“Hope and Keep Busy”: Teaching American Women Writers as Models of Moral Courage in Dark Political Times


After the election of 2016, like many educators, I had to challenge my previous assumptions about teaching and students. As a progressive educator, I had always believed in the human capacity to change and grow through knowledge, empathy, and education. But a presidential campaign based on anti-woman, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric had culminated in the victory of Donald Trump. In the face of the election’s outcomes and the subsequent attacks on vulnerable American populations that followed, my previous pedagogical assumptions seemed naïve and ill-informed. Yet even as I grappled to find my pedagogical way in this new world, the words that kept running through my mind were from my favorite childhood novel—one that I teach often— Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:

“Hope and keep busy.”

In the novel, Marmee comforts her four daughters with these words when she must rush to her dangerously ill husband, a Union chaplain in the Civil War. The 1869 novel’s “little women” were based on Alcott and her three sisters. Although the novel doesn’t mention it, Alcott’s parents Bronson and Abigail Alcott were social reformers and abolitionists; their home was part of the Underground Railroad. Alcott herself was involved with the Women’s Suffrage Movement and was the first woman to register to vote in Concord, Massachusetts.

As a professor at a small college in Texas, this past year I often encountered students who are worried about the loss of LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, immigrant rights, and Civil Rights in general. Some students feel lost and let down by the Republican Party, the political party they were raised in. In the aftermath of the election and to this day, I don’t know what to tell students when they come to me with these concerns or bring them up in class discussion. But in the spirit of Alcott, I tell all of my students to be strong and brave, to “hope and keep busy.”

Before the election of 2016, I had cynically taught Marmee’s words in the context of the “cult of true womanhood” and separate spheres ideology. “Hope and keep busy,” I would tell my students, was a platitude to satisfy nineteenth-century women and children with little political power and influence. But over the past year, I have come to see Marmee’s instructions as wisdom for those of us who feel disconsolate by our current political moment. To “hope and keep busy” is to believe in a better future and to fearlessly endeavor toward it, even if you are not sure of the outcome.

In response to my students’ worries, over the past year I have been intentionally teaching nineteenth-century American women writers like Alcott as models of moral courage and political empowerment in the face of political and social injustice. Many women writers from this time period were active in abolitionist and women’s rights activism and writing. In a previous PALS blog post, I wrote about “Rise Up! Protest and Dissent in American Literature,” a very popular 200-level topics course for English majors and minors that also fulfills a general education requirement for non-majors. I am currently teaching a class for English majors on nineteenth-century social reform movements and literature. I’ve also had the chance to speak about some of the writers featured below at community fora and an International Women’s Day teach-in on my campus.

Angelina and Sarah Grimké: “Read, Pray, Speak, Act”

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Students are consistently inspired by the words of Angelina and Sarah Grimké. The two sisters were daughters of an influential judge and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina. Outraged by slavery, they became abolitionists and moved to Philadelphia. Through their writing and speeches, they were some of the most powerful voices of the abolitionist movement. They initially spoke only to female audiences, but when men joined their audiences the Grimkés received censure and criticism. This lead to their advocacy for and involvement in the women’s rights movement as well.

Several of their most significant pamphlets are included in the Heath Anthology of American Literature and are easily accessible for classroom use. In her 1836 pamphlet An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South, Angelina Grimké provided four interconnected strategies that women could use to fight slavery:

1) Read

2) Pray

3) Speak

4) Act

Because I teach at an institution with a religious tradition and an emphasis on service, my students see the relevance of Grimké’s words to the social justice issues they care about today. Students comment that Grimké’s advice to be informed and reflective makes their activism and political involvement intentional and structured, a contrast to the mayhem and dysfunction they see in Washington, D.C. and the state capital of Austin. To them, Grimké’s words mean 1) First, educate yourself on the issue; 2) Then reflect by connecting your fears and hopes about the issue to your own values or a “higher power”; 3) Next, foster dialogue with your family, friends, and others in your sphere of influence; 4) And finally, take action in your community by contacting lawmakers, protesting, and volunteering.

Grimké’s pamphlet was burned in the south, and the Charleston police warned that if the sisters ever returned, they would be greeted by—and not protected from— violent mobs. Things only got worse for the abolitionist movement after that with the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the events leading up to the Civil War; yet the Grimké sisters remained committed to the abolitionist movement and women’s rights causes.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How did the Grimkés’ religious commitments inform their writing and activism?
  2. What does “Read, Pray, Speak, Act” mean to you? Is this an effective political strategy in the present day?
  3. How would the Grimké sisters respond to today’s social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March on Washington?

Sojourner Truth: “Make This Nation Rock Like a Cradle”

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Sojourner Truth was a formerly enslaved woman and a vociferous abolitionist and women’s rights activist. She was the first black woman to win a court case against a white man when she sued for her son’s freedom. During a speech in 1858, an audience member accused her of being a man, so she opened her blouse and showed her breasts. Truth was a deeply religious woman whose millennial vision for an ideal world informed her activism. Throughout her life, she worked as an itinerant preacher to tell the “Truth” of the Christian gospel and work against injustice and inequality.

Truth is most known for her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech, an extemporaneous oration she gave at the Women’s Right Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth demands equal human rights for all women, including black women. She identifies the intersection of race, slavery, and gender in her critique of national inequality:

Nobody eber halps me into carriages, or ober mudpuddles, or gibs me any best place! [….] I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off the slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ar’n’t I a woman?

Truth had not been invited to the Women’s Right’s Convention and was not on the program due to tension between black and white women in the abolitionist and women’s movements. Because she could not read or write, white women later rewrote Truth’s story, including multiple transcriptions of her famous speech. Indeed, teaching “Ain’t I a Woman” as a literary text raises pedagogical questions about cultural appropriation, textual mediation, and issues of white privilege that students see as relevant and ongoing in the present day.

After the Civil War, Truth worked in the Freedman’s Village of Washington D.C. When threatened with arrest for this work, she said she would “make this nation rock like a cradle.” Teaching Truth’s life and work as a model of moral courage encourages students to think deeply about the United States’s legacy of slavery, racism, and sexism and the tensions between idealism and activism.

Questions for class discussion:

  1. How can Truth’s experiences as a black woman, a former slave, an anti-slavery activist, and a women’s rights advocate offer us insight into our own experiences?
  2. What did it mean for Truth to “speak truth to power”?
  3. How can Truth’s positive and negative relationships with white women help us see a better way for race relations in the present day?

Today’s Students: “Structure to the Chaos”

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There are any number of American women of letters who joined the ranks of Alcott, the Grimké sisters, and Sojourner Truth: Lydia Maria Child, Harriet Jacobs, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, just to name a few. All of these women writers used their voices and the written word to point out the nation’s flaws and injustices and imagine “a more perfect union.”

My once despondent students have been heartened by the influence of these writers’ thoughtful and committed activism over the past year, and especially by the outcome of the December Senate race in Alabama and the recent activism and voice of Parkland, Florida student Emma Gonzalez. But through the study of earlier activists and writers, they now realize that change comes slowly and there is still work to be done. Many of my students have said that learning about the perseverance of these women writers makes them feel “safe and comforted” and brings “structure to the chaos” of today’s unpredictable political news cycle.

The students find it encouraging that all of these women writers believed in the democratic institutions of the United States, even when our country’s promises seemed distant and unachievable. The lives and writing of these American women provide students with examples of moral courage and remind us that those who “hope and keep busy” engage in a profound act of pedagogical resistance in our daunting political times.

Questions for classroom discussion:

  1. What do these authors have in common with present-day protest writers and activists such as Claudia Rankine and Emma Gonzalez?
  2. What did these writers have at stake? Do you think they worried about the outcome?
  3. Which quote from the readings makes you feel better about the future? Is there a quote that helps you see your present-day situation more clearly?

Questions for pedagogical reflection:

  1. Has the election of 2016 changed the way you teach specific authors, texts, and courses?
  2. Is it appropriate to promote students’ personal development—along with their intellectual development—in American literature courses? How do you do this? Through class discussion? Reflective essay prompts? Other strategies?
  3. How is the framework of “moral courage” applicable to other authors you teach? What does this pedagogical approach allow us and our students to see in the literature that other approaches might overlook?

Note: This blog post is based on an opinion article published in the Dallas Morning News. Click here to read that article.




From an English Major: Reflections on Two Undergrad Classroom Experiences

PALS Note: We are super excited to interrupt your summer break for a post by Christna Stubbs. Stubbs is a recent graduate of the University of The Bahamas and will be attending Acadia University for graduate school in the fall. In this post, she writes about some of the classroom activities that stood out to her the most as an undergrad. This is a new perspective for the blog, and we welcome the commentary from our students. 

As I sat, thinking about the thousands of things I could write about regarding this topic, I was forced to reminisce on my past classroom experiences. I literally mulled over in my mind the very first class I took as a fresh-faced freshman, to the last one I took as seasoned senior. Thinking back on that period of my life as an undergrad, I find myself remembering my “AHA” moments…You know those moments, right? The moments in class when you become excited about the text you’re studying. It’s like a lightbulb goes off in your head after days, or sometimes weeks of feeling like you’re sitting in class with a highly decorated dunce cap on your head, or “I don’t understand” tattooed across your forehead.


After these “AHA” moments, you FINALLY understand why the lecturer was so excited when she introduced the text on the first day, and why she looked so disappointed when the class didn’t seem to share her initial excitement. The text somehow becomes more than just another text that you have to read or write about, or pretend to like in order to appease your lecturer (you students know what I’m talking about); it resonates with you, it becomes one of those texts that you know you will always remember.


It’s those “AHA” moments that reminded me of why I love literature in the first place. When I think about the classes I took in the past that allowed for those experiences to occur, in contrast to the classes that made me want to die of boredom, I realized a few really noticeable differences. So, I decided, (after days of brainstorming!) why not take you through two of my experiences as an undergrad student? I want to talk to you guys about what took place in the classroom that influenced one of my “AHA” moments, and what occurred in another classroom that simply didn’t make the cut.

So, without further ado…let’s dive in!




Before I say anything else, let me assure you that I really do love British Literature, and I appreciate all that I learned in this particular course. However, I just don’t recall ever having any “AHA” moments in this class, and here’s why:

As a class, we were never given any tools/exercises that encouraged us to engage with the texts.

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Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that all lecturers are obligated to come up with clever ways to make the literature more appealing to their students, but I must say that it can make the world of difference. (Take it from a student.) At the time, I really could not fathom why I always felt disconnected from the lectures or discussions. I somehow always felt out of the loop, and it took a toll on my confidence as a student. As a sophomore, I began to rethink my decision to study English because of my inability to fully understand or connect with the material that we studied in this particular class. When I think back on that experience, I honestly believe that I felt this way because as a class we were never really given any tools that would encourage us to engage with the readings. Class time often consisted of the lecturer beginning with a detailed biography of the author, moving onto a lecture on the reading. We usually wrapped up with the lecturer asking everyone about their thoughts on the lecture (which many of us never had)…it was all very methodical. Rigid even.


Apart from this routine, we were never really given a chance to engage closely with the text. It may have been different if our lecturer might have begun class-time by asking everyone how they felt that the reading could possibly connect to their lives? For instance, our class consisted largely of black, postcolonial students, and up to that point, many of us had taken at least two levels of West Indian Literature, in which we were to read at least five postcolonial texts per semester. Because of our rich background in postcolonial literature, and also being products of a postcolonial society, it would have been nice if we were given the freedom to discuss how reading British Literature made us feel, since it was a huge colonizing force. Did we come to class with any preconceived notions about some of the authors because of our exposure to postcolonialism? Did we feel disdain when we read it? Were we able to appreciate it in any way? Did we want to cringe when we found out that Wordsworth would be on the reading list for the semester? Simple questions like these would have been really great exercises that compelled us to engage more with a lot of the readings that we were assigned. I think if we were given tools like these, or similar to these, class-time would have been a lot less anxiety-ridden, and drawn-out.

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Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy most of the readings, but they were just that…readings that I enjoyed. I was never able to engage with the texts apart from the usual themes that are usually explored or explained. Now, I do think that it’s wonderful to enjoy the texts that you read in class, but I believe that it is even more wonderful to learn something from the texts that you read. I think a text should teach you something– about life, about the people around you, or about yourself; a text should challenge you, and make you look at the world in a way that you never would have thought about looking at it before. Because we were not allowed the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the readings in this class, most of the class-time felt like a race against the clock. I think I spent more time looking at my watch and thinking about what I would be eating for lunch than trying to understand the material. While I did always appreciate the lectures and discussions (the parts I were able to fathom, at least), I believe that if we were given exercises that compelled us to engage with the text, or think about it in a way that different from the usual, maybe class-time would have been a bit more enthusing. Who knows, I may have had an “AHA” moment?




The very first day that we opened Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy in my Caribbean Women Writers class, I was honestly unimpressed.

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I couldn’t get why everyone kept runnin’ on bout dis Lucy book. Translation from Bahamian English: “I could not understand why everyone kept praising the Lucy book”. I felt like Lucy covered the same old themes that we discussed about Kincaid’s work in previous classes. Nothing new or original stood out to me about the text. My lecturer, however, who so graciously wanted us to appreciate the book as much as she did, began class by eagerly asking each person what they thought of the text. I bit my tongue, not wanting to disappoint her or sound like a killjoy, but chose to speak up after a few gruelling minutes,“It honestly didn’t do much for me.” And that was the truth at the time.


Some of the other students seemed to think otherwise, but it’s safe to say that most of us shared the same sentiments. Thankfully, my lecturer did not look the least bit disappointed, but continued to discuss various themes that we would cover throughout the semester. I honestly left class that day eager to move on to the other texts that were scheduled on the syllabus.

Little did I know, my lecturer was cooking up ways to force us to really engage with the text, and by the next class, she didn’t care to ask us if we had a change of heart overnight, but instead instructed everyone to take out a copy of the text. This is one of the first things that made this classroom experience amazing—a simple exercise that my lecturer introduced to the class. This exercise not only changed the way we all engaged with the text, but it inspired discussions that simply could not end, even after the semester was over.

Our lecturer had us read through the very first chapter of Lucy quietly, making us highlight whatever colour that we noticed. My first reaction was…Huh? Colours? What does that have to do with anything?…. but I did it anyway, and the results were mind-boggling. After highlighting the colours that stood out, she asked us to look at the colours pointed out in chapter one, and think about the moments in the text where these colours reappeared. Can they represent something more than what we see at first glance?


I remember looking down at the words that I highlighted, “pale yellow,” and I thought long and hard about the moments in the text where this colour yellow resurfaced—half listening to the array of colours that my classmates pointed out and explained.


I can still recall sitting there, fighting with myself, trying hard to remember that one moment…then something clicked to me, and guess what guys? I became excited, like super excited. This was the beginning of my “AHA” moment. I could not remember the last time I was so excited to discuss a revelation that I had in the classroom. I eagerly raised my hand, and explained (with giddy pride) that Kincaid used pale-yellow to describe the appearance of the sun in America on Lucy’s first day as an au pair. She described it as being “pale-yellow, as if the sun had grown weak from trying too hard to shine; but still sunny” (5). I vigorously turned to middle of the book where this pale-yellow colour emerged again, describing what seemed to be an aura of sunlight that enveloped the character Mariah, the mother of the children that Lucy cared for. Now guys, at this point, I had disregarded the character of Mariah…I mean like completely wrote her off, simply because I didn’t think her character had any depth worth exploring.


However, after I thought about the re-appearance of the pale-yellow colour, and connected it to the character. I realized that just like that pale-yellow sun tried hard to shine, Mariah tried hard to live a perfect life, although it really was not perfect. I knew, even after giving that answer that I was barely scraping the surface, and I wanted to know more. This pale-yellow colour could mean something so much deeper than I thought. I don’t think I would have ever begun to understand the character of Mariah without my lecturer compelling us to think about what the colours meant. I became so engrossed with this pale-yellow colour and its connection to Mariah that I wrote my first paper of that semester on the topic.

Now, while this colour exercise initiated my “AHA” moment, I think that my classmates polished it off for me. Because we were all so excited about our revelations after the colour exercise, we became eager to discuss other aspects of the text, like Lucy’s actions towards her friends and Mariah. Some of my classmates thought that Lucy was just a messed up, angry person; however, after sharing our own experiences and attempting to place ourselves in Lucy’s shoes, most, if not everyone in the class felt as though they could relate to Lucy’s experience as not only a black individual, but one whose actions were a result of her disdain for colonialist ideology. As products of a postcolonial society, many of us, like Lucy were bombarded with colonial ideals. Like Lucy, we were taught to adore flowers that never once bloomed in our native land, and like Lucy, we were praised when we spoke “proper” English, because our native tongue, Bahamian English “implied ignorance”. Because of this, we understood Lucy’s decision to leave home at the beginning of the text. We didn’t see it as her being selfish, or disobedient to her mother—we saw it as her desire for autonomy—to define herself on her own terms, not on the terms that her mother (who constantly imposed on Lucy colonial ideologies and ideals), sought to define for her. Living in a society where colonial ideologies are still pervasive, we all agreed that it somehow made sense for Lucy to leave home. We knew that the longer she stayed, the easier it would be for her to conform to the colonial ideals that she sought to flee. We were even better able to understand the somewhat cold, and indifferent life that she lived. We could almost empathize with Lucy, despite these personality flaws, because we knew that her actions were a result of her desire to reject everything that her colonial counterparts sought to impose upon her. We no longer looked at Lucy as an angry, promiscuous character; she became more of a comrade, someone who we could understand, despite some of the bizarre things that she did. Like Lucy, we refuse to be mentally enslaved to the ideals that our forefathers fought to free us from. Like Lucy, we wished not to be controlled by the oppressive ideologies of our colonial pasts. Because we became so connected to Lucy as a character, many days, we left the classroom feeling inspired and united—all with a similar purpose, to refuse to be controlled by ideologies that permeated our society (like Lucy) and live life to the fullest. This here was the polishing off my “AHA” moment—being able to discuss the text with classmates that just got it. They understood my struggles, and we were all able to connect with Lucy because she too shared a lot of those struggles.

Now, when I see my copy of Lucy sitting on my book-shelf, I smile. I think about my role as a postcolonial individual, I think about the fact that I could see a small glimpse myself in Lucy. Most importantly, I think about the simple colour exercise that my passionate lecturer thought of, and my amazing classmates—both of which made my smile possible.



I can probably talk about my classroom experiences for about 100 pages, but I’m on a word limit here guys. So, I guess I’ll just wrap up by saying that although they may seem trivial, utilizing simple exercises in a classroom to encourage students to engage with a text can make a break a student. This couldn’t be more true for me. When I thought about the “AHA” moments that I experienced during my undergrad career, I realized that they almost always occurred because of simple exercises that my lecturers thought of. These exercises changed the way that I not only viewed the literature that I studied but fostered a class environment that allowed myself and my fellow classmates to feel comfortable enough to both express ourselves and connect with the texts that we read and each other.

As I transition into my graduate career this fall, I truly hope that these exercises aren’t forgotten, because I believe that it is these very same simple exercises that pave the way for many of our “AHA” moments.

Contributor Bio:

11076246_10155439349135397_5313472970728128444_n (1)I recently graduated from the University of The Bahamas with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I will be attending Acadia University in the Fall to pursue my Master of Arts in English. I am an avid blogger, and I’m interested in Postcolonial and Children’s Literature, as well as literature that explores themes regarding Gender and Sexuality.