Holiday Musings: The Author Who Told Girls It Was OK to Run



"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" begins Little Women, likely the most beloved and certainly one of the most influential books in American literature. The remark by Jo March, one of the most emulated heroines for girls around the world for the last century and a half, speaks to a certain temporary void for a family of four girls during the straitened times of the Civil War, but Jo could also point to a huge amount of other items that were mainly missing from the lives of women at the time. One of them was running.

A New England native (mainly Massachusetts around Boston) author Louisa May Alcott was a campaigner and spokesperson for a number of causes during her lifetime including the abolition of slavery, women's right to vote and get an education, and the temperance movement against alcohol abuse. She served as a nurse near the front lines for a while during the Civil War, and also spent time working as a teacher and governess, but it was as a writer that she earned fame with a career that started with her accounts of working in a Union hospital and then spun off into stories for women's journals and sensationalist thrillers and detective novels for a variety of publications.

So how did Alcott become such a major and seminal figure in the push for women's running, a movement that would only fitfully start to gain wide acceptance a century after the publication of Little Women in 1868? When asked by the editor of a publishing house to write a book for the newly blossoming field of girls' literature, Alcott eschewed the florid and sentimental style of the preachy girls' books of the times and instead pumped out a work based around her own family of four sisters and wrote it in a straight-talking realistic style that encouraged girls to dream big and to challenge the conventions that limited their horizons.

Alcott was a tomboy who enjoyed galloping around the family farm in her youth, and she never stopped her jogging excursions as an adult till near her death in 1888. True, she may have been trying to escape her hordes of overeager visiting fans on a lot of those runs, but her treks occurred at a time when respectable women did not hit the trails. Jo who is Alcott's alter ego in Little Women is cut from the same mold not only in her ambition to be a writer but also in her love of running. Among the passages relating to her running are, "Jo's ambition was to do something very splendid. . . . and meanwhile found her greatest affliction in the fact that she couldn't read, run, and ride as much as she liked," and after a bit of a race with her guy friend Laurie, "I wish I was a horse, then I could run for miles in this splendid air, and not lose my breath." Not only did Alcott galvanize generations of women writers with her prose, but she also promoted the idea that running was good for them.

Jo was a monumental inspiration to countless young women, and many likely shared her running ambitions at least as girls, but alas, the idea that women could be permitted to exert themselves in such a non-ladylike activity as running was largely stifled by restrictive social conventions and the governing authorities of the sports world who fought to confine women to a few more-accepted activities such as tennis, golf, croquet, swimming, and skating (upright fashion) in limited competitions. Women at colleges such as Vassar (image below) held occasional field day competitions, and AAU meets provided some competitions at lower distances. The Olympics heads kept women out of sustained participation in any running activity beyond a sprint until 1960,  and the first distant event was not added until 1972, with Jo's dream of running for miles finally added in 1996 with the 5K. High school sports for girls had a start in the 1920s and then disappeared at the end of the decade due to a variety of adverse circumstances. 


A CT girl who famously played Jo in one of the countless movie adaptations of Little Women (1933) and was cut from the same mold was Katherine Hepburn. She drank in the role and gave it back out in a slam-bang tomboy-gone-wild manner that in her own mind won her the Academy Award (though officially it was for the less memorable Morning Glory of the same year). Of her own girlhood, she stated, "I could outdive, outswim, outrun most of the boys around me." It would take around 40 years before any girl in high school would be able to say she could outrun most of the boys on the team, but the day would finally come. And indeed, in the latest adaptation of Little Women on screen in 2019, Saorise Ronan as Jo has an exuberant running scene after selling an initial piece of writing early on.

So yeah, women's running now rules. And that's a present that brings cheer for any Christmas.