96 Years Ago Today My Great Aunt Voted for the First Time (and wrote about it)

Hattie Whitcher
Harriet E. (Whiting) Whitcher

Tomorrow I will return to daily posts on writing in support of NaNoWriMo participants and other writers, but today I have something special to share, also related to writing and especially pertinent this year.

As I’ve written about here before, my great aunt Harriet (Hattie) Whitcher, a Great Plains homesteader and part Native woman on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, kept a daily diary for most of her adult life, from 1920 through much of 1957. One of her entries that I treasure most is from November 2, 1920. At the time, she and her husband, Will, lived about a mile outside Spencer, Nebraska:

1920 Nov. 1st Monday

It was windy and snowed all day but in eve stopped. Will could only do the chores but I cleaned part of basement and it was cold all day.

Nov. 2nd Tuesday

Was a bright day all day and snow melted a little. Will took me to Spencer as Mamma was sick and I staid until eve and he came for me. Will went to Brad’s for dinner as he & Mr. went hunting. I voted at Spencer Polls for the first time. [emphasis added]

Nov. 1-2, 1920
Click on image for larger version

Hattie often capitalized nouns that were important to her (e.g., “Spencer Polls”)—held over from a common practice of the 18th and 19th centuries. The 19th Amendment would have been ratified only 76 days earlier, on August 18, 1920, and knowing Hattie from reading her 37 years of diary entries, I am certain she would have looked forward with excitement to exercising her right for the first time at the age of 39,

This particular presidential election was between Republicans Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge and Democrats James M. Cox and Franklin Roosevelt. While Hattie does not mention whom she voted for in 1920, she would later become an ardent supporter of FDR, writing often of listening to his radio speeches and noting the anniversary of his death for years afterward.

I often think of how Hattie’s life would have been different had she lived in a different time or place. She was smart, sensitive, and keenly interested in politics both local and global. In later years, she complained in her diary that the women of the Legion Auxiliary of which she was a member spent more time “fussing over” children than dealing with business, and noted with impatience that the “men are right on to ropes of Legion stuff and continue to have their same officers” while the ladies often “just visited.” She often felt frustrated and outnumbered by the male voices around her, such as when, at a community meeting, “all the men were upset because I wanted a higher school at Hidden Timber [the local community], and I am in for making them prove their charges against the referendum, but I guess the day was spent in vain.”

Aunt Hattie's Diaries
Aunt Hattie’s Diaries

Whenever I feel too tired or uninspired or simply lazy to write, I try to remember Hattie, who poured her experiences and heart and soul into 77 volumes as she chronicled the Great Depression, Dust Bowl, World War II, Korean War, and progress in transportation and everyday life that must have seemed, at times, magical.

And, of course, the right to vote.

How Election 2016 Has Changed Me for the Better

me_vanou https://www.flickr.com/photos/me_vanou/5958633851/in/photolist-a5xyfp-dVQX8j-a9g9xX-8g9EjT-STaja-dGwTa9-aeHvLA-72BaM-btrC8U-pXTmvx-q1LCsj-8F37Ne-cUiBnA-nMUaB1-4jyEr1-dcKDfQ-6tKF42-bjLtYT-83mYWp-6pnWGR-8ytoZb-8yqkST-6HDVzH-4HU1hm-nj15N8-53niJE-4fivMH-6HJ1z7-4e6fbZ-9rYAb5-nFTtE3-qDEY7C-HdZUaY-bbUJNM-q96zgL-5WUYDc-nK1juV-7DZarw-4ik7Tk-nTGcWJ-rfQQw6-pT6nUL-bunoF2-nFT1vd-4TvXGT-qiqNu4-jVhE3J-5uWvcg-mHME8R-75XbXi "be quiet" (CC BY-ND 2.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
“be quiet” by me_vanou (CC BY-ND 2.0)

There’s not a lot of joy in this election. keke many other Americans, I sometimes wish I could sleep ala Rip Van Winkle through the next twenty-four days (I’ve already voted, so I could actually sleep for twenty-five days).

However, while watching Michelle Obama’s New Hampshire speech yesterday (video at the end of this post), I was reminded that this election season has changed me—is changing me more each day—and for the better. For the first time in my fifty-two years (the same age as our First Lady), I am realizing just how much I have allowed my own voice and emotions to be hushed.

How is this election season changing me?

Silence no longer feels like an option.

I am expressing my views more readily, regardless of whether those around me will understand or be offended or take me seriously or even listen.

I am examining more carefully what it is inside my mind and heart that holds me back and makes me feel powerless and less than, knowing I have the agency to change.

I am reminding myself that I can be compassionate and giving and supportive while at the same time attending to my own needs and desires and voice, that self-compassion and self-care are not selfish.

I yearn to follow Michelle Obama’s example in learning to honor my own emotions, in refusing to internalize the belief that just because they are a woman’s emotions, they are trivial.

“Maybe we’ve grown accustomed to swallowing these emotions and staying quiet” ~ Michelle Obama

As I am fortunate enough to be able to speak—and to write—I now more than ever feel obligated to do so.


she stopped talking as an anorexic stops eating, slowly at first
forgoing the extra word, skipping the unnecessary reply in
favor of the nod or smile, a simple experiment, really, a
goal to improve oneself, until she got the taste for it
no one noticed as she purged the superfluous, sent
phone calls to voice mail, rationed herself to one
hundred spoken words per day by hoarding
sentences in a notebook and bingeing on
thoughts, saving precious syllables
for public use, bringing them
out only when necessary
speaking less and less
until she was finally
engorged and

The above poem was one I scribbled years ago and recently pulled from a pile of drafts to share with my writing roundtable. Only now am I beginning to understand the depth and breadth of lives and experiences that make up the collective “she.” My understanding will no doubt continue to deepen, and I will continue to grow.

All because of a presidential campaign.

“We simply cannot let that happen. We cannot allow ourselves to be so disgusted that we just shut off the TV and walk away. And we can’t just sit around wringing our hands. Now, we need to recover from our shock and depression and do what women have always done in this country. We need you to roll up your sleeves. We need to get to work.” ~ Michelle Obama (read full transcript)

Post update: Michelle Obama transcript quotations added October 15, 2016.

Grandma’s Ball of String

The following flash non-fiction essay was first published in the December 2015 issue of HippocampusThis version includes a few links and photographs of my grandmother. And, yes, the header photo is the ball of string.

String Theory

The ball of string fits reassuringly in my hand, smaller than a softball but just bigger than a baseball. Its perfect sphericity seems impossible against my palm, testament to the care and diligence with which it was wound.

For a long time after I brought it home from my grandmother’s kitchen, where it had been stored in a coffee can in a low cupboard drawer, the orb sat as a kind of museum piece on a bookshelf in my house. The string itself is aged, not quite yellow but certainly not white, smoother than one might expect, and tied together in pieces of about two feet with knots so secure that only magic could pry them apart. I have looked in every hardware store I pass for string of the exact diameter and strength and texture, without success.

Grandma, born in 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair
Grandma, born 1902 and the youngest of 10 children, is the girl with the white bow in her hair. Her father left his New York state home just shy of his 16th birthday to fight in the Civil War.

In recent years I have begun to use the ball with college students in a classroom creativity activity that requires exactly one yard of string. Each time I cut three feet of string, I am struck that my grandmother would have added her final piece long before any of these students were born. Will I ever get to its center?

Do I want to?

Grandma, late 1920s
Grandma, late 1920s

Grandma Louise raised four children on a farm and ranch in Todd County, South Dakota, the third poorest county in the United States per capita income, with a population density of six residents per square mile. My parents lived on the same farm, so I spent much of my early years at Grandma’s compact, white, two-story house, especially after the birth of my brother when I was two. He was colicky, my mother was depressed, and it was good for all involved for my chatty, impulsive self to be out from underfoot.

Tucked near the center of my being are long, delicious, formative hours watching Grandma roll dough for cinnamon rolls and wipe the flour from her hands onto her ever-present faded, calico apron that slipped over her head and tied loosely in a bow at the small of her back. From her I learned how to embroider dish towels and crochet potholders and iron men’s handkerchiefs. Together we listened to a radio program called Kitchen-Klatter, during which I would be shushed several times as I impatiently waited for it to end.

Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa
Yours truly, with Grandma and Grandpa

While rarely idle, she would have never described herself as “too busy.” She was a farmer’s wife, accustomed to waiting for bread dough to rise and cookies to bake, for crops to sprout, cattle to fatten, alfalfa to dry and wheat to ripen. For children and grandchildren to grow up.

Office of War Information poster, 1943.
Office of War Information poster, 1943.

A member of the “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” generation, Grandma repurposed long before repurposing was a thing (logophiles take note: the word “repurpose” was coined in 1984). The women of my youth never remodeled for the sake of remodeling nor bought anything new before the old was useless. Threadbare work shirts that could no longer protect from the sun willed their buttons to the button jar, their fabric to rags and quilts. Gravy turned any leftovers into feasts. Even dryer lint was transformed into stuffing for pincushions.

String was repurposed perhaps more than anything else. In an era before cellophane tape or plastic bags, grocers wrapped food in brown paper and string for its journey home. Parcels to be mailed were similarly packaged, as were holiday gifts. As I use my grandmother’s string one yard at a time, my appreciation swells for the simple and useful and for the cumulative significance of time. I imagine her unwrapping each package in her measured way, pulling the string taut to remove any kinks, knotting it expertly to the waiting naked end, then rewrapping the new addition tightly before returning it to the coffee can. Later she would cut new pieces to bind turkey legs or secure climbing bean plants to poles or show children how to play Cat’s Cradle or Jacob’s Ladder or telephone with tin cans. Then another package, another measure of string, and it all would start again.

In String Theory, everything—planets, trees, human beings, computers, energy—is ultimately the same at its core, a simple, one-dimensional, vibrating thread that unifies the universe. I cup my ball of string in my hands—hands that look with each passing year more and more like my grandmother’s, age spots and all—and the theory of everything slowly unfolds.

Do you write about family papers and other historical records, or know someone who does? A new anthology of family narratives currently is calling for submissions of creative nonfiction, essays, and poetry based on family diaries, letters, and other artifacts. Click here for more information. Deadline: September 1, 2016.

A Fifty-Something Woman

“I keep returning to the central question facing over-50 women as we move into our Second Adulthood. What are our goals for this stage in our lives? There really are no more ‘shoulds.'” ~ Gail Sheehy

In the cozy house of my childhood, my bedroom was only a short hallway’s distance from the living room, and, after bedtime, my brother and I sometimes crept to where we could stealthily watch whatever prime time television shows our parents thought inappropriate for us.

On January 8, 1972, the sitcom All in the Family aired an episode titled “Edith’s Problem” (the episode would win an Emmy for the scriptwriter). I was seven years old. My brother was five.

The next morning, I asked my mother what “menopause” meant. When she told me I didn’t need to know, I looked it up in the dictionary. For reasons I do not fully understand, this moment—asking my mother, opening the dictionary, reading the entry—remains as clear in my memory as if it happened yesterday.

I’m sure I didn’t fully understand the definition. My own mother was not yet thirty and far from menopause at the time. In my seven-year-old mind, the women I knew were either young women (my mother and her friends) or old women (my grandmothers and other children’s grandmothers). What happened in the interim remained a mystery to me for many years.

It is a mystery no longer. At age fifty-one, I have a new vocabulary word (and one my spell check program does not recognize): perimenopause, the years leading up to menopause (technically, menopause doesn’t occur until a woman has not menstruated for a full year). Every woman’s experience of perimenopause is different and can include everything from hot flashes to increased migraines and even sleep disorders.

But this post is not just about the years of perimenopause. It’s about what comes afterward, what Gail Sheehy calls Second Adulthood.

Second Adulthood: More Than Happiness

In her book The Silent Passage, Sheehy describes the life transformation of Second Adulthood that she found in her research, a transformation that goes beyond relief of the physical aspects of perimenopause:

“[A] mobilization usually begins shortly after menopause, and a profound change in self-concept begins to register with rising exhilaration for many women as they move into their fifties. They often break the seal on repressed angers. They overcome the habits of trying to be perfect and of needing to make everyone love them…. Many women, during the decade of the Mid-Forties to the Mid-Fifties, find the sustained courage to extricate themselves from lives of desperate repetition.

This sense of well-being is more than happiness, the latter generally conveying relief from pent-up frustration or deprivation. Well-being registers deep in our unconscious, as a sustained background tone of equanimity—a calm, composed sense of all-rightness—that remains behind the more intense contrasts of daily events, including periods of unhappiness. On the life cycle graphs plotted from results of my 60,000 questionnaires, that sense of well-being gradually rises for women through the mid-fifties, reaching a high point around fifty-seven, when it takes off and soars. The issue of trying too hard to please is, for most, surmounted. Women begin at last to value themselves. [emphases added; Gail Sheehy, The Silent Passage, Pocket Books, 1973, pp. 121-22]

I’m reminded of a lunchtime conversation with a friend a few years ago. In her sixties, she talked of a physical energy she now has that she had never had as a young woman. As she spoke, her eyes sparkled, and she sat with the confidence of someone entirely at home in her own skin.

I’m also reminded of my mother, who once told me that life for her didn’t really take off until she was in her forties. My mother died at age fifty-six of multiple myeloma, so her final years were tinged with the fatigue and worry and pain of cancer and chemotherapy. However, in the post-menopausal years leading up to her diagnosis she thrived as she started a quilting business, got up early to piece together just the right combinations of color blocks, published a newsletter, spoke at conferences, and became the woman she was always meant to be in her brief Second Adulthood.

Men, Women, and Change

George Eliot
George Eliot published Middlemarch when she was 52 and her first novel at age 40 (public domain image)

Do men and women experience this life transition differently? Men do go through a similar “male menopause” as their hormones adjust to the aging process, but Sheehy writes that while many men view their latter years as a time to slow down, many women are just beginning to gear up.

When I posted the quotation at the top of this post on my Facebook page, the lone male response (from someone I have affection and respect for) was “The saddest thing in your career is the 50th birthday of a young person with potential.” With the caveat that growing older is of course affected by health and socioeconomics and other circumstances, I see middle-aged unfulfilled potential as more exciting than sad. Sure, it is far too late for me to be a mathematician or concert pianist or prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. However, perhaps because of my mother’s example, I have always thought of womanhood as a life of expanding rather than diminishing possibilities.

Do people change in fundamental ways as adults? Can they? While I know men who would answer an unequivocal “yes” to that question, women grow up knowing that, at least physically, we will and do change in profound ways all the time. Perhaps that better prepares us to enter a Second Adulthood—regardless of whether we worked outside the home, married, divorced, or have children—with an eye toward engaging our potential in new ways. This is our new challenge, our new purpose, one that is as individual as our thumbprint.

Consider Joy Navan, who, after earning a PhD. in her fifties is, in her retirement as a full professor, getting a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. She writes of potential on her blog, ongiftedelders:

When is enough, enough?  To continue growing, learning, and achieving is part of the nature of giftedness for many adults and elders. The intellectual imperative we might call it, or the impetus to self-actualize oneself – to fulfill the blueprint of potentiality with which we were born.

Engaging our potential does not always involve accomplishments visible to the outside world. Christi Craig, a friend and fellow Wisconsin writer, leads a writing group at a retirement home/assisted living facility. Her students are in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. When I recently attended a reading they gave, what struck me most was how present they all were. No one was checking cell phones or waiting impatiently to do something else. Their writing was sharp and witty, lyrical and thoughtful, polished and poignant. They worked on their pieces, revising, stretching themselves, taking creative risks. It was clear that the product of their work went well beyond the page. More and more, I find myself looking ahead to these models of inspiration rather than back to who I was in my twenties.

Learning To Value Ourselves: Ready for the Next

In the Downton Abbey episode “Open House” (S6 E6), Cora and Robert discuss her being offered presidency of the local hospital. “I’ve had one career already, bringing up my daughters,” Cora explains to her husband. “They don’t need me now, so I’m ready for the next.”

Robert’s response is, “The girls still need you. But anyway, isn’t it time for a rest?” Note that “the girls” are in their thirties.

cvr9781451607420_9781451607420_hrBeing a fifty-something woman can sometimes feel like the epitome of uncool. We are not yet old enough to be a wise elder. We can remain young at heart and childlike, yes, but—let’s face it—we are no longer in our youth. Our bodies change as dramatically as they did when we were adolescents, and, like teenagers, we are not quite used to this new skin, hair, and shape. We can feel embarrassed to talk about what is happening to us, even more twenty years after The Silent Passage was first published (see, for example, “The Workplace Wellness Issue No One Is Talking About,” as well as the revised and updated edition of The Silent Passage).

Sheehy explains how we can unwittingly adopt a cultural bias as our own, a “fear and envy of the physical, mental, sexual, and spiritual energies of fully evolved women—women who are beyond being objects defined by the male gaze and now fully conscious keepers of their own bodies.” (1973 Pocket Books edition, p. 152)

We have choices of how to think of this time of our lives. Learning to be a fully conscious keeper of ourselves is perhaps the greatest gift of aging.

The unpredictable years of perimenopause get us ready for the next ____ (you fill in the blank).