On March 29, 1880, Louisa May Alcott voted with 19 other women for the first time at the Concord Town Meeting.
The only thing they could vote for, though, was school committee. The year before, the Massachusetts Legislature had bowed to pressure from suffragists and agreed to let the commonwealth’s women have that limited franchise. It would take another 40 years for the 19th Amendment to pass recognizing women’s right to vote — or at least white women’s right to vote.
When Louisa May Alcott voted, though, she wasn’t the first woman in the commonwealth to cast a ballot. In a couple of small towns, women could already vote for school committee. Ashfield and Monroe let women serve on local school boards starting in 1868. Boston did the same in 1874.
Those votes for school committee would have to satisfy women for decades. The struggle for full access to the polls would continue until 1920. And even the small concession of letting women vote for school committee was too much for some. As activist Harriet Hanson Robinson, wrote, “it was thought to be a rash and dreadful act for a woman to appear at the polls, or near the ballot box, in company with the MEN.”
When Louisa May Alcott voted in 1880, the women’s suffrage movement had officially been in full swing for 32 years, ever since the first convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y.
Since then, it had gained steam, as a national Women’s Rights Convention took place in 1850 in Worcester, Mass., and the American Equal Rights Association met for the first time in Boston in 1866.
Louisa May Alcott and her entire family supported women’s suffrage along with a host of other reforms, including school reform, dietary reform and abolition of slavery.
In 1853, Louisa’s mother, Abby Alcott, drafted a petition demanding equal political rights for women in Massachusetts. In the 1870s she declared, “I am seventy-three, but I mean to go to the polls before I die, even if my daughters have to carry me.”
She never got the chance.
How Louisa May Alcott Voted
Louisa May Alcott showed she was her mother’s daughter when she signed letters, “Yours for reforms of all kinds.”
She supported the women’s suffrage movements by writing articles for The Woman’s Journal, the leading suffrage paper.
When Massachusetts let women vote for school committee, Louisa May Alcott went door-to-door to urge women to register. She also held meetings at her house.
When the great day arrived, she wrote, a group of 20 women, ‘mostly with husbands, fathers or brother’ appeared, ‘all in good spirits and not in the least daunted by the awful deed about to be done.’
After two hours of Town Meeting, the school committee vote came up. Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s father, suggested the women vote first. The women stood up and walked to the front of the hall.
The local newspaper reported, ‘many a feminine heart [palpitated] with excitement . . . in preparation for the trying ordeal of passing in front of . . . nearly 200 great horned men & boys to deposit their maiden vote.’
Some of the men thought it funny, she wrote. But when Louisa May Alcott voted with the other women, “No bolt fell on our audacious heads, no earthquake shook the town, but a pleasing surprise created a general outbreak of laughter and applause,” she wrote.
A Good Committee
Then came a surprise. The moderator announced the voting closed before the men could vote for school committee. The men, noted Louisa, seemed perturbed.
She thought it fair because the women couldn’t vote on any other issue.
One man consoled himself by saying it didn’t matter because the women voted the same way their husbands, fathers and brothers would have.
A defiant Louisa May Alcott concluded, “We elected a good school committee.”
She hoped more women would vote, but in 1883, only seven did.
Forty years later, on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect.
This story was updated in 2022.
Images: The Wayside by By Daderot at English Wikipedia – Photograph taken by me, July 4, 2005., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=221716.