Last summer a reader penned me a note, asking that I write about the changes in women’s lives over the past century as a tribute to Mother’s Day. That is a fine way to consider the sweep of recent economic history. I do so through the experiences of four women—my and my wife’s grandmothers. This provides enough passage of time to fully see the immense changes of the past century and longer, while still connecting it to people we knew and loved.
Three of these women were born in southern Indiana, one in in southern Illinois, all at home and on farms. They were born between 1897 and 1911, before Mother’s Day was widely celebrated. They lived between 75 and 99 years. All four were born of mostly Scots-Irish stock, whose great-grandfathers walked westward to claim the lands owed Revolutionary War veterans. They carried common names—Baker, King, Sipe and Young.
All four had fathers or grandfathers who’d fought for Union Regiments in the Civil War. One man was wounded, one died and one lost a brother to the war. Like most American women of their generation, war would revisit them in ghastly ways throughout their lives.
Three of the four women finished high school, and one attended a woman’s business school immediately afterwards. One finished college later in life. Another made it only through eighth grade but was allowed to attend again a second year before working full-time at her family’s dairy farm. All were well-read and possessed of a love for learning, art and crafts. Their paintings, embroidery, tatting and crochet are among the only family heirlooms any of their grandchildren possess.
All four women married. Two were widowed young; one with four children at home, and the other with three. One remarried, raising four more children; the other was widowed for 62 years. Tuberculosis and war wounds claimed their husbands in their 30s and 40s. A third lost her husband to a farming accident decades later. These were difficult lives, plagued with risks few of us imagine today.
These remarkable women bore 15 children, all at home and before antibiotics. One gave birth during the 1937 flood, with the physician arriving by boat, and another bore two children in a log cabin. Their children suffered what were then common diseases of childhood, including rheumatic fever and polio. Still, these 15 children grew to adulthood. All the sons served in the military. One died in battle and two more from illness connected to their military service.
Only two of these women worked at paying jobs outside the home. One was a school teacher at 17 in Canaan, Ind. She lived with a host family through the week and was driven daily by carriage to a one-room school, returning on horseback to her family on Friday. Later in life she finished college and returned to the classroom. The other, widowed young and with four boys to feed, worked in war factories in 1941 and a variety of jobs thereafter.
Of course, labor at home was tough, as any contemporary mother can attest. None of these families had electricity before the 1940s, and “farm work” meant breakfast prepared on wood stoves after pre-dawn milking, among other chores. Their stories of cooking meals during harvest and planting seasons are worthy of several columns. Much of their labor went to their communities, through churches, schools and civic groups. In my mind’s eye, I picture my grandmother, in her well-ironed apron, canning fruit for a local covered bridge festival that survives in Rockville to this day.
These women passed into middle age with few of the modern conveniences we take for granted. Each lived one-third to half their lives without electricity or indoor plumbing. Their homes were largely self-sustaining. They raised their own chickens for eggs and meat. They slaughtered their own livestock each year and smoked the meat. Gardens supplied their herbs and vegetables. They made and mended their own clothes and skinned rabbits and squirrels for dinner. The aprons they wore served not only to keep their dresses clean, but also as potholders, dishtowels, and cloths to wipe a child’s tears. These simple items should have been the model for superhero capes.
Whatever surplus crops they could save was sold for shoes, books and tools. By the standards of their time, these women ranged from lower-middle class to solidly upper-middle class. Most moved up and down the income ladder due to the Great Depression or loss of a husband. By today’s standards, they were very poor, living well below the modern standards of poverty. This was not unusual for the era, and none of these women described themselves in those terms. They lived in communities that valued their fellowship and wisdom. In such places, one is never really impoverished.
Insofar as we can recall, only one of our grandmothers, the youngest, ever travelled overseas or took more than one or two vacations. Only two of our grandmothers ever learned to drive a car. Still, they lived at a time of stunning technological and economic growth. They were born when life expectancy was fewer than 50 years, and the last one passed away when expectancy was close to 80 years. Nothing like this has happened before anywhere in the world.
Over the course of their lifetimes, the inflation-adjusted standard of living of Americans grew more than 800 percent. This great enrichment saw them live through a time of unrecognizable change. The world they were born into would’ve been more familiar to a European peasant of 1650 than to anyone born after World War II. These times are worlds apart, separated by more economic growth in one century than in the previous hundred centuries combined.
This widening prosperity gave extraordinary opportunities to their children. We grandchildren were born healthy, in hospitals, in a world of antibiotics and wonder medicines. All of us completed high school and most graduated college. Of the 36 grandkids, all lived to adulthood, and 33 are still alive, with the youngest of us in our 50s. Though a disproportionate number of these grandchildren went to war, all of us came home. With most of us now in our 60s, my cousins have already exceeded the lifespan of our grandmother’s generation by a third.
The oldest of these four women voted in 1920, the first election in which women in the United States could participate. That was an important moment that marked the essential change in the opportunities for women. Over their lives, the experience of women in civil life changed more than in all the time before it. In some ways these women were ahead of their times. They were all equally or better-educated than their husbands and worked outside the home at twice the rate of women of their times.
On this Mother’s Day it is both comforting and optimistic to think upon the vast sweep of history these women lived through. They built a life through tragedy and heartbreak, and we can today draw strength from their example. Of course, I view them a bit differently. I am thankful for them as mothers and grandmothers, and for the love, support and encouragement they gifted us.