I do not know if you’ve ever had this experience, but at times I wish I could stop the world in its rapid spin and push the pause button on our accelerated change. Recently I did just that, and in a moment of quietude I decided to celebrate Women’s History Month this year remembering my own female ancestors. Even just glancing back, my heart swelled with appreciation for the struggles and courage of these long-laboring everyday women. Recalling even a bit of their stories reminded me of just how much technology has changed our lives, and yet how so many personal and social issues remain the same.
So, for Women’s History Month I want to share a bit of my paternal grandmother’s story. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to remember, or even interview, one of your female elders.
My paternal grandmother, Rose Elizabeth Brown, was born in 1880 in upstate New York. In my youth she fascinated me with tales of the Civil War, stories of the Women’s Suffrage Movement (the birthplace of which was in nearby Seneca Falls, NY), and details of her work with the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. And then, of course, there were the multifaceted and incredibly demanding obligations of a store-owner’s wife with children, in-laws, school teachers, and hired hands under her care.
Some of you have already heard me speak of my grandmother as she suffered from both osteoporosis and rickets, and her death after a hip fracture at the age of 102 inspired me to study bone health. While there is no way to do justice to her vast life experiences, let me share three tales. Each little tale takes us back in time and enlivens our sense of “Women’s History” — of what it was like to be a woman living in this country 140 years ago.
Tales of the Civil War and Female Dress Reformer, Dr. Mary Walker
The Civil War ended 15 years before my grandmother was born and as a youth she heard many stories about family and friends who lost their lives in this bloody conflict. The wartime stories that impressed me the most, however, were not ones of violence or suffering, but rather her tales of a very special upstate New York abolitionist, suffragist, and surgeon named Mary Edwards Walker.
In 1855 Mary Walker was one of the first women to graduate from Syracuse Medical College. Wikipedia summarizes her remarkable life as an early female surgeon, a women’s suffragist, an abolitionist, and a female dress reformer. Mary’s commitment to dress reform was as great as her zeal for abolitionism. Women’s dress she said should, “protect the person, allow freedom of motion, and not make the wearer a slave to it.” True to her beliefs, Mary Walker dressed in comfortable and functional male garb, causing quite a stir locally and nationally. Her habit of dress landed her in the Syracuse jail where my grandmother met her and it was probably one of the main reasons why the Army Medal of Honor given to her for helping the wounded during the Civil War was withdrawn (then to be restored in 1977 apparently after a campaign by her descendants).
Not one for high fashion myself, I was very attracted to grandma’s tales of Mary Walker’s common sense approach to women’s dress. I listened very carefully as my grandmother told me how she met Mary Walker. And that had to do with Mary Walker’s dressing as if she were a man!
My grandmother’s father was the jail keeper for the Syracuse jail and my grandmother delivered the food trays to the prisoners, slipping the tray under their jail door. As my grandmother told me, Mary Walker was put in the Syracuse jail because she “dressed like a man.” My grandfather, the jailer, found Mary to be very well educated and intelligent and he thought it was unfit that she be in prison with all the scoundrels. So Mary was brought to stay at my grandmother’s house. My grandmother affirmed that Mary Walker was a fine person even though she “dressed like a man.” All of us today wearing comfortable long pants can thank Mary for her rule breaking commitment 140 years ago.
So, for me this Women’s History Month, it’s hats off to Dr. Mary Walker who bravely initiated a call for freedom in female dress!
What was it like to be a woman in the early 1900s?
My grandmother’s answer to one key question my sister Beth and I asked her is etched in my memory. When she was about 95, and widowed, we asked her what it was like to be a woman when she was young. A thoughtful, never-complaining woman, her response was, “Let me think about this. You come back tomorrow.” The next day she gave us her answer, short and clear without resentment or anger. Being a woman, she said, “was just like being a slave.”
I wonder what perspectives your female ancestors might have answered to this simple question? And even today, this is still an interesting question to ask.
And grandma, what of all the new technologies and inventions did you find the most important?
My grandmother was never near an airplane, but she finally enjoyed a wringer washing machine, a telephone, access to store-made clothes, and even a Model T automobile, which replaced the horse and buggy. Yet when we asked her what she thought the most important invention was she fired back, “the electric light” — quickly detailing that she could still recall the nasty smell of those gas lights.
Seeing how rapidly technology is changing in the world we live in, I wonder if our children will take time to imagine what life was like even only 100 years ago. Who knows, you might find some pleasure in collecting stories of your family’s contributions to Women’s History. I’d love to hear them and so might your descendants!