One year ago today, June 1, Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War officially launched.
During that year in which Mary Walker found her way into readers’ hands, I worked on another book–about a more well-known scrappy woman, Dale Evans. Right at the tail end of May, I submitted the manuscript of that biography. Here’s what my study looked like on that auspicious day. (I’m especially fond of the flying pink pig.)
As soon as I know more about the timeline for copyedits and proofs, I’ll announce when I’ll start Queen of the West Wednesdays, to introduce you all to this new book. Saddle up, everyone. 2021 is about to get exciting.
My mother, Irene (a name she always said she hated), was born in 1933, not long after Franklin Roosevelt took over as president and began the long process of pulling the United States out of the Great Depression. Her parents were staunch Republicans, so she probably never heard a good word about the man. Because of that economic catastrophe, her parents had to sell their house and move in with her paternal grandparents. A few other assorted relatives lived there from time to time, too. But my mother and her older brother grew up in this house.
My mother had a close friend, a boy, who lived on the block, but mostly she ran with a group who called themselves the Euclid Avenue Girls. My grandparents, as good Catholics as they were Republicans, sent my mother to parochial schools, both grade school and high school. Irene was, at best, an indifferent student. She liked the social aspects of education and didn’t appreciate the nuns’ discipline. When she graduated high school, she was glad to be done and looked forward to working full time.
Irene had a few choices for jobs. Her older brother, away doing his stint in the army, wrote and advised her to find an office job. Even though she’d told him she didn’t think it would suit her, he thought it was the best for her in terms of environment and pay (e.g. respectability). But really, anything but factory work would do, he thought. He warned her that nothing was worse than punching a time clock.
Irene decided to take a job at a local pharmacy. The owner/pharmacist let her wait on customers and helped her get a license as an apprentice pharmacist. She was so proud of the license–she kept renewing it for years after she stopped working there. And it wasn’t long before that happened. One day in 1955, a young army veteran from a good Democratic Catholic family in Chicago, now working for a land surveying company, walked in to pick up a newspaper. He came back the next day. And the next. Irene and Mike married in 1956. So after 23 years of living in her grandparents’ brick bungalow, she moved into this home, where she and Mike raised all four of us children.
The house, a prefab delivered on big flatbed trucks for onsite building, was originally much smaller: under 1000 square feet, three small bedrooms, one bathroom, a living room, and an eat-in kitchen. As we children grew, so did the house. Every time my dad had a porch built on the back of the house, within a few years it ended up enclosed as new living space.
My mother stayed home taking care of us four. For many years she was alone with us, Monday through Friday, because my dad often had jobs that required him to travel. During some of those years we had a dog, too, which meant extra work for her. Still, she joined the PTA and was active during our grade school years. Irene loved baseball and the Chicago Cubs. (I always knew it was springtime when my mother set up the ironing board in the family room so she could watch the Cubs on television while she ironed.) She was happy when my brothers joined Little League, and she went to all of their games. For a time she served as chief umpire, the first woman in the area to do so. In her “spare” time, Irene loved antique shopping and she taught herself how to refinish furniture.
After we were teenagers, my mother went back to work part time for a few years as a receptionist. It wasn’t about the money–my dad earned a decent salary–it was probably for the sociability. Then we started moving away from home. Work, college, marriage, children–her grandchildren. My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. They were beloved grandparents by that point. Here’s a picture of my mother with my son when he was about three years old. That’s the front of the very same house I grew up in. That’s Irene and that’s my son, happy to be free after hours in the car, driving from Wisconsin.
Despite her cigarette habit (besides her family, friends, and the Cubs, Irene most loved smoking and drinking vodka on the rocks), my mother remained in good health. In the early 2000s, small bits of treatable cancers popped up. She had them taken care of and stayed vigilant with her checkups. Then less treatable cancer turned up in my dad, and he died in 2009. Maybe because of all those years my mother took care of us and the house, the practical aspects of widowhood didn’t phase her.
But now, we all took care to watch out for her a bit more, even as she remained resolute about her independence. Irene went to church, spent more time again with the remaining Euclid Avenue Girls, did her own grocery shopping, and walked the aisles of Target looking for good sales. We thought we would lose her when she had a stroke. Luckily, she was out shopping at the time, not home alone. Because she got to the hospital so quickly, because she was so determined to get through rehab and back to her own home, she did. Irene slowed down, but she kept going. I often referred to her as the Energizer Bunny.
Then 2020 happened. Irene understood and accepted all the social restrictions necessary to contain Covid. She learned how to Zoom (though not very well), she let people deliver groceries, she sat in a chair in her driveway, masked, to receive birthday greetings from her family. Every time she heard bad news, she dismissed it with a shrug and, “Well, it’s 2020.”
Even when that bad news was, finally, that her cancer had spread. This time it wasn’t treatable. My mother consented to a round of radiation treatments that made her more comfortable. She consented to stay in an assisted-living facility, leaving her home of more than sixty years. When she first moved in, the place allowed visitors, which made us all happy. The next day, visitation shut down because a staff member tested positive. “It’s 2020,” my mother said, and told us all that it was enough that we called her.
I talked to her almost every day, a big increase from my normal weekly calls. We chatted about everything except her health. Her biggest sadness was that she didn’t get HGTV, but she was becoming fond of Animal Planet. Twice, visitation opened at the facility; twice it abruptly shut again before I could make the drive down. And you know what my mother said about that.
The assisted-living facility director let me and my siblings know that we could visit our mother any time we wanted, as long as we were masked, gloved, and gowned. My siblings visited, more than once. The weather remained good through the late fall. My husband and I finally got there, too, driving four hours to stay for barely more than thirty minutes, worried that all the precautions wouldn’t be enough to keep my mother safe from the virus. But my mother was happy to see us, no matter how short the visit.
There was a Christmas phone call, and we talked about the upcoming new year. I reminded my mother that 2020 would soon be over. I teased her that she wouldn’t be able to use her favorite saying anymore. She laughed a little, but didn’t directly reply. “You’re going to beat 2020,” I told her. Yes, was all she said.
Then it was 2021. My mother received her first vaccination. I watched the weather reports–January was unpredictable–before calling to say we were on our way, to expect us the next day. “Drive carefully, honey,” my mother said, as she always did. About halfway there, our normally reliable car died. I called to say we wouldn’t get there after all. Don’t worry, stay safe, she said. I asked if maybe 2021 was going to be as bad as 2020. She laughed a little.
It took a few days to get the car fixed. When we picked it up, we went right on to that facility. My husband and I wore masks, but gowns weren’t required. We brought her a chocolate shake from McDonald’s, which disappeared pretty quickly. (I would have brought vodka, but she lost her taste for it after the stroke.) She offered us snacks, but we didn’t want to take off our masks in her small room. We hadn’t been vaccinated. When it was time to leave–we stayed about an hour–we gave air hugs, something my mother had become used to. I promised to call her the next day.
Which I did. We had our usual conversation. But when I called the next day, she told me she hadn’t been feeling very well. She wasn’t up to talking. “That’s okay,” I told her. “I’ll check in on you tomorrow.” This had happened once or twice before. “Hey, remember, you beat 2020.”
My phone rang very early the following morning. My sister calling, after the facility director called her.
My mother beat 2020 by fifteen days.
I should have given her a real hug goodbye that day.
This year’s theme, Valiant Women of the Vote: Refusing to be Silenced, continues last year’s centennial observation of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.
Considering all of the in-person events that were cancelled because of Covid shutdowns, this seems appropriate. My book on Dr. Mary Walker–who dedicated her life to women’s rights issues, including suffrage–published three months into the 2020 quarantine. I have yet to talk to a live audience about her remarkable experiences.
Continuing the conversation about women’s suffrage and the Nineteenth Amendment into 2021 is also a reflection of the unfinished, ongoing struggle for voting rights. It’s much too sweeping of a statement to claim that women won the right to vote in 1920. Some, mostly white women, did. But women of color still had to fight.
So, on this first day of Women’s History Month, I recommend two books that expand our understanding of the meaning of women’s suffrage. Read, think, and enjoy!
This story of fashion and politics could start in at least two different places.
One is in southwestern Wisconsin, where my husband and I lived for a few years as we both transitioned from the final years of our careers into retirement. Not far from our house was one of my favorite places, The Shoe Box, which advertises itself as the “Midwest’s Largest Shoe Store.”
I tried not to spend all my free time there.
On one shopping excursion, I spotted a pair of Western boots by Dingo in a lovely shade of red. I already owned a pair in a more sedate brown color. I already owned a pair of cold weather boots in red. But I had nothing in this wonderful combination.
Still, I didn’t need them. I was teaching then and knew they didn’t fit with the rest of my work wardrobe. They were a luxury. But my husband saw me looking at them. On my next birthday, he handed me a big box. I pulled out the boots.
They became my special occasion boots. I also wore them whenever I needed a psychological boost, whether at work or elsewhere. For some people, it’s a suit or a certain shade of lipstick that makes a statement, that gives them the extra oomph. For me, it’s footwear.
The other place this story could start is in Japan in 2003, long before I owned the boots. I had the incredible good fortune of participating in the Japan Residencies Program, sponsored by the Japan-United States Friendship Commission, the Organization of American Historians, and the Japanese Association for American Studies. I spent two weeks giving lectures on American women’s history at Chiba University and another week presenting public talks.
One of the questions that came up a lot concerned Hillary Clinton, former First Lady and, in 2003, senator from New York. Did I think she would run for president?
I said I believed she would. But she wouldn’t win. Not that I didn’t want to see Clinton in the White House, but because enough other American voters would cast their ballots against her. I said I didn’t think there would be a woman president of the United States in my lifetime. Misogyny runs too deep.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton made her first run for the presidency but ultimately failed to secure the nomination from the Democratic Party. It went to Barack Obama, who became the country’s first black president and served two terms. Clinton supported Obama during his campaign and his presidency. She served as his secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
Three years later, the Democratic Party chose Hillary Clinton as its candidate for president. She was eminently qualified, by virtue of her law degree and legal career and her long years of public service. On the campaign trail, she demonstrated a preference for slacks and matching blazers, a sartorial choice that launched a Pantsuit Nation of activist, liberal women.
The Republican Party selected a businessman and television reality program host who never held office. He claimed early in his campaign, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”
For me, the choice was clear from the beginning. As election day 2016 came closer, though, I grew uneasy. Misogyny has deep roots. It’s tenacious. I wasn’t sure Hillary Clinton could overcome that, despite her accomplishments. I tried to take comfort from the many pollsters who predicted a clear victory for her. I tried to hope just a little bit.
On election morning, I pulled on my red Western boots. I decided it was a day for hope and power. “I’m With Her” and “Stronger Together” were my slogans for the day. I started to imagine walking into my women’s history class the next morning, once again wearing the red boots, to talk with students about this history-making moment.
As more of the election results came in that night, I thought back to those discussions in Japan. I realized my initial beliefs had been correct. I took off my boots, tucked them in the back of the closet, and went to bed.
The next morning, I learned I’d been right–and wrong. Hillary Clinton won nearly 66 million votes, almost 3 million more than her opponent. So I’d been wrong about the popular vote, which clearly went to Clinton. But the electoral college swung the other way, and the election went to her Republican challenger.
Hillary Clinton delivered her concession speech the day after the election. “Our campaign was never about one person or even one election, it was about the country we love and about building an America that’s hopeful, inclusive and big-hearted,” she said. “Donald Trump is going to be our president. We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
The red Western boots were not exiled for the next four years. I took them out of the closet many time to wear on special occasions, including elections.
In 2020, because of the pandemic, I opted to vote by mail rather than in person. I wore my slippers instead of the red boots when I filled out the ballot. There was a bright spot. This time, finally, a woman’s name was on it once again: Kamala Harris, senator from California. It was groundbreaking not because the Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden, chose a woman as his vice presidential running mate, but because Harris is a woman of color.
Again, I allowed myself a bit of optimism but prepared for a difficult election season.
What followed was unprecedented. The Biden-Harris ticket won a clear victory, and the sitting president encouraged his supporters to contest the election results. A deadly, failed insurrection occurred at the Capitol. But today, two weeks later, the inauguration took place on schedule. Supreme Court associate justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to sit on the court, swore in Kamala Harris as vice president.
Harris’s stunning purple dress and coat ensemble came from black designers Christopher John Rogers and Sergio Hudson. The color choice signals bipartisan support–a blending of Republican red and Democratic blue. It also has historical significance. It is a nod to women’s suffragists who adopted purple as one of their official colors more than a hundred years ago, and it’s an homage to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president. The outfit looks like power.
It was a historic day. A great day for the red boots, even if I could only wear them around the house.
My nonfiction reading for 2020 was typical in terms of amount–too many to count. A lot of them were assigned for book reviews so I can’t include any of those in my best-of list. The other chunk was research reading for my (still) book-in-progress about Dale Evans.
The books for research reading usually don’t make it to my year-end list because I like to keep my work reading separate from my leisure reading. (The same goes for the book review books.) But I made an exception for a book I picked up because I thought it might provide some helpful background on women in 1940s-1950s Hollywood. It did, to a certain degree, but The Lady From the Black Lagoon turned out to be much more than that. Mallory O’Meara brilliantly writes about Milicent Patrick, an animator at Disney who went on to create one of the most iconic movie monsters. I kept thinking about the book, and about the many women ignored despite their achievements, long after I turned the final page.
O’Meara’s book did well, garnering reviews from The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and The Christian Science Monitor. It’s a great example of how the life of an “unknown” woman can be made into a fascinating story.
I also loved Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House, a memoir about growing up in New Orleans that’s infused with history and current events.
Broom’s debut was a New York Times bestseller, and it won the 2019 National Book Award. The writing is lovely, the story compelling.
My third favorite nonfiction book from 2020 was also a memoir, one first published in 1945 and quickly forgotten. Françoise Frenkel was a Polish Jewish woman who opened a French bookstore in Berlin in the 1920s. Pushed out in the late 1930s, she spent years fleeing the Nazis.
Another “unknown” woman, another important story. There seems to be a theme here with books I like to read–and write.
Dale Evans is the most famous woman I’ve ever written about, though she’s much less well known today than she was in the mid-20th century. Many of my blog posts in 2021 will center on that writing and publication journey. Stay tuned.