“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”

Angelina Emily Grimke.jpg

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”

Image result for sojourner truth

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”

Image result for parkland students face the nation

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.




Teaching Women and Transcendentalism


Part 2 of “Pedagogical Lessons from the Transcendentalists: 2017 NEH Summer Institute in Concord”

In Part 1 of this PALS blog post about the NEH Summer Institute on “Transcendentalism and Reform in the Age of Emerson, Thoreau, and Fuller,” I admitted that a hyper-vigilant “hermeneutics of suspicion” had kept me from regularly teaching male Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in my American literature classes. I instead focused on incorporating marginalized nineteenth-century women and minority writers into my syllabi in order to expose students to a diverse and inclusive canon of American literature.

But the NEH Summer Institute at Concord made me aware of female Transcendentalist voices that will change the way I teach all of my nineteenth-century American literature courses. Not only will I integrate women writers such as Mary Moody Emerson into my courses as significant writers in their own right, knowing more about women and Transcendentalism will also change how I teach canonical male authors such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

(Note: Since Margaret Fuller is regularly taught and studied and her major bearing on Transcendentalism is commonly acknowledged, in this post I will focus on female writers and thinkers who have received less recognition.)

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Page from Mary Moody Emerson’s “Almanack”

Mary Moody Emerson: Proto-Transcendentalist

Mary Moody Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aunt, was a significant influence on his thinking and writing. She was born in 1774 and, in the spirit of the later Transcendentalists, was a self-educated woman. For over fifty years she kept extensive journals that she called her “Almanacks” which “offer a rare and prolific example of early American women’s scholarly production.” As a matter of fact, her nephew regarded his aunt’s Almanacks as a vast register of her intellect and often borrowed and recopied the thread-bound fascicles into his own journals. The Almanacks were so important to him that he kept them after her death; they were eventually donated with his papers to Harvard’s Houghton Library.

The Almanacks were overlooked in the archives for decades until feminist scholars such as Phyllis Cole, Sandra Petrulionis, and Noelle Baker started giving them the scholarly attention they deserve. Petrulionis and Baker are in the process of creating an online edited edition of the Almanacks, which can be accessed through Women Writers Online as an excellent teaching resource.

Mary Moody Emerson’s thoughts in the Alamacks herald some of concepts that we tend to recognize as “original” to Emerson and Thoreau (who respected and admired his mentor’s aunt) decades before the men came on the scene. Her 1804 comment, “In communion with trees, with streams and stars and suns, man finds his own glory inskribed on every flower and sparkling in every beam,” predicts the basic Transcendentalist notion that nature is metaphor and microcosm of existence. Decades later, in 1836, her nephew would echo in his now-famous essay “Nature,” “Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts? The world is emblematic.”

In 1806, after viewing a total solar eclipse, Mary Moody Emerson joyfully wrote in her Almanack:

[T]he winds were hushed as if in awe–the birds screamed with what rapt devotion did I view my Makers hand–Oh how forgotten are the vanitis & sorrows of life at grand appearances! … I sunk into life and walked & lost the afternoon.

Mary Moody Emerson’s notion that the natural world can give such perspective and meaning to human experiences, would, of course, be simulated by Thoreau much later in Walden, in 1851: “We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”

Mary Moody Emerson can be taught as an intellectual precursor to Emerson and Thoreau and as an example of the how women are all too often dropped from intellectual and literary history. But she can also be taught on her own terms, as a remarkable writer and thinker, and as a case for the importance of continued feminist archival recovery.


Collection box for Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society

Activist Sisters and Aunts

Although remembered for their role as moral arbiters and public intellectuals, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson slowly came to their anti-slavery attitudes and activism through the women in their families and social circles. According to Thoreau biographer Laura Dassow Walls, “Concord’s antislavery activists were led by women, including all the women in Thoreau’s family.” In 1835, Concord’s Female Anti-Slavery Society’s founding members included Thoreau’s sisters Sophia and Helen, Emerson’s wife Lidian, and many extended family members and friends. These women were also involved with the Middlesex County Anti-Slavery Society, which was responsible for bringing Frederick Douglass to Concord and raising funds for John Brown.

While the women in Transcendental circles were the instigators of Concord’s abolitionist movement, as women they  were barred from speaking in public. Long after their female family members and friends had exposed them to abolitionist activism, Thoreau and Emerson both eventually adopted antislavery attitudes and used their writing and speeches as opportunities to speak out on the issue. Emerson’s take was more tempered “Emancipation in the British West Indies” (1844) and then more bold with his “Seventh of March Speech on the Fugitive Slave Law” (1854). Thoreau was known for his public support and defense of radical abolitionist John Brown with this essays “Slavery in Massachusetts” (1854)and “A Plea for Captain John Brown” (1859).

When we teach Emerson and Thoreau as strong voices for the abolitionist movement, we can remind students that while the women of Concord may not have left great oratory and treatises behind, their voices and moral influence exist nonetheless in the works of their male counterparts.



Louisa May Alcott

Transcendentalism’s Female Skeptics

Women in the Transcendentalist movement also functioned as skeptics and cautionary voices. Louisa May Alcott, daughter of Bronson Alcott, wrote “Transcendental Wild Oats” (1873) a scathing satire of her family’s winter at Fruitlands, a Transcendental Utopian community not far from Concord. Fruitlands was established in 1843 by Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, and the Alcott family lived there for one winter when Alcott was a girl. Alcott’s story tells of the toll that male idealism takes on the minds, souls, and lived experiences of women. The men in the story spend their time in tedious esoteric debates, while the character based on Alcott’s mother, Abba Alcott, works to keep the household and family afloat. When a storm threatens the farm’s crop, “Some call of the Oversoul wafted all the men away,” and the women and children have to save the harvest.

Like the Alcott family, the family in the story faces a crisis when the father loses his spirit after the failure of the community, but the mother keeps the family together. The Alcott family eventually moved back to Concord after their sojourn at Fruitlands, where the girls grew up in Orchard House, the setting of the novel that would eventually make Louisa May Alcott famous, Little Women. “Transcendental Wild Oats” reminds us that Alcott can be taught not only in the traditions of the domestic and sentimental novel and popular literature but also in the context of Transcendentalism.

Lidian Jackson Emerson was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s second wife. (He changed her name to “Lidian” from “Lydia” upon their marriage in 1835.) Although she was supportive of her husband and his career, she worried about his deviation from Christian religious orthodoxy as a Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist leader. In her “Transcendental Bible,” she lampoons the lofty intellectual aims of Transcendentalism that sometimes privilege the soul and mind over the concerns of the heart:

If you have refused all sympathy of the sorrowful, all pity and aid to the sick, all toleration to the infirm of character, if you have condemned the intellectual and loathed such sinners as have discovered want of intellect by their sin, then are you a perfect specimen of Humanity.

Let us aspire after this Perfection! So be it.

In spite of such sharp critique, “Emerson admired Lidian’s independence of mind, and…even claimed he borrowed many of his ideas from her.” He called her “Transcendental Bible” “The Queen’s Bible” after his pet name for her, “Queenie.”

Both of these pieces are short, accessible, and very teachable.They may lead to more nuanced discussions of the Transcendentalists, as these female critics provide a voice for students who may approach Transcendentalism skeptically. At the same time, more reproachful points-of-view allows for a more well rounded approach to teaching male Transcendentalist authors to students who might overly and uncritically valorize them.

The forgotten history of women in the Transcendentalist movement reveals women writers, intellectuals, and activists who provided influence, ideas, and inspiration to the movement. Indeed, their lives and writing provide important new content and contexts for teaching nineteenth-century American literature.