Women Before Us

Writing and doing research today, I discovered the “Great Texas Women” website http://texaswomen.housing.utexas.edu/with the following:

The song, “Standing Before Us,” was discovered by Floyd Hoelting at St. Scholastica Convent in Fort Smith, Arkansas. For decades, this community of Benedictine nuns has sung the song in celebration of those before them. It is used in the gallery with kind permission of the author, Carole Etzler, to honor Texas women who came before us and to remind us of the importance of women to Texas greatness and how they will continue to impact the future of Texas.

“Standing Before Us”

These are the women who throughout the decades
have led us and helped us to know
where we have come from and where we are going,
the women who’ve helped us to grow.

(Chorus) Standing before us, making us strong,
lending their wisdom to help us along,
sharing a vision, sharing a dream,
touching our thoughts,
touching our lives like a deepflowing stream—
touching our thoughts,
touching our lives like a deep-flowing stream.

These are the women who joined in the struggle,
angry and gentle and wise.
These are the women who called us to action,
who called us to open our eyes.

These are the women who nurtured our spirits,
the ones on whom we could depend.
These are the women who gave us their courage,
our mentors, our sisters, our friends.

These are a few of the women who led us.
We know there have been many more.
We name but a few, yet we honor them all,
those women who went on before.



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Robin Red Breast!

Just now I was out on our back deck, working on my manuscript when the robin came to feed her babies in the nest under the eaves of our veranda. I slipped into the house to get my cell phone . . . snapped pictures . . .

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Marie White’s Bearded Irises

Many, many years ago an older woman, an artist, lived across the street from me. We never really talked, just smiled and waved. Then one day she moved away to a nursing home. A year or so later, she called me to ask for a favor . . .

Hello Penny, It’s Marie White, your neighbor from across the street . . . . Do you still have your flower garden in the front of your house?

Hello Marie, I’m so happy to hear from you! Yes, I do . . .

I was wondering: If I bought some Bearded Irises would you grow them in your garden for me, so I can come paint them?

Of course I said “yes”! Several weeks later a box of rhizomes arrived, and I carefully planted them, choosing what I thought would be just the right spot to please a painter.   Marie White died before her Bearded Irises bloomed.  And, in time, I moved to another house with a front yard, where I transplanted Marie White’s Bearded Irises. I just took a break from my marathon writing stint to take a walk in the rain. Here are Marie White’s Bearded Irises in glorious bloom:  Paint them if you like.



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Found Her Purpose in Life

On March 28, 1841, Dorothea Dix found her purpose in life. DlDpicIt was a cold, blustery day when she arrived at the East Cambridge jail in Boston, Massachusetts, to teach Sunday school to the prisoners. But, first, with her characteristic curiosity, she insisted on having a tour of the jail. To her horror she discovered two indigent mentally ill women confined in cages made of rough boards – disheveled, shivering people whose only crime was their illness. No stove heated their bare, filthy pens. Why was there no heat, she asked the jailer. Because “lunatics” don’t feel the cold, he replied. Appalled and outraged, Dorothea Dix launched a campaign to get stoves installed. When the jailer refused her repeated requests, she filed a legal case before the court.  Finally, her friend John Nichols recalled, “Her request was granted. The cold rooms were warmed.”  Were conditions as bad in other jails, she wondered. Where else were indigent, mentally ill people confined? How were they treated? Determined to know, Dorothea Dix set out to conduct an extensive, systematic, and controversial investigation. Outraged by what she found – people “confined in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens . . . chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience” – Dix lead a forty-year crusade for the humane treatment of people with mental illness. Year after year, she traveled thousands of miles by stagecoach, boat, horseback, and railroad to investigate and expose the horrendous conditions. She lobbied legislators, governors, and presidents to change attitudes and provide treatment and facilities.  She took her crusade to Scotland, Italy, and Russia. When she died in 1887, people around the world honored her. “Thus had died and been laid to rest,” one mourner wrote, “the most useful and distinguished woman America has yet produced.”

Dorothea Dix was the subject of my first biography. Given that I had grown up on the grounds of two state mental hospitals, where my father was a psychiatrist, I was deeply motivated to tell the true story of Dorothea Dix’s passionate and profound crusade with contemporary relevance. But then I discovered that she had vehemently refused to allow anyone to write about her. Unable to transgress her dictate but strongly drawn to write pc:dld:91about her, I finally drove to Boston and found her grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery. There, quietly standing, looking at her simple gravestone, the answer came to me – I could write about her crusade. That is why the title of my book is Breaking the Chains: The Crusade of Dorothea Lynde Dix “All alike may suffer,” she once wrote, “the rich and the poor, the young, the mature, and the aged.” Knowing that “all alike may suffer” didn’t make Dorothea Dix give up hope. It didn’t make her quit. Instead it inspired her to alleviate suffering, to overcome it, and to prove that one DLDnewperson can make a difference.’

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When we entered a medical supply store,  the woman standing behind a long counter was focused on putting staples in a stapler. Our approach did not solicit her attention. Aware that the store was closing in ten minutes, I asked, “Do you have a knee sleeve?” Continuing her task, she brusquely replied, “Who’s it for?”  “Me,” I said. Aware that the store was closing in ten minutes, I added, “and if tell me where they are, I’ll go see what you have.”” u can’t!”  Still fussing with the stapler, she snapped, “You can’t.”  “Why not,” I asked. “They’re locked in a closet.” Typically I would have had no patience with someone like that, except I was distracted by her appearance: dark dyed hair, very bright red rouge, very bright red lipstick, an effort, it seemed to camouflage what I guessed to be  her 70+ age.  Back in the car (yes, I got the knee sleeve), Linda and I compared our impressions: “Sour,” said Linda. “Very red rouge,” I said.  The experience prompted me to tell Linda about my ongoing project of compiling physical descriptions from nonfiction sources, e.g. The New Yorker articles.  It has been sometime since I looked at my list, so when we returned home, I opened the file and reviewed it. Here’s one example from each category:

Body, – rattle-boned; Complexion – neither pale nor tan;Hair – unkempt;  Face –  laugh-lined;  Eyes – usually filled with humor, but not today;  Eye Brows – thick, fierce;  Nose – like the prow of a ship;  Mouth – thin, full, curved down;  Cheeks – cheekbones as sharp as knives;  Ears – asymmetic;  Chin – cinder-block;  Smiles- sweet grandmotherly;  Teeth- gleaming;  Voice- the equivalent of a nasal air honk;  Neck – scrawny and ropey;  Personality –  not prone to soapboxes;  Appearance – disheveled

FPcoverAlso when I’m writing about a historic person, I collect descriptions of them written by their contemporaries.  For example here is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr’s  description of Frances Perkins: “Brisk and articulate, with vivid dark eyes, a broad forehead and a pointed chin, usually wearing a felt tricorn hat, she remained a Brahmin reformer, proud of her New England background . . . and intent on beating sense into the heads of those foolish people who resisted progress. She had pungency of character, a dry wit, an inner gaiety, an instinct for practicality, a profound well of religious feeling and a compulsion to instruct . . .”


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Why giving up hope is not an option

“We are carried along by the heroines and heroes who came before and opened the doors of possibility and imagination.”  The quote is by Rebecca Solnit in her essay “Protest and persist: why giving up hope is not an option” in The Guardian, 3/13/2017.  Although I have a dramatic chapter to finish writing, I took time to read Solnit’s essay:   I highly recommend it: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/13/protest-persist-hope-trump-activism-anti-nuclear-movement

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International Women’s Day

seq-5-20 (2) seq-8-14 copy 54f8ab5a8e39d.image Grand Pic 1 Women-1970-Strike-GettyImages-174007370-571ba2265f9b58857dd27444 2th Tomorrow – March 8th – is International Women’s Day, a day that was first celebrated on Feb. 28, 1910, as National Women’s Day, in the United States by the Socialist Party of America to honor the women garment workers’ strike, known as the Uprising of the 20,000 (1909-1910).  I did a search of historical newspapers and found  two relevant news items: the top one “Sunday was observed as National Women’s Day throughout the United States”; Norwich Bulletin, Norwich, CT; Feb. 24, 1913, p. 5; and “A celebration of ‘National Women’s Day’ for the socialist party will be held March 2 Sunday, 8 p.m. at Maccabees’ hall, 1109 1/2 South C St. Speaking, music, play, recitations and other interesting features are on the program”; The Tacoma Times, Feb. 26, 1913, p. 8. Clara Lemlich (above) sparked the strike when she jumped on the stage at a mass meeting and issued a call for action: “I am tired of listening to speakers who talk in generalities . . . I make a motion that we go out in a general strike.” The other photos are a tiny sampling of women’s protests: from top to bottom: Russian women on March 8, 1917,  an impetus of the Russian Revolution; the “Grand Picket” March 4, 1917, when 1,000 suffragists carrying purple, white, and gold banners marched in a freezing rain around and around the White House, demanding that President Wilson support for a federal woman suffrage amendment;  the “Women Strike for Peace and Equality”  Aug. 26, 1970, when thousands of protesting women took over the streets of cities across America.

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A Woman Unafraid

Today – March 4, 1933, with the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt – Frances Perkins became the first woman cabinet member.  President Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins Secretary of Labor during the greatest economic crisis in American history – the Great Depression. At that time, women weren’t supposed to have nontraditional careers, or be outspoken, or occupy a powerful position. But that didn’t stop Frances Perkins. FPWith her familiar tricorn hat planted firmly on her head, Perkins prodded, pressured, and persuaded businessmen, labor leaders, and politicians to respond to the needs of the American people and end child labor, establish safer working conditions, fairer wages, reasonable working hours, unemployment insurance, and Social Security. Dedicated, disciplined, honest, and often controversial, Frances Perkins exerted a far-ranging influence on twentieth-century America. To accomplish things, she said, “You just can’t be afraid.”  I grew up and went all the way through graduate school never learning about Frances Perkins but once I discovered her she has been an everlasting guiding beacon in my life, especial in these times. FPcoverAlong with the title of the eleven chapters in my book, A Woman Unafraid: The Achievements of Frances Perkins, I included a quote by Perkins: I could talk well . . .”; “I discovered for the first time . . . that I had a mind.”; “I felt I must sear it not only on my mind but on my heart. . . .”; “Doing means digging your nails in and working like a truck horse.”; “. . .the beauty of loyalty and chivalry between women.”; “It is there to be done, so I do it.”; “We were always in a crisis.”; “It is a great satisfaction. . . .”; “It hurts.”; “I felt I must stand by . . . .”; ” . . .the time has gone so fast.”


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Women’s Monster Demonstration

1913 pics March 3, 1913 – 104 years ago today – more than 8,000 suffragists marched in a “monster demonstration” in Washington, D.C., the day before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, a non-supporter of women’s right to vote.  There were floats, bands, and divisions of women, including a delegation from Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority of black students from Howard University.  Ida B. Wells, the only black women in the Illinois delegation, defied organizers who told her to walk with a black delegation and slipped in the Illiinois delegation, walking with two white Illinois suffragists who welcomed her.  The parade and pageant started at the Capitol, marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House, and ended in a mass-meeting at Hall of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Near the end of the parade a glorious tableau was staged on the steps of the Treasury Building. The captions in this full page spread in The Sun, 3/8/1913, read: top – “The head of the suffrage parade checked near the reviewing stand by the mob of spectators whom the Washington police were unable to handle. Two troops of United States Cavalry from Fort Myer are soon coming to their assistance at a critical moment.”  (In fact the police stood by, watching men attack the women, many of whom ended up in the hospital.  After a Congressional Hearing, the chief of police lost his job.)  Middle, L-R: “The Mounted Herald of the Suffrage Parade. Miss Inez Milholland, a dashing gold covered vision in white.” (In 1916, Milholland would die while fighting for the Cause.); “Mrs. Florence Flemming Noyes, the classical dancer, who represented ‘Liberty’ in the suffragette tableau on the Treasury steps. Mrs. Mildred Anderson ‘Hope’ and their attendants; “Mrs. Robert Burleson, the Grand Marshall, who led the great suffragette procession, assisted by a troupe of girl aides. all mounted on military charges.” Bottom: “Children’s song and dance on the south stage of Treasury at the conclusion of the parade.” P:S:Full In 2013,  my granddaughter Sophie, age 9 at the time, went to Washington, D.C. to march in the centennial reenactment of the great parade. P:DeltaDeltas from around the country and England marched in celebration of their founding in 1913 and participation in that women’s first, but not last, “monster demonstration’!

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When Women . . .

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When Women Pursue Justice, a mural by Artmakers, Inc.

When Women Pursue Justice, a mural by Artmakers, Inc.

Happy March – National Multicultural Women’s History Month!  Today I serendipitously discovered the amazing mural “When Women Pursue Justice” in Brooklyn, New York.  I was there on an errand with my son Jonathan, who lives in Manhattan, and stopped to have lunch with Stephen, another son, who lives in Brooklyn. Created by Artmakers, Inc. the 3,300 square foot mural was completed in October 2005. It is located at 498 Greene Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the birthplace and district of Shirley Chisholm, the late congresswoman and presidential candidate, who is depicted holding a banner inscribed “A Catalyst for Change,” astride a golden house.  The two large figures to the left of her are Audre Lorde (below) and Dorothy Day (above).  I took the top photo, a view through the  top of the black iron fence pickets  and bare branches.  The bottom photo is by © Lisa Kahane


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