buffy, Hermione, Katnis, Jo, Lizzie Bennet, Sara Crewe, among others, and so we have almost been groomed to fight for what’s right and to not let others take advantage of us.”

Alcott drew heavily from her experiences living in poverty with progressive parents Bronson and Abigail Alcott and three sisters in Concord, Massachusetts. Although her transcendentalist father led his family through 30 homes, one stands out as the place where “Little Women” was written: Orchard House.

Alcott was 26 when her family moved into the then-dilapidated house in 1858. The enterprising family turned the tenant farmhouse, once slated for destruction, into a place where Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and other literary neighbors would drop by for intellectual discussions. Bronson encouraged his wife and daughters to join and built Louisa a desk at a time when writing was considered by scientists to be injurious to the female psyche.

Looking back, says Orchard House Executive Director Jan Turnquist, the Alcotts were feminists. “They believed all humans have agency,” she says.

She tells of how Louisa May Alcott was the first woman to register to vote in Concord in 1879, when Massachusetts gave women the right to vote in town elections on education and children issues.

In 1880, Alcott and 19 other women attended the Concord town meeting and cast their ballots. In a letter to periodical Woman’s Journal, Alcott wrote of voting: “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town.”

Unconventional

Alcott did other unconventional things. At 30, she served as a nurse in the Civil War. She traveled alone when most women could not. And she wrote stories that are the equivalent of a modern-day James Patterson thriller at a time when female authors were not popular.

Although there’s no evidence Alcott was ever sexually assaulted, she was harassed and had to endure misogyny as an ambitious, unmarried woman.

After writing the first part of “Little Women” in 1868, Alcott received a flood of letters asking if the main character, Jo March, would marry neighbor boy Laurie. Pulitzer Prize-winning Alcott historian John Matteson says, “Her publisher said, ‘You have to marry her off,’ and wanted the character to marry Laurie.”

Alcott was mortified that her mother had to scrape to keep the family going financially. “She knew what a trap marriage could be,” Matteson says. “She very much intended not to marry Jo off at all.”

Alcott appeased Niles, the publisher, by writing in Professor Friedrich Bhaer, a homely German professor, as a husband.

One of Alcott’s goals was to lift her family out of poverty. She took jobs as a teacher, seamstress, writer and, in one instance, a live-in companion for the sick sister of a man named James Richardson.

Instead of having her tend to his sister, Richardson had 18-year-old Alcott do housekeeping and spend evenings listening to him reading romantic poetry. He started slipping suggestive notes beneath her bedroom door and added backbreaking work to her chores as she rejected his advances. She quit, making only $4 for the seven-week stay.

While she hesitates to call that a #MeToo encounter, Turnquist says it was “sleazy and not appropriate,” and bordered on sexual harassment.

Alcott wrote an essay on the experience, which friend James Field, editor of The Atlantic, assessed and said: “Stick to your teaching. You can’t write.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

“She would be so supportive of the #MeToo Movement and equal pay for equal work,” Turnquist says.

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WASHINGTON: The blockbuster musical “Hamilton” is finally coming to the nation’s capital, and the city is preparing in ways that only Washington can.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s genre-bending historical musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton is starting a three-month run at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday.

Hamilton didn’t actually spend much of his life or professional career in Washington. The US capital was in Philadelphia when he served as the nation’s first treasury secretary, and the federal government didn’t move to Washington until 1800, four years before his death.

However, the myriad museums of modern Washington have been preparing specialized exhibits designed to appeal to tourists and locals who can’t get the tunes out of their heads.

“D.C. seems like the sort of town that’s tailor-made for this sort of wonky, nerding out over a former secretary of the Treasury,” said Daniel Piazza, chief curator of stamp collections at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum.

The Postal Museum has already launched an exhibit, “Alexander Hamilton: Soldier, Secretary, Icon,” that includes mail, portraits, and postage and revenue stamps reflective of Hamilton’s life and career. But the real prize of the exhibit are the two flintlock pistols made of walnut, brass and gold that were used in the July 11, 1804, duel with Vice President Aaron Burr, which resulted in Hamilton’s death.

The pistols are on loan from the private collection of JPMorgan Chase & Co. They will only be on display through June 24, although the museum’s larger Hamilton exhibit will continue through next year.

The Library of Congress is unveiling its own Hamilton display, drawing on its collection of more than 12,000 of Hamilton’s papers and documents. Much of it will have direct connections and references that fans of the musical will recognize, according to curator Julie Miller. Miranda based his musical on a 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton” by Ron Chernow, which drew from much of the same material.

Miller said the exhibit includes a letter from Hamilton to his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, in which he refers to her as “the best of wives and best of women” — a line quoted verbatim in the musical.

There’s also material chronicling a historically important dinner meeting with Hamilton and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. That meeting is at the heart of the song “The Room Where it Happens.” (AP)

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