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Feminist Genealogy

by EmilyCC

This is my great-grandma. I’m not quite sure what her name is, but I’m going to find out.

Maria inspired me to learn more about my matrilineal line after her post about Sister Hinckley, but I knew this would be difficult. My maternal grandmother, Grandma Nora, died recently, and she lost her mother when she was young (around 13). Grandma Nora never told us stories about her mother—didn’t mention her name.

So, I look in various places. I find “Lula Clair” in a genealogy book. I’ve heard her called, “Clara.” I’ve heard her called, “Claire.” I’ve seen, “Clara Lulu” elsewhere. I like to call her, “Clara.” After seeing her picture for the first time this weekend, I think she looks like a Clara.

Several months ago, I got an invitation to her family reunion, and I decided to go because I’m dying to make that matrilineal tree. I was surprised to find out that Clara was from a prominent Eastern Arizona family. I’m just as much an H as I am a P or a Clyde, and yet, that name, that family, was quickly lost in my matrilineal line.

I was excited for the reunion. I was going to find out about Clara. I was going to reclaim my matrilineal line.

But, instead, this week, I find myself mourning for a woman I never met and may never know much about. The stories I’ve gathered bring no peace. They upset me all the more because this is a woman who lived a hard life. How did so much of her get lost so quickly?

Clara’s parents died in a car crash, hit by a train on their way back from a genealogy meeting in 1922. She was one of the younger of their 13 children. She was probably raised by an older sibling. We’re not sure.

What we do know happens soon after her parents’ death, when she marries a man that the family didn’t approve of.

Growing up, I didn’t hear much about Clara, but I heard stories growing up about her husband. He was a miner, a trucker, frequently unemployed. They moved around those mining towns in Eastern Arizona a lot.

He was also a drinker and a womanizer. He abused his kids. He hit Clara.

My sister said Grandma Nora told her about the time when Clara loaded up her 4 kids in the car to have a picnic (Clara didn’t know how to drive). Clara left while they were having the picnic and went to the police station, where she asked the police chief if he could ask her husband to stop beating her. Grandma Nora remembers her trying to shield her children from what was going on.

Clara later died of breast cancer at home while her three older children were at school and her husband was at work. But, her toddler was home, and the neighbors later found the little girl crying on her dead mother’s chest. (Sometimes, I take comfort that this daughter died 2 years later of typhoid.)

Grandma Nora suffered after her mother died; she lived with her father for a time. He continued to be abusive. He “took up” with quite a few women. She ran away at 15, and thankfully, some of these relatives at the reunion took her in, helped her. But, I think those hard early years effected her ability to live a happy life.

Grandma Nora was plagued with depression. Money was always tight. Her marriage ended in divorce. Her children and grandchildren found it hard to connect with her.

Are you still reading? Is this post enough of a downer yet?

Because I think there is hope here…I look at these womens’ lives from my cushy upper-middle class one.

And, this is where I think about feminism and their history.

Some people hate feminism. They think feminists are discontent, looking to stir up trouble. We hate men. Apparently, we hate Sarah Palin.

How often do we (feminists and non-feminsits) forget the ground-breaking ways feminism has worked to make women’s lives better?

Feminism has made it possible for women to have equal access to education in the United States. It has raised awareness of domestic violence. It has afforded women greater access to healthcare.

What would Clara’s life have looked like if she had been born fifty years later?
Would she have left her husband?
Would she have gotten treatment for her cancer?
Yet, she has all but been forgotten.

And, I am reminded that well-behaved women seldom make history. Clara and Grandma Nora were well-behaved women, who worked hard and raised their families in the Church. I think they tried to make the best of what they had.

How much easier and better is my life because of the sacrifices the women in my family made?
How much easier and better is my life because of feminism?

At the family reunion, everyone had stories to tell of their ancestor, one of the 13 kids. They set up tables for each child filled with photos and artifacts.

Clara’s table was empty. My mom and I were her only descendants at the reunion. We felt bad that we hadn’t tried harder to find something, but we also knew that there probably wasn’t much (Grandma Nora and her brother burned down the house making candy a few years before Clara died—they lost everything in that fire).

I felt bad. My husband said, “Emily, she knows that you’re here, and that’s all that matters.” I suppose one of the best ways I can make sure she’s still remembered is to be a witness of her life.  So, I write this post as a witness to Clara’s life and as a tribute to the other women in history we have forgotten.

Who are the strong women in your family? How do you find them?

EmilyCC

EmilyCC works for a national non-profit and lives in Phoenix, Arizona with her spouse and three children. She is a former editor of Exponent II and a founding blogger at The Exponent.

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20 Responses

  1. Emily, would you mind contacting me privately, please?

    You really have to look hard between the lines to recognize the contributions, don’t you? I have a grandmother living in New York State in the early 19th century — I know her name and her dates, but to find something personal I have to do things like look at the agricultural census. When I see how many sheep the family owned, and how many yards of fabric were produced in the family in a given year, I know I’m seeing the produce of my grandmother and her daughters.

  2. Sheila says:

    Thank you for this, Emily! Clara’s story mirrors several stories of my own line–frustratingly, those tidbits of information are fraught with ambiguity and never enough detail. I am remotivated to learn more.

  3. Jessawhy says:

    Emily,
    This is a beautiful post. What a wonderful tribute to a woman who went through so much difficulty and anonymity. Thank you for writing this.
    My great-grandmother was alive until just before my oldest son was born. I have lots of memories of her, helping me cook and teaching me how to pick raspberries in her backyard.
    I’ve always loved her stories and I hope that I can pass them on to my children.
    Again, wonderful post.

  4. Caroline says:

    Emily, this is wonderful. I love the way you connect your ancestor’s story with feminism. Great questions.

    I too think of how good my life is compared with the lives of my foremothers. How I can have credit cards in my name or get bank loans or vote because of the work feminists did for all of us.

    Your post is timely for me on another level. My grandmother is dying in the hospital as I write. So many stories will die with her. I wish I had done an oral history with her.

  5. Ale says:

    Hi Emily, great post. You are so good at expressing and describing what you were going through. I’m glad you and your mom are great woman that were at the reunion and learned and supported Grandma Nora’s table. I bet she was glad for that!
    Makes me want to ask my grandma about stories of her past, thank you!

  6. JM says:

    Thank you for your beautiful post. It makes
    me think of my last surviving grandparent, my
    paternal grandmother who is still alive at 103.
    Although she did not face the same type of
    diffculties experience by Clara, she has her
    share of stories to tell, including some
    significant challenges. I remember once asking
    her if she ever felt sorry for herself during
    the difficult times, and she replied that it
    had never occurred to her to feel sorry for
    herself.

    She is very spirited and strong. She just did
    what she had to do, and would not let anyone
    get in her way!

  7. Kirsten says:

    Emily– You and your mother were the best “displays” at Clara’s table. What more could an ancestor hope for than a strong, kind, talented great granddaughter?

  8. CatherineWO says:

    I am deep into a project of researching and writing about some of my female pioneer ancestors. Ardis, your blog has given me several helpful suggestions. You do have to read between the lines and look in odd places to find the women’s stories. The story of my mother’s mother is very similar to that of your Clara. She was sexually abused by her father, her mother died when she was thirteen, she had a miserable first marriage (of which my mother was the oldest child), and she never trusted men. But she fought for the safety of her own three daughters, as well as for their education (something she didn’t have much of).

    An interesting sideline of my research has been a list I have compiled which I refer to as my “lost sisters.” These are women who are related to me (great great aunts, in-laws, etc.), but who seem to have been completely lost in all the records. One of them was one of the original female temple workers in Nauvoo, and her husband was a full-time mason worker on that temple, but he died at Winter Quarters and she never came west. She is then lost in the LDS records. But I found her in census records twenty years later.

    Another “lost sister” I just found while in Salt Lake last week. She was never married, but she came to Utah in the 1850s as an older adult. Her headstone in the Salt Lake cemetery is one of those old red standstone ones, on which the engraving has completely disappeared. I stood on her grave and cried for her.

    It is my own feminism that has led me to look for these sisters. I have found their stories in the most unlikely places, often feeling led as I have typed in websites and followed unknown links.

    Thank you for this post. It gives me encouragment to keep going in my research and writing. People like you and Ardis are my inspiration.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Oh, I LOVE these comments!

    Ardis, how smart to look to the agricultural census! (I emailed your blog yesterday 🙂 )

    Sheila, isn’t it sad how fast those stories get lost? Good luck with your searching!

    Jessawhy, I’m glad you brought up about your g-grandmother. I have fond memories of two of my g-grandmother, and I know stories of them. That’s when I got sad–the 2 who died young are the ones I know hardly anything about.

    Caroline, I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother. I have to admit I’ve often heard, “Record your grandparents’ histories” at Church and rolled my eyes. Now, I’m kicking myself (and need to make a visit to the remaining grandparents).

    Ale, hi! I want to hear your grandma’s stories, too! Did she grow up in Peru, too?

    JM, your grandmother sounds inspiring. I think everyone’s stories are worthwhile for the point you made–Clara and your grandmother had different struggles, but how much richer are we when we can hear those stories and know about those examples?

    Kirsten, thank you so much for your kind comment. We keep trying to say that being there was the most important part.

    CatherineWO, sounds like you’re deep into research. Brava for you!

  10. Mary Clyde says:

    I wept after reading your moving and well-deserved tribute to my mother and grandmother–your grandmother and great grandmother. May the well-behaved and put-upon among us–before and after us–be appreciated, remembered, and cherished. Thank you for writing this, Emily and for helping me go to the reunion.

  11. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing this.

    It is good to remember that we stand on the shoulders of many amazing women.

    Many frontier women were particularly incredible. I recently found a story of several female relatives that were killed in Indian raids in the mid-west. But I have to say the men intrigue me as well. I’d love to meat the great-great-great grandfather who was a Baptist preacher. I’d love to understand what role religion played in his life as well as his family’s.

    I recently started doing some family history. My mom did a bunch of research in college but never submitted the names to the temple (given more dates were required in her time). So my job was tedious but simple – to type up the database.

    I had the most powerful experience taking the names of my female ancestors through the temple. For a few, I was able to be the ordinance worker with my sister as patron. Really felt the strength of heritage.

    Although I also felt a little off balance since I didn’t do the work for the men. I want family to do them, problem is my brothers are inactive, and well I don’t have a significant other.

    So I felt that the women were having to lead the way in the after-life. Just think, what would it like to be a feminist in heaven?

  12. Bee says:

    This was lovely. As a genealogist, it really spoke to me! And I LOVE CtherineWO’s idea of a Lost Sisters list. I think I’ll start one of those myself. I’m currently looking for my gr-grandfather’s sister, who ran away to Hollywood to be in the movies, and was lost to the family afterwards. I’m sure I have other Lost Sisters that are not in my direct line but that need me. I’m so touched by this idea.

    I’d also like to focus on my matrilineal line, but I have a hard time with this. I have a hard time connecting with my grandmother. She is quite…um… different than the way my mother raised me. At 75 grandma still goes out with her boyfriend every weekend dancing, and comes home drunk. She tried to convince me at age 17 that I should have a baby, “It’s so much fun!”, and she had a baby at 17 and look at her! She hit on my husband at our wedding, she was not kind to my mother as a child… the list goes on. My mother-in-law says I should be grateful to have such a fun-loving grandma with such a youthful outlook, but it’s so foreign to Molly little me.

    And then my grandma’s mother– the only story I can remember of hers is my great-aunt telling me how her mother chopped the heads off a litter of kittens because she didn’t want to take care of them. How can I respect a woman who did that? Times have changed, I know, but STILL. Kittens? Come on, great-grandma. I wish I had better stories. She apparently had a hard life. (I’m not sure that excuses the kittens, though. Not in my mind.)

  13. Bree says:

    Thank you for this. I started something similar about my maternal great-great grandmother after reading Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s books last March, but never finished. The information about her was scarce and the family stories I did have were not happy ones. You’ve inspired me to finish. Her hardships are a significant part of the reason her story needs to be remembered. Now, if only I can find which file I saved it to…

    Oh, and love the idea of a lost sisters focus list.

  14. EmilyCC says:

    Kelly Ann, ooh, your g-g-g grandfather sounds interesting! I often wonder what denominations my family was before they became Mormon and how they felt about that church.

    Bee, yikes! Poor kittens! I suppose the family members who do such things are just as important as the more noble ones, but I’ll be the first to admit–I want to learn about Clara. Her abusive husband? Not so much. Still, I guess I shouldn’t apply judgement to the living or the dead. Sigh…

    Bree, oh look! We’re looking for the same relation! I’m with you, it is hard to keep doing the research and asking for the stories when they all are so sad. Good Luck!

  15. matisse madden says:

    This is a very thought provoking article. I didn’t know your Grandma had such a sad childhood. I think learning about the past reminds me that we are all vulnerable, especially as women. No matter what day in age we live in it is vital to stand up for ourselves and make ourselves powerful with knowledge and charity (pure love of Christ).

  16. Dora says:

    Until about ten years ago, I always thought of my mother as the first feminist in my family tree. She gained an education, learned a second language, crossed an ocean to learn her trade, and made the US her home. And then I learned about my great aunt. From an affluent family, she married for love and was a writer, two things which were almost unheard of in Japan at the time. My grandfather was my great-uncle’s best friend and introduced my grandfather to the family.

    Later, great-uncle acquired a mistress and had children with her. Instead of being able to accept the children, I believe great-aunt divorced him. Another unthinkable event. According to my mother, great-aunt’s children never forgave her! I sometimes wonder about this strong and unconventional woman. How different would her life have been if she’d lived today?

    My grandmother died a few years ago. It is too late to ask her about her sister. However, I am lucky enough that my grandmother wrote down a short memoir. Granted, it is in Japanese, but sometime soon I hope to get my mother’s permission to have a translator work on it.

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