Posted by: christinelaennec | March 8, 2011

Happy 100th International Women’s Day

Although I had lectured in Women’s Studies, editing my great-grandmother’s diaries was still an eye-opener for me.  She started her first diary in 1925 when she was 46 years old and married to her second husband.  She’d taken the very unusual step of divorcing her first husband in 1918.  Like other American women, she’d been granted the right to vote in 1920.  She led a very hard life, and kept her 1925 diary in an old mining ledger book that she’d saved from 1910.  You can see that only the top of the left page had been used, to note costs of “Mill Labor”.  May used the remaining space to write her diary, in red ink.

Entry for 5 November, 1927 - the diary of May Ripley Diddy Maylone

It’s very sad to read about her life, although she wouldn’t have wanted us to pity her.  As the diaries progress, it becomes clear that her second husband, like her first, was a womaniser.  She’d thrown her lot in with him and had sold the house she’d managed to buy, in order to fund his various money-making attempts:  copper mining, running a riverboat, homesteading.  In this diary they are living in a tent in Shasta County, Northern California, staking a claim on a plot of land.  Her husband was also working in a mine.  They had run through May’s money and were living a hand-to-mouth existence.  On these pages she vented her anger about the lack of help she got from her husband in collecting firewood:

Sat. 5[th]

Work, work, work.  Some times I wonder why I work so hard, work till the pounding of my forty-year-old heart [she was 46] flies the red danger signal, work untill I wonder if I won’t drop dead some day and they will wonder what killed me.  No one ever has realized in all my life how much harder I work than any human of my size and lifting power should.  As a child I did the work of a grown person from the time I could stand on a box and bend over a washtub of dirty didys [diapers / nappies – she was the eldest of the family], as a woman I did the work of two women and one man most of the time.

The deadly terrors of childbirth was dimmed by the ten days rest I’d have and no one could drag me out of bed.

Now after forty years of hard labor, labor that would make a prison term seem like a vacation, I find myself dragging in whole manzanita bushes so that we can have dry wood.  I commented on the fact that we had nearly two months this summer that we could have cut wood in, and my lord says “yes but if we’d moved any what good would it have done.”  Now can you beat that.  An hour a day for two weeks and he’d have cut as much wood as I can drag in if I work all day for two weeks. … It looked like rain today so I dragged in wood all day.

May expressed her feelings in her diary but as you can see she also “edited” it – by tearing out the next page.

While I do find it frustrating that sexism is still seen as entertaining and acceptable (and not just men putting down women but the reverse as well), I am so very grateful for the many opportunities that I’ve had in my life, and for the caring and helpful men that I’ve known.  There are still women who are slaves to their husbands, have no running water, live in tents and work themselves to death (May died only 6 years after this, at age 53).  There’s still more work to be done on women’s rights, but there is a lot to celebrate as well.  So I am pleased to wish you a very happy 100th International Women’s Day!

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Responses

  1. Good morning Christine and I’d like to wish you a Happy Women’s Day too.Thanks for sharing this very personal post with us.I love to read about these items.As you probably know I’m trying to study about women between 1850 and 1950, especially in Britian, a very interesting course….
    Hugs
    Erna

    • Erna, I didn’t know you were doing a course on Women’s History. That sounds really fascinating. I’m glad you share my fascination with women’s lives of the past. May would be completely amazed to see her diary published for all to see, but I don’t think she would mind. She did go back over it and correct it here and there, so I believe she intended it to be read!

  2. How poignant. It’s very special to have this connection to your grandmother’ s thoughts, feelings and life even though it is also so sad. makes me grateful but also makes me see point in keeping a diary. Your blog could maybe be the modern day equivalent?

    • I never met May, but I feel like I know her through her diaries. I do think diaries are very powerful, both for the person writing the diary and for any future readers. I think blogs are like diaries but we can’t actually vent our rage and frustration in quite the same way as in between the pages of a book. The most fascinating parts of May’s diaries for me are when she rants about something. And half the time she tears those parts out!

  3. Great post, Christine. Happy International Women’s Day! There is, indeed, much to celebrate.

  4. Oh my. I can hear her frustration singing out in that red ink! I am reminded of my Great (Great) Aunt Lizzie who emigrated to Canada in 1910 or so to escape her abusive husband and the threat of bringing up her younger siblings after their mother died. She worked as a cook in a logging camp. I found her on a ship’s register with a “distinctive scar on her cheek”. That seemed to say it all. She was a marked woman, but no doubt a strong one as she could so easily have stayed in Scotland and given in to a life of care. I don’t think her life in Canada was an easy one but it was at least a life she chose for herself. A Canadian cousin found her last known address and it was a big house in a good area of Vancouver. I like to think things were easier for her in the end.

    • What an amazing story! I think there must have been a lot of strong and independent women, and certainly the Wild West did give them opportunities they wouldn’t have had in more “civilized” parts of the world. Isn’t it great to know that she did well for herself in Canada?

  5. I could not agree more with everything May says in the extract from her diary and I have seen with my own eyes all the hurt, bad treatment and unfairness that many women experience on my travels in Africa. However, a lot has changed as gives cause for celebrations.
    Happy 100th Women’s day to you too.
    xx

    • Yes, as you say both are true at the same time: much yet to do, and yet much to be glad about. If ever I feel I’m overworked and put-upon, I think of May and feel ashamed of myself!

  6. Hope you had a lovely Day Christine. I actually read your post this morning, but didn’t have time to reply then. May’s story has stayed with me all day, however, and I have thought of her often, as well as my own ancestral mothers. Sadly i do not have such a precious record as the diary, but i think of my Great great grandmother, whose occupation was recorded in the 1891 Edinburgh census as ‘keeps a mangle’ . She died a few years later in a poorhouse of a stroke of some kind, aged 58. Not so long ago really. Thinking of all women still struggling today. Blessings. xx

    • Dear Jacqui,
      Yes, it was a good day thanks! Your great-great-grandmother must have been a strong woman and no doubt like May she had a good dose of humour mixed in with tenacity. As you say, it isn’t really all that long ago. We don’t know we’re living, as they say.

  7. How amazing to have these diaries. Your great-grandmother’s experience seems echoed by many other commenters, and that really brought home to me that we have made a great leap away from manual labour for many women. But not all, as you point out. My maternal grandmother is registered in various records as ‘fishworker’. She was a herring gutter, who followed the fishing fleet and stood on bitterly cold quaysides gutting fish, her hands in brine all day, fingers bandaged with scraps of cloth. In her old age her greatest joy was that all her grandchildren went to university.

    • I’ve read about the “nighean nan sgadan,” the herring girls. They always look so jolly and I’ve heard that it was considered good work. I don’t think I would have lasted an hour! It’s wonderful that your grandmother lived to see her grandchildren go to university. My own grandparents were hugely supportive of my higher education – they enormously valued education.

  8. Very interesting!

  9. That diary is a real treasure, although it must be hard to read about her frustration. I recently read a book about the settlement of the west as told from women’s letters and they were full of similar stories: hard work, bad living conditions, inattentive husbands and sick kids. Yes, we are lucky for all we have.

    • Actually, most of the time May has such a good sense of humour and love for life that reading her diary is a pleasure despite the depressing reality of how poor and undervalued she was. And there are moments where she acknowledges that her lot is much the same as other women’s, so she knew she wasn’t alone. Reading about the realities of the pioneer life makes me convinced I would never have survived it myself.


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