Louisa May Alcott, spinster, wrote an essay to challenge the prevailing wisdom that a woman needed a husband to be happy. It was Valentine’s Day, 1868.
She called the piece called Happy Women. In it, she profiled old maids like herself.
Louisa May Alcott, Spinster
At 35 years old, Louisa May Alcott lived in a small room on Boylston Street in Boston. She eked out a living writing under the nom de plume A.M. Barnard. In another three months she would start writing Little Women — reluctantly – one of the most popular international best-sellers in history.
Her life until then had been a struggle, growing up under the moral surveillance of her improvident father. To help support her family she had taken a series of low-paying jobs available to women at the time. She had gotten sick five years earlier while volunteering as a Civil War nurse in Washington, D.C., and had suffered poor health since then.
By 1868, Louisa May Alcott, spinster, was feeling pretty good.
“I am in my little room, spending busy, happy days, because I have quiet, freedom, work enough, and strength to do it,” she wrote on New Year’s Day in 1868. Her dream was to support her family and become perfectly independent.
She began Happy Women noting that,
One of the trials of woman-kind is the fear of being an old maid. To escape this dreadful doom, young girls rush into matrimony with a recklessness which astonishes the beholder; never pausing to remember that the loss of liberty, happiness, and self-respect is poorly repaid by the barren honor of being called “Mrs.” instead of “Miss.”
She profiled happy, productive old maids: a homeopathic physician, Rhoda Lawrence; a Boston reformer, Hannah Stevenson; and herself — ‘Miss A.’ ‘Miss A’ was a woman of ‘strongly individual type’ who has seen so much of the tragedy of modern married life that she was afraid to try it.
Feb. 14, 1868
Did Louisa May Alcott, spinster, protest too much? Read her journal entry for Valentine’s Day 1868 and decide for yourself:
Friday, 14th.–My third hyacinth bloomed this a.m., a lovely pink. So I found things snug, and had a busy day chasing––who dodged. Then I wrote my tales. Made some shirts for my boys, and went out to buy a squash pie for my lonely supper. It snowed; was very cold. No one paid, and I wanted to send some money home. Felt cross and tired as I trudged back at dusk. My pie turned a somersault, a boy laughed, so did I, and felt better.
On my doorstep I found a gentleman who asked if Miss A. lived here. I took him up my winding stair and found him a very delightful fly, for he handed me a letter out of which fell a $100 bill. With this bait Mr. B. lured me to write “one column of Advice to Young Women,” as Mrs. Shaw and others were doing. If he had asked me for a Greek oration I would have said “yes.” So I gave a receipt, and the very elegant agent bowed himself away, leaving my “‘umble” bower full of perfume, and my soul of peace.
Thriftily taking advantage of the enthusiastic moment, I planned my article while I ate my dilapidated pie, and then proceeded to write it with the bill before me. It was about old maids. “Happy Women” was the title, and I put in my list all the busy, useful, independent spinsters I know, for liberty is a better husband than love to many of us. This was a nice little episode in my trials of an authoress, so I record it.
So the pink hyacinth was a true prophet, and I went to bed a happy millionaire, to dream of flannel petticoats for my blessed Mother, paper for Father, a new dress for May, and sleds for my boys.
With thanks to Alternative Alcott ed. by Elaine Showalter. This story about Louisa May Alcott was updated in 2023.