As we mark the one-year anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington and the 20-sister marches in Texas this weekend, I am reminded of the dismay many of us felt in the aftermath of the 2016 election. But that day at the Women’s March in Austin, surrounded by thousands of women moved to action by the anti-woman, anti-immigrant, and racist campaign rhetoric that had culminated in the victory of Donald Trump, I was filled with an unexpected sense of hope.
In fact, the words that kept running through my mind as we marched came from my favorite childhood novel—one that I teach often— Little Women by Louisa May Alcott:
“Hope and keep busy.”
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 four “little women” were modeled after Alcott and her three sisters. Although the novel doesn’t mention it, her parents Bronson and Abigail Alcott were social reformers and abolitionists; their home in Concord, Massachusetts was part of the Underground Railroad.
Some may see Marmee’s word as an empty cliché to satisfy women and girls with no political power. But over the past year, I have come to realize that Marmee’s instructions to her young and frightened daughters hold wisdom for those of us who feel helpless in our current political moment. Indeed, “hope and keep busy” isn’t a platitude for the powerless, but a source of strength in these dark and daunting political times.
As a college professor at a small college, 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 let down by the political party they were raised in. In the spirit of Alcott, I tell all of them to be strong and brave, to “hope and keep busy.”
In response to my students’ worries, I’ve been teaching classes on 19th century American women writers like Alcott as models of moral courage in the face of political and social injustice. Angelina Grimké was the daughter of an influential judge and slave owner in Charleston, South Carolina. Outraged by slavery, she and her sister Sarah became Quaker abolitionists and moved to Philadelphia. Through their writing and speeches, they were some of the most powerful voices of the abolitionist movement.
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: read, pray, speak and 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 chaos and dysfunction they see in Washington, D.C. and Austin.
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. When the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act made it a felony to assist escaped slaves, decades of anti-slavery activism seemed futile.
And yet, American women writers always had hope, and they kept busy too! Harriet Beecher Stowe was opposed to slavery, but as a minister’s wife, she was hesitant to speak publicly about politics. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act changed her mind. In 1851, she wrote the incredibly popular abolitionist novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the book that many Union soldiers took with them as they marched off to fight in the Civil War.
The real-life Jo from “Little Women,” Louisa May Alcott, “kept busy” during the Civil War by serving as a nurse for the Union Army. There are any number of American women of letters who joined the ranks of Alcott, Stowe, and the Grimké sisters: Sojourner Truth, Lydia Maria Child, and Harriet Jacobs. 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 students say that studying these women writers makes them feel “safe and comforted” in our uncertain political moment. All of these women writers believed in the democratic institutions of the United States, even when our country’s promises seemed distant and impossible. As we gather to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the historical 2017 Women’s March, these women’s writing and lives remind us that those who “hope and keep busy” engage in a profound act of resistance in dark political times.
Dr. Randi Lynn Tanglen is associate professor of English at Austin College in Sherman. This article represents her individual views, not those of Austin College. She can be contacted at email@example.com.