Date of Award

Spring 1996

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Cynthia Gannett


By the mid nineteenth century, Americans were increasingly recognizing the need for public education and literacy for all citizens if the United States was to survive, if not thrive. In addition, new industries and technologies were developed that would slowly transform the agrarian New England landscape into a terrain of mill towns and manufacturing sites. The industrialization of New England altered family life, as well, and lead to the rise of the "motherteacher" ideology, a cultural paradigm that profoundly influenced discussions of childrearing and public education in the United States.

This dissertation examines the motherteaching of three famous nineteenth-century figures, Bronson, Abby, and Louisa May Alcott, in their public and private lives. In particular, I examine their attitudes toward literacy and moral education. The Alcotts promoted what literary historian Richard Brodhead terms "disciplinary intimacy" as a means of instructing children in proper behavior and parentally sanctioned values. My dissertation focuses on the potent relationship between literacy, maternal authority and discipline as it was envisioned and acted upon by Bronson, Abby and Louisa May Alcott.

Chapter one of the dissertation traces the origins of the motherteacher paradigm and examines in detail the best-selling childrearing manual The Mother At Home written by John S. C. Abbott in 1833. Chapter two examines the early teaching career of Bronson Alcott in Cheshire, Connecticut and the motherteaching methods he used in his classroom. Chapter three focuses on the reactions of several of Bronson's young students to his attempts to establish disciplinary intimacy through personal correspondence and journal keeping. Chapter four shifts the discussion to Abby Alcott as motherteacher and examines her contributions to education reform, as well as the ways in which she shaped her daughter Louisa's writing voice. The final chapter traces the teaching career and writing life of Louisa and explores how she used Little Women as a vehicle to promote and revise the motherteacher paradigm she inherited from her parents.

Originally published in DAI Vol. 57, No. 4. Reprinted here with corrected author name.