Friday, March 04, 2011

Happy Women's History Month (by Suzie)

In honor of National Women's History Month, 1000memories has partnered with the National Women's History Project and the Internet Archive to remember the contributions of women in history - those whose lives shaped and were shaped by history. You can help us write as many women into history as possible by adding the significant women from your life. - from its website.
This is a terrific idea. Feel free to write about yourself, too. In addition to this site, you can write a summary of your life, adding to it as you have time. Or, you can beg a woman in your life to do it as a gift to you. More stories will enrich our history.

My mother died 10 years ago, and I'm glad that I interviewed her beforehand. I just wish I had started the project earlier. Here are a few tidbits from the blank book where I jotted notes:

My Irish great-great-grandparents immigrated to New York. "I don't think they spoke to anyone who wasn't Irish," my mother said. My great-grandparents Eliza and Charlie didn't get past the third grade in school. Charlie and one of his brothers had taken their mother's maiden name because their drunken father had beaten their mother so much. Charlie didn't beat Eliza, but he spent most of his time away from home, with his mistresses or buddies. He came home for meals and managed to father six children, three of whom died.

Charlie owned a saloon in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, before losing it to creditors. "Everyone loved Charlie," my mother said. "My grandmother used to say, 'If everyone who loved him had paid their bar bill, the saloon could have prospered.' "

Customers liked to run a tab, which they didn't always pay. One day when Eliza was tending bar, she refused to serve a man who wouldn't pay. He insisted. "She said, 'You want a beer? Here's your beer.' She said, 'I just slung it in his face, and I put it on his tab.' "

I think this happened in the late 1800s, and as a woman in a bar, she would have had to be tough. Most women who wanted a pint would go to the saloon's backdoor. If they did come in, they had to stay behind a glass partition. Eliza and Charlie lived above the saloon, and one night, she came downstairs in her nightgown and found Charlie with a woman behind the partition. She smashed the glass and threw the "dirty hussy" into the street.

Eliza left, but came back the next day. I don't know why, but I do know it was hard for a divorced woman with children to survive. Charlie, who was about 15 years older, had divorced his first wife, a "showgirl," and their two daughters became showgirls.

My grandmother boasted that she had never had to work, but Mom said that wasn't true. Grandma had cleaned homes, sewn clothes, and done clerical work before she gave birth to Mom. Afterward, she did "kit work," beading shoes and purses.

None of this is exceptional, but it does add to important issues, such as the unrecorded work of women. For example, Eliza would have been considered a wife, not a saloon keeper or bartender. The same goes for my grandmother, although she also supplemented the family's income.

ETA: The National Museum of Women in Military Service for America also lets women register basic information, plus their experiences. Here's a screen shot. This is a wonderful archive and museum at the ceremonial entrance to the Arlington National Cemetery.

From Anna: The National Women's History Museum also lets you submit chronicles of women's lives.