Inspired from the Past

July 24, 2010

Both my work and my avocation frequently bring me into contact with historical materials.

Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some items from a woman writer who lived in the early part of the twentieth century. It has been fascinating to me to read her letters and her actual writings, to see her working process – scribbles, scratches, and all – and to recognize a fellow female writer across time.

I don’t know much about her. [name witheld for both personal and professional reasons]  She’s no major novelist or playwright or poet that I can tell. But that makes her the more admirable, to me.

I’ve read her rejection letters. “Not for us at this time.”  “Does not meet our needs.” “Our readers would have been interested last year, but now it is passe.”  And then the rejection letter with a dash of encouragement tossed in: “Oh, but do send us something again. Perhaps something with a little more plot?”  That made me laugh out loud – but I can only imagine how sad and frustrating it must have been for the author.

She clearly continued to write. That spunk to continue to write, despite the rejections, I find inspiring. It is obvious it was her passion. I think I would have liked to have known her. She seems like she may have been a suffragist. She was a career woman – in a time when most women did not have careers. It seems like she must have traveled, too.

It has been fun looking at her writings and correspondence, because even though she is long gone and probably unremembered (she had no family), I feel it is a privilege to learn more about her, and be inspired by her work and her persistance and tenacity – even if she never did make it big.

That tells me writing is ALWAYS worth it!

© writingreading, 2010

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Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #5 – Jackie Cochran

January 17, 2010

Oh sure, we’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart  – and even before the recent movie, many people would at least recognize her name as a famous aviatrix.

But a contemporary of hers was in many ways even more famous. In the late 1930s, she broke record after record. And not just in women’s categories. In 1938, for instance, she won the Bendix cross-country race, even beating out the men, becoming the first woman pilot to do so. After World War II, she kept flying, and became the first female to break the sound barrier in 1953.

Although impressive, these accomplishments are not Cochran’s most important. She – almost single-handedly – helped bring about the establishment of the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II.  Initially resistant to the idea, Cochran persuaded Gen. Hap Arnold and Eleanor and Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt to make her idea a reality.

More than 1,000 women served in the WASPs, mostly as ferry pilots. These pilots flew all sorts of airplanes – bombers, fighters, trainers – all over the country, from one base to another. They made a valuable contribution to the war effort, freeing up men to be sent overseas for more hazardous duty, and demonstrating that women could be just as effective pilots as the men. They were not officially part of the Army Air Corps, and therefore did not receive military benefits like their male counterparts. Even if they died in the line of WASP duty – the government would not pay for their body to be returned home or buried. That would have to be a family expense. They were still “civilians” after all.

Finally, in 1977, the WASPs recieved the recognition they deserved, at last being accorded formal status as military veterans. And in 2009, they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, a very high honor.

Read more about Jackie Cochran and the WASPs, or watch a short film on YouTube about their service. You can also learn more about Cochran by getting the documentary by American Experience, called Fly Girls.

© writingreading, 2010


Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of #3 – Ruth Brown

May 13, 2009

Librarians are demure, quiet, old ladies with buns, right? Well, not exactly.

Although Ruth Brown fits much of the stereotype – a little bit frumpy, a single woman, plain in appearance – she took a stand for Civil Rights in her library in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1950 that cost her her job. What she did took courage and conviction. Her story is told in the book, The Dismissal of Miss Ruth Brown: Civil Rights, Censorship, and the American Library by Louise Robbins.

Don’t let the “library” aspect of this one throw you. It is full of intrigue, community infighting, passionate defenders of the status quo, persons willing to take great risks in an attempt to awaken a new social consciousness and justice among their fellow townspeople, class warfare, Red Scares, fabrication of evidence, issues over power and gender, and more. It is, in fact, a bit of a thriller.

Brown had been a librarian for many years in Bartlesville, leading a somewhat true-to-stereotype existence. But as the horrors of the Holocaust during WWII were revealed, she and other like-minded individuals formed the “Committee on the Practice of Democracy” to fight discrimination.

Bartlesville was very much a segregated city in the late 1940s. African-Americans were allowed to use the library and did not have to use a separate facility, but their use and access of materials was under different rules and conditions than white customers, at least prior to World War II.

But when Brown walked into a diner on night in 1950 with two African-American friends who were teachers, she crossed the racial line. The campaign to label her a subversive communist – and thus, oust her from her position, was underway. The American Legion, the D.A.R., and corporate magnates from Phillips Petroleum mounted an overwhelming effort to have her dismissed. She was accused of distributing “subversive” literature, although the books in question were actually recommended by the national professional library association as proper to have in a library, in order to represent a diversity of viewpoints on various subjects. One was even written during WWII when the Russians were our allies, but now it was labeled “subversive.”

Ruth Brown knew when she walked into that diner that day that her act would be provocative, and that her membership in the Committee on the Practice of Democracy could get her fired. She did it anyway.

As a single woman, she did not have much to fall back on after a job loss, personally or financially. She ended up leaving town of her own volition. But her cause was taken to the courts, the national library association made important innovations in their practices and policies, and even Hollywood got into the act. A few years after the actual events, her story was thinly fictionalized and turned into a movie called Storm Center. Hollywood had been through the mill with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the producers saw in her story a reflection of their own.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this book, besides Ruth Brown’s story, is that it unveils so many aspects of American society that we are still struggling with today, particularly in recent years. “Terrorism” is the “new Communism” – and actions are taken today by our government and individuals in the name of “fighting terrorists” that 50 years ago, were used to defend America against the threat of communism. Although the events described in the book happened 50 years ago, much of it is very relevant to today. The book deals with issues of racial equality and justice, women’s power (or lack thereof), censorship, class and economic issues, and more.

Learn more about this brave woman, and be inspired! You’ll never think of librarians as “boring” again.

© writingreading, 2009


Famous Women You’ve Never Heard Of – #2 – Callie House

June 29, 2008

Callie House is not an everyday name in women’s history, or even in African-American history. But she should be. An African-American washerwoman who had been born into slavery in 1861 in Rutherford County, Tennessee, she later moved to Nashville where she would launch a movement in the late 1890s for justice and civil rights that loomed so powerful and seemed so threatening to the established order of things that high-ranking officials in Washington, DC had her arrested, imprisoned, and repeatedly took a variety of measures to suppress the movement.

Her cause? Federally paid pensions for former slaves, who had toiled for years and decades without wages. Motivated in part by the Federal pensions paid to former Union soldiers, and a similar, but different, type of ex-slave pension movement begun by white Southerner Walter R. Vaughan, House believed that only through activism within the African-American community could the cause be brought to fruition in a way that would be truly beneficial to the black community. Vaughan’s plan did not have the best interests of African-Americans at heart; he simply wanted to bring more financial wherewithal to blacks still living in the South, as a way to prop up the South’s economic woes. Ultimately, he sought an “economic stimulus package” for blacks, who would then spend their funds with white merchants, thus growing the economy of the post-Reconstruction white South.

House partnered with an African-American man, also from Rutherford County, and a former agent for Vaughan, named Isaiah Dickerson. Together, they established the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association, hosting their first convention in 1898. The organization grew quickly, with local chapters established throughout the country. Not only was one of the stated aims of the organization to introduce and secure passage of a pension bill in Congress for former slaves, but it was also to provide assistance to members of the local communities, such as providing support for orphans and covering burial expenses.

As the movement gained strength and numbers, the Federal Government became increasingly suspicious, and House’s noble cause became one of unceasing struggle. House and other officers of the national organization were accused of fraud. The government charged that the organization was a mere sham, a way for House and others to make money by requiring membership fees which provided no service whatsoever. Eventually, House was imprisoned, but her cause continued. Time and again the government charges of fraud were proven to be unfounded, and time and again the charges would be resurrected. There was even division within the black community, with many middle-class blacks believing the unfounded charges of fraud, or preferring to pursue Booker T. Washington’s accomodationist message.

House died in 1928 and is buried in an unmarked grave. Her movement for ex-slave pensions continued, but was never the same after her imprisonment. By the 1930s, those persons born in bondage were dying off. The Depression made it difficult to sustain the few chapters that remained, although their dues were often a dollar or less. By the end of the decade, the organization essentially ceased to exist.

There is much more to the story than I have provided here. This is simply a summary. The full story about Callie House and the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association can be found in My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations by Mary Frances Berry, an excellent and detailed work about this tragically forgotten woman, and her heroic struggle for justice and civil rights. Berry spends the bulk of the book creating a detailed biography of House, and the growth and eventual death of the organization, but she also provides a helpful epilogue sketching out the legacy of House’s work throughout the twentieth century, and the continuing campaign for reparations for slavery, even today.

Although I enjoy reading about strong, little-known but heroic women of the past, I found Berry’s work especially intriguing, simply because House’s work – until now – was so tragically ignored and unknown.

© writingreading 2008


Reviving Women’s Lives through Cookbooks

June 19, 2008

I wrote a post recently about Carol and her dread of cooking. This was from a book called Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano. As I’ve continued reading this book, I just have to comment further.

This is a fascinating, extraordinarily detailed examination of, well, as the subtitle indicates – unearthing and resurrecting women’s lives and social surroundings through a detailed examination of various cookbooks. It’s not as boring or far-fetched as I may have made it sound, here. That little synopsis just simply doesn’t do it justice.

What Theophano does is to go far beyond the mere printed words on the page, to examine the ways cookbooks link multiple generations of women (heirlooms); how cookbooks also serve as guidebooks to womanly and wifely duties and decorum; how cookbooks were a way to gain or promote literacy among women; and how cookbooks, through the exchange and gathering of recipes, are a communal activity – and therefore can reveal a myriad of social interactions which often crossed boundaries of race and class which were otherwise insurmountable, given the time and place of their writing.

I am truly impressed with Theophano’s versatile range and analysis, and her ability to shed light on women’s lives and culture through this method. She is truly talented in the way she brings these women back to life, through something that on the surface seems so ordinary and mundane – a cookbook. And many of the women discussed in the book are otherwise obscure or unknown – simply everyday ordinary women. Now and then, there is a prominent authoress or lordly lady, but by and large, most are ordinary women.

I’m certain that my poor attempt to convey the drama and interest of this book falls short, but if you are interested in learning more about our foremothers, the history of home cookery, or general women’s studies, this is one not to miss!

©2008 writingreading


Carol’s cooking sucks (& so does her life!) – OR – Housewives as Heroines

May 29, 2008

Well, so I’ve got it a little off. The precise term is “Stinks,” not “sucks” but the implication is the same. I’m referring to an otherwise unidentified woman, who herself made that statement about her own cooking, and wrote of her life in a similar manner. The story appears in a great book called: Eat My Words: Reading Women’s Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote by Janet Theophano.

Although there are many more positive women in Theophano’s book – which focuses not on the cooking and cuisine, but rather on the mostly-anonymous women behind cookbooks of all sorts, from about the 1700s through the 1900s.

Carol stood out to me because of her frustration, and her willingness to write about it – her cookbook doubling as a diary. Carol is a 50 year old woman, living, cooking, writing and “venting” sometime in the 1960s or 1970s. She appears to be desperately unhappy. Her husband does nothing. She works at a full time job, then comes home and works. Dinner is the biggest chore. Housework is a second job with very little compensation – and apparently very little appreciation. She uses the term “dingbat” – so I wonder if she wrote while watching All in the Family – that term used by Archie Bunker to berate his wife. Did Carol’s husband do the same?

Carol, through her cookbook/diary, reminds me of another woman of the same time period, who is the major character in the documentary film called 51 Birch Street who kept journals for decades through a mostly-unhappy marriage. Granted, there were parts of that woman’s story I didn’t want to know, but what emerged through that film was a woman who longed to break free from the roles society, her husband, and family, had placed upon her, as rigid as a prison. Carol seems to inhabit a similar prison. Both women were trapped by their times and paid a heavy price.

I believe that within the next, say, 10-20 years, a new vision of women in the 1950s and 1960s – after World War II and before the “women’s movement” – will emerge that shows the heroism of their everyday lives, their struggles for self-determination, the stubborn refusal of society and their husbands (and perhaps their kids) to grant them a mind, a heart, and indeed a space of their own – and the courage of these women to continue – to fulfill not only their responsibilities to others (it’s always about others) -but to finally grasp and proclaim their own dignity and worth, as individuals, irrespective of husbands, children, or others.

I never thought of housework or preparing dinner as courageous acts – but after reading Carol’s story – I see how preparing dinner every nite was such an act of conformity – which grieved her soul – and an act of courage – “doing what had to be done” despite a desperate desire to flee. In her cookbook, her unhappiness at her situation is clear. She talks of suicide and divorce, all because of the immense weight of the double burden of working outside of the home full time – and working inside of the home, almost equally as much – and her husband’s distance, emotionally as well as his lack of involvement in household tasks.

The more I learn about the *real* lives of housewives in the 1950s and 1960s, the more I am grateful to them for what they did, and the burden they carried as our mothers and grandmothers. We have this “blissful” “nostalgic” idea of the smiling mother, dad with his pipe and a sweater vest, and a boy and a girl cheerfully smiling at the dinner table, but what we don’t see is that Mother is clenching her teeth in a frozen spiteful grin – polite, as always – but seething inside that Dad has his houseslippers on and is relaxing reading the paper, while she has to cook for four in high heels and a silk dress after she has been on her feet all day. (oh, her aching feet!)

I’m not writing this as a rant, or even a diatribe against housewives then or now, or working women or moms, or even the “traditional family.” Not at all, and quite the contrary. What I am saying – and this through what Carol shares about her life, and others like her – is that all of these women deserve our respect and admiration. Housewife and mother are the most taken-for-granted roles and tasks there are. Those women need an award or medal – just like loyal employees who have a perfect attendance at the factory or an accident-free year on the assembly line. All those housewives of years ago – are heroines!!

P.S. I realize some of my readers may in fact be those very housewives – today or years back. Thank you for your courage and dignity in your everyday lives!!!

©2008 writingreading


Women’s Clubs a Great History Resource

May 28, 2008

I realized today that maybe one of the best ways to research women’s history (at least, for around 1880-1920 or so in the United States) is through records, minute books, newsletters and similar materials produced by various women’s clubs, such as book clubs, gardening clubs, and other types of “local” associations – not to mention more national-level and well known groups like women’s church groups, Red Cross, and other groups.

I say this only because I know it is often hard for the beginning researcher to do identify source materials for women’s history. A lot of times, the types of sources like I mention above are not explicitly identified as “women’s history” resources. They might only be listed by their name, or a general identification like “Clubs” or something similar.

Another reason, and maybe the major reason, that I think these are worthwhile resources to pursue is because of the concept of “separate spheres” – women were expected to stay out of the political arena, be concerned with child-rearing, and so forth – but viewed from a feminist and/or modern perspective, sometimes these organizations appear to be quite benign on the surface – but turn out to be very politically active and savvy – wielding women’s power in the forums in which it was “granted,” and then some! Like (fictional example) a women’s charity organized to aid orphans. Well, that could lead to broader child welfare issues, getting the children out of the sweatshops, advocating better city sanitation, or all sorts of other things. I think it goes along the same lines as the adage: “The personal is political.”

I hadn’t thought of using this blog as a way to offer and share (and perhaps receive!) research tips, but maybe that is a good idea. I certainly do enough research and sometimes come across weird and interesting things while looking for something else (one of the pleasures of research – yes, it can be FUN!!) – so maybe I’ll start doing that occasionally. Though I still expect to spend most of my time on other things and topics, something like this might be a nice diversion now and then.

©2008 writingreading