I am going to give you a number of women’s stories but first I want to tell you that the most amazing women’s stories are not on the best seller list. I probably won’t talk to you about Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood, Robin Morgan, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Toni Morrison, May Sarton, Marge Piercy, Jill Ker Conway or other well known feminist authors. First, if you would spend a month or so reading these authors, non-fiction, fiction and poetry, your heart will open and you will see the world a little bit differently.You can order books from these authors from any library and Amazon does a good job stocking their works. You can also find their work digitally at Kindle and Nook.
Somewhere in the seventies, I read a book about women and the witch hunts in Europe. They coincided with the Inquisition. Millions of women were tortured, raped, drown, hung, or burned at the stake for being witches. Yes, I said millions. That first book I got at the local library made me vomit. Men and children were also murdered for the same reasons. Repulsive? Oh, yes. My response, besides vomiting was to go to the library and order any book on the ” burning times” they could get for me. I read and I cried. I read some more. And somewhere along the way I read the Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I looked up and in the mirror I saw a different woman. I read about the Salam Witch Trials and when I looked into the mirror I was a feminist. I took Women’s Studies Classes and met two of my dearest friends. Charlotte, RIP, and I would go to all the art films at one of the local universities. We debated women’s issues and she was like a Mother figure to me. Suzanne and I continue to be friends. We have traveled together, done every artsy thing you can do. We would go to NYC every October to see Broadway and all of the museums and galleries. She is still one of my dearest friends. She is a University professor and we never run out of things to talk about. We have gone through the ups and downs together.
While in the Women’s Studies classes, I got a good feel for how women have been treated by governments, history, the arts, as well as husbands who wanted that perfect wife. Beautiful, quiet, calm, somewhat artsy and happy with her role in life.The most important attribute was subservience .Some women could do it. Some did it for years and then lost it. Could not wear the mask or play her part in the comedy of life any longer. They often went slowly mad or became alcoholic. Because the aforementioned women’s books are readily available I want to share a secret of mine. What I found most revealing and illuminatory was women’s diaries and journals. There are thousands of them in print, or out of print but second hand book stores are a good resource. So I began to read about little known women and women who were only known to their friends and families. A few of them got published under a non de plume. A male non de plume.
The Civil War in America brought out a lot of unlikely people who helped the injured and crippled during they war. Walt Whitman is one of them and he has written many poems about his experiences. Many women, unknown to us today, wrote journals and diaries concerning their experiences with the other side’s army. There is a book out called Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles. It is a novel but many similar experiences happened to women in the mountains of the Carolinas. Her voice in the book is that of an old soul which is appropriate because many women aged greatly during the war. Even if they were not wives who followed along, or were nurses on the battlefields.
Walt Whitman worked as a nurse at the front and so did Clara Barton. She is another wonderful role model for women even today. Many women dressed and passed as men to help fight the war. They fought next to the men and some even died and were buried in mass graves with the other men. I believe today that would be called collateral damage. As the armies, advanced and retreated they often burned farms, barns as well as plantations. The women, elderly and children were then left homeless with nothing but the clothes on their backs. In the mid-western states and the Western Carolinas, many lived out the war in caves, hunting and gathering to feed their families. I am sure many of you will find this familiar territory. Some women were considered spies and were imprisoned and suffered rape and terror at the hands of their captors.
War has always been considered the province of men. When cultures and religions collide, it is usually the men who have chronicled the experience. For American women, the Civil War was a watershed. It is, until recently, always the women who pack the knapsacks, they wave good bye as the troops march past full of energy, good cheer and confidence. The women ran the farms and businesses and raised the next generation of soldiers who will be sacrificed for God and country. So war, from the perspective of women’s eyes is very different that what the men’s eyes see. During the Civil War, 6188,000 American men died. Thousands more were amputees and at that time had really little they could do to support their families after the war was over. They were often filled with rage and bitterness. I would recommend the book, The Last Living Confederate Widow Tells All for a glimpse into the years after the Civil War is over, when the fabric of our country was cut to ribbons by this war. It was a war we had to fight but that is a story for another day.
For many centuries, if you were looking for information about a particular time in history, you would be able to find it. But if it was a piece of history that effected women you would be hard put to find it. Which is another reason it is important to read women’s diaries and journals. Women were there too. Women have always been there and they have suffered a great deal quietly without the world taking notice. So to completely understand human history, you need to also read Herstory.