The Writing Life

As a writer, I spend lots of time researching, writing, and telling people that I’m researching and writing.

c20da-grace2ba692(author Grace Metalious, not me)

After a very long time, usually years, I have something to show for it in the form of a book. This time, though, I did not take a long time. I was skeptical that I could research and write quickly, but I did. I’m retired. I’m not in the classroom or grading papers nine months out of the year. So what else am I going to do?

Coming in June 2020 is Dr. Mary Walker’s Civil War. (Just click on the link if you want to preorder.) Beginning this November with the anniversary of Walker’s birth, I’ll be posting snippets of her life and times.




Dr. Mary Walker Reads the Declaration of Independence

July 4, 1865 was a bittersweet holiday for many Americans. The long Civil War that tore the country apart had ended about two months earlier. The Union survived, slavery ended. But President Abraham Lincoln, who helped secure those two ends, was dead from an assassin’s bullet.

Image result for july 4, 1865(“Peace-Fourth of July 1865, Harper’s Weekly)

Mary Walker, a 32-year-old physician, was at loose ends. With the war over, her last appointment as a contract surgeon with the U.S. army, at the Refugee Home in Clarksville, Tennessee, had drawn to a close. She received orders to return to Washington, D.C., where her employment was terminated on June 15. Walker decided to travel for awhile, and she made Richmond, Virginia–until recently the capital of the Confederacy–her first stop.

Image result for july 4, 1865 richmond, va(NARA)

The woman doctor was well known in Richmond. In 1864, she had been a prisoner of war in Castle Thunder, and now she walked its halls as a free woman. The Richmond Bulletin reported Mary Walker’s presence on the city streets, beginning with a description of her outfit: “a blue coat with military buttons, and a very long skirt, a pair of nicely-fitting blue pants…and gaiters, which fitted so as to display a pretty foot.” The doctor attracted a lot of attention as she walked along Broad Street past the Powhatan Hotel. A small group of African American children followed her. Men and boys “stopped along the sidewalk to comment upon the novel appearance of a lady in uniform.” A provost guard challenged Dr. Walker’s right to wear that apparel in public. She told him to give the provost marshal her regards, that she would call on him later, and resumed her stroll. Army Center of Military History)

On July 4, Mary Walker participated in Richmond’s Independence Day celebration. The anti-slavery newspaper The Liberator reported on the subdued crowd, “not enthusiastic, except, perhaps, among a portion of the Union soldiers stationed there, and at the pic-nics of the freed people.” The formal program began with a prayer from the Reverend George S. Stockwell of the First African Baptist Church. Dr. Walker, “late surgeon in the army,” dressed in her blue uniform, read the Declaration of Independence from the steps of the state capital building. It was probably the last time she appeared in public in her uniform, though she never stopped wearing her version of reform (“Bloomer”) dress. Mary Walker spent the rest of her life fighting for women’s rights to equal employment, equal education, and equal suffrage.



In Praise of Scrappy Women

One of my favorite movies is Julia, the 1977 Jane Fonda-Vanessa Redgrave vehicle based on Lillian Hellman’s book Pentimento. In the movie, while Hellman (played by Fonda) is struggling with her writing career in the 1930s, Julia has moved to Europe to fight the growing power of the Nazis.

Image result for julia movie 1977

One of my favorite parts of the movie involves a conversation between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett (played by Jason Robards), the famous mystery writer who was her partner for decades.

Julia Photos (1/8)

The exchange centers on Hellman’s frustrations about her writing and goes something like this:

Hammett: Go to Spain. There may be a civil war in Spain. You’d help somebody win it. You’re scrappy.

Hellman: I’m not scrappy. Don’t call me scrappy. You make me sound like a neighborhood bulldog.

Hammett: You are the neighborhood bulldog, Lilly, except you’ve got some cockeyed dream about being a cocker spaniel.

Since I’ve been writing books about women in American history, I think a lot about scrappy women. Scrappy is the most perfect word to describe the kinds of women I’m interested in writing about. Scrappy women are dogged and determined. Backed into a corner, they might be dangerous, but the fights they get involved in aren’t physical.

Image result for julia movie 1977 i'm not scrappy. don't call me scrappy

Women like Ethel Thomas Herold, Margaret Utinsky, Mary Edwards Walker, and Dale Evans were all stubborn–persistent–and worked hard to get what they wanted from life and to make the world a better place (according to their own visions) while they were at it. They are fascinating women to research and write about. They are the kind of women I prefer to read about.

So I’m wrapping up this year’s Women’s History Month by praising scrappy women and honoring their contributions. I’m looking forward to writing (and reading) more about them.


Edmonia Highgate: Teacher, Orator, Freedom Worker

Edmonia Goodelle Highgate, born in upstate New York in 1844, grew up in a community of free blacks committed to ending slavery and pursuing equality. Her hard-working parents made sure all seven of their children attended high school. In 1861, the year the Civil War started, Edmonia was one of the few African Americans to graduate from Syracuse High School. Though the Syracuse Board of Education issued her a teaching certificate, she could not get a job in the city because of her race.

She found a teaching position in Montrose, Pennsylvania, where she also volunteered with the Pennsylvania Freedmen’s Relief Association, which worked with newly-freed African Americans. She moved back to New York after finding a teaching job in Binghampton. In 1864, the American Missionary Association hired her to teach in Norfolk, Virginia.

The conditions Edmonia Highgate faced there prompted a breakdown, and she returned home for about a year to recover. Once she did, she set off again, this time to Darlington, Maryland to establish a school in 1865 before moving to New Orleans in 1866, where she and her sister taught school and founded the Louisiana Educational Relief Association. That summer, Edmonia witnessed a riot launched by ex-Confederates determined to regain control of the state. They killed over 200 African Americans.

New York Public Library

Edmonia Highgate wrote about this and her other experiences for the Christian Recorder. She remained in Louisiana until 1868, despite acts of violence aimed at her. The next year she gave up teaching for work as a paid lecturer, traveling through the north speaking on “Five Years Among Southern Loyalists.”

In 1870, before Edmonia Highgate moved to Mississippi to take a teaching position at Tougaloo College, she had an abortion. On October 16, she was found dead in Syracuse. She was 26 years old.

Image result for edmonia highgate

For more on Edmonia Highgate, take a look at the work of literary scholar Eric Gardner.



Looking Backward by Laura E. Foster

Laura Foster Looking Backward 1912(Library of Congress)

In 1912, Life magazine published this anti-suffrage illustration by Laura E. Foster. A well-known artist and illustrator, Foster was born in 1871 in San Francisco, where she first began doing newspaper drawings. After the 1906 earthquake, she moved to New York City, where her career continued to grow and thrive, and where she married Donald Monroe, a stockbroker about eleven years her senior.

This drawing is a stark reminder that the suffrage movement was not a straightforward march toward progress. It had begun in the late 1840s, and in 1912, when Life published Foster’s illustration, it was on the cusp of an infusion of radicalism by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. This drawing attempted to convince women that love and marriage were incompatible with a career and “professional triumph.” The higher a woman climbed toward fame, the more riddled she would become with loneliness and anxiety. And suffrage was right near the top, contributing to those negative attributes.

Women’s suffrage was written into the Constitution with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, the same year Laura Foster died. Nearly one hundred years later, many women will still find the message of her illustration familiar.