OVERVIEW: This series of two posts explores some dynamics for how gradual social transformation occurs over multiple generations. As a case study, I use the last 125 years of my own family’s history as pioneers on the Western frontier. As a third-generation of pioneers on both sides, I grew up taking as a given that men and women could be equally capable and competent in just about everything. In my experience, I’ve observed women contributing as much to the development of a transformed community life as have men. In this series, I share some examples from my family of such women, tie that in with some milestones in voting rights for women, and suggest a framework for making intentional innovations for a better future.
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In this political season, I plan to write a very few posts about issues of interest as I continue to process my own experiences with political campaigns. My first post was some of what I saw and learned from mock political conventions in 1972. Tentative future posts will look at several unusual political and interview situations I had, also in the early 1970s – plus the unique experiences of volunteering locally on John Anderson’s campaigns in 1980, both when he was running for the Republican nomination and when he was a third-party candidate.
But today’s post is about taking the long view on social change, for situations where particular perspectives are so ingrained that they take multiple generations to address. This is a topic I plan to look at in depth in Field Guide #2 on Paradigms and Paradigm Shifts. Let’s start with a quote I found 20 years ago that I think best captures some mechanisms of how that transformation works:
In the long run, what counts is how the next generation thinks. How far new ideas permeate culture is not measured just by attitude change during one generation, but by what is taken for granted in the next. ~ Helen Haste, The Sexual Metaphor: Men, Women, and the Thinking that Makes the Difference (Harvard University Press, 1994, p. 149)
In 2009, I wrote a post on generations and measuring change. Here is an excerpt from what I said about the significance of the above quote:
Ms. Haste used that statement to begin a chapter on “The Next Generation” (i.e., the “post-feminist” generations), whose members grew up not having to fight the social and political battles of the feminist movement in the 1960s and ’70s especially, but who inherited the results of those who did. Since these younger generations of women and men live in a world that takes feminism as a given, what does that mean?
Whether we approve the worldviews and agendas of feminism or not, if we want to understand the context of the world we now live in, we’ve got to grapple with what is really there and not just with what we believe should ideally be there. If we don’t choose to contextualize for that real world, we shouldn’t really complain when everyday people are repulsed by our presence and/or presentation.
Part of my worldview about treating men and women as equals comes out of experiences from my pioneer heritage, where both men and women worked together to forge a community on the Western frontiers. To think through the long view on social transformations, I thought it might be interesting to lay out some of my own family history of women with strong character and deep involvement in businesses and communities, because of the progression it shows over multiple generations. Maybe this is a case study in how change happens over time when the next generations grow up taking newer views as a given.
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I am the third generation of pioneer families on both sides. I grew up in a small town during an era where most of the adults there were first or second generation immigrants. Pretty much everyone’s people came from somewhere else, except the few local residents who were from indigenous tribes. The town’s roots go back to the post-Civil War era, where Western territories became states in 1889, but the town itself only incorporated just before World War I.
The paradox of pioneering is that it requires a certain amount of rugged individualism to dislodge your entire life and re-root somewhere else – but the only way you survive once you get there, is in community. Social isolation from extreme individualism just is not sustainable. Creating a better community for all takes the hard work of collaboration. These are themes I expect to write far more about in days to come. But for now, I want to focus on family history and how I learned by “cultural osmosis” that men and women were meant to work as partners in creating community.
Great-Grandmother – Post-Reconstruction Western Expansion
And on that line, I’ll start by noting that 125 years ago in 1890, my maternal great-grandmother got herself a wagon and team, and drove across the territory to stake out a homestead claim in the Oklahoma Land Rush. (It turned out that her claim was disallowed because she was married at the time, and only the head-of-household could legally stake a claim. But, she was divorced before the next “land rush,” and so rode again in 1892 as a single-parent mother of four children and head of her household. So, this time, her claim was duly registered.)
As best I can recall from oral tradition in our family, she made her “run” in a covered cart or wagon that was drawn by horses – and she handled the team herself. I’d thought it might even have been a Conestoga wagon, which was sort of the Humvee of its day: a heavy-duty, slow-going, non-tipping wagon drawn by oxen, horses, or mules. But in checking some reports that extended family members had, it looked like she’d picked something that would go much faster than a Conestoga. Anyway, after getting integrated into the area, my great-grandmother wrote for the regional newspaper. And she used her own name instead of a male pseudonym, which I understand would’ve been more likely at the time.
Whoa! Both of those are monumental for a woman of her generation. Think about that: She was born in 1863, 15 years after the women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls (July 19-20, 1848). So, at age 27, my great-grandmother could be a landholder and a news reporter – but could not vote. It would be another 30 years before she, her daughters, and other women would receive the constitutional right to vote. To my knowledge, my great-grandmother wasn’t a direct participant in her generation’s activists in the “first wave” women’s movement. But, she certainly contributed to the spirit of it through what she did, which helped pave the way for pioneering women to come.
Grandmothers – Turn-of-the-Century
Both of my grandmothers were born around 1890, and they ended up in Western frontier states after the turn of the century.
My maternal grandmother seems to have had a lot of characteristics of what the Bible calls “people of peace” – hospitable, justice-oriented, not a respecter of persons (meaning social or economic class or background didn’t matter). Almost 100 years ago, as a 20-/30-something, my maternal grandmother taught English as a second language to immigrants – and ended up marrying one of her students! She was best friends with a woman who became recognized as a pioneer broadcaster for her daily local radio show. In the early decades of the 20th century, she befriended a family of Volga German refugees who’d fled from Russia, across Siberia and Japan, to the US. During World War II, the whole family befriended a Japanese-American family that was given the opportunity to move far inland to work on farms instead of going to internment camps.
Meanwhile, my paternal grandmother had only a fifth-grade education – not uncommon for girls in that era. But she used her knowledge to great effect in running the various aspects of the family coal mine. We have photos of her standing by the coal tipple, where shipments of coal were weighed and loaded onto carts. She ran the tipple and also did all the bookkeeping for the mine, along with raising 11 children and cooking for them and the coal miners who worked there. As I heard it, they lost their savings of over $10,000 in the Stock Market Crash (October 29, 1929) – the equivalent of about $140,000 in current dollars. They gradually rebuilt their business over time, but didn’t fully recover from that huge loss.
It’s hard for me to imagine that these incredibly capable women weren’t able to vote until they were 30-somethings. But they certainly all left a legacy of using their giftedness and being involved in making a difference for others.
Mother and Aunts – Builders/Silent Generation
I recently talked with my Mom (who is now almost 90) about women gaining the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment and receipt of the final documentation (August 18 / 26, 1920). She couldn’t remember her grandmother, mother, or her mother’s female friends talking about their first experiences of voting. Maybe women having the vote was already a given by the time she was born. She grew up knowing she’d be eligible to vote at age 21.
My mother and her two sisters absorbed this family and social legacy, and likewise became women who were involved in work and community life. When my sister, brother, and I were growing up, we saw how involved our parents were in community affairs – like so many of their generation. This included activities in church, civic clubs, fraternal organizations, and occasional political campaigns. We helped Mom with various fund-raising campaigns where she either served as chair or fund-collector: the American Lung Association, American Cancer Society, Easter Seal, and the March of Dimes – when it really was about collecting dimes, and they added up to something!
A few years after my mother turned 40, she changed career fields from being the lead secretary at an elementary school to going into real estate. “Always go out when you’re at the top and things are going well,” was her motto. That career change happened in the mid-1970s, and she followed that motto twice more. At age 60, she went back to school to learn a completely different trade in the travel industry, and graduated top of her class over students half her age. She went back into real estate again at age 65. So, three career changes before finally retiring at age 70 – highly unusual for a woman of her generation.
Mom’s been active in civic affairs since her 20s, voting consistently, involved occasionally with political campaigns, and serving as a polling place worker in the decades since retiring. She also serves on the advisory board of her church, and the board of directors of a non-profit. In addition to performing in various community venues with two singing groups and a dance group.
Meanwhile, she wasn’t the only active one in her family. One of my aunts became a state representative in her 50s and served in that role for 16 years, and later was a county council member. The other worked in executive administration in city government. These three sisters may not have considered themselves part of the “second wave” of feminists who got involved politically to change the culture during the 1960s and thereafter. But all three definitely demonstrated that paradoxical pioneer spirit of a willingness to go against the flow, while working to have a positive impact in the lives of others.
Sister – Boomers
My sister demonstrated that same spirit as well. She was active in community events and volunteering as a tween and teen in the 1960s. Then – about 40 years ago, just after she’d graduated from college and become an elementary school teacher – she began supporting survivors of battering. A friend of hers needed help to escape a physically abusive relationship. In the mid-1970s, domestic violence was still an emerging issue. Concern about it was growing, but at the time, there wasn’t even agreement among women’s centers and various streams in the feminist movement on what to do. Advocates, activists, and practical solutions were all in short supply.
So, it turned out that my sister turned into a pioneer activist in her generation on this issue. Her ministry eventually expanded to advocacy, activism, and education in churches and community settings on child abuse prevention, and survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. These are all still fields of ministry with no to low visibility in churches, but high impact for those who need to experience compassion in action. Frustratingly, she consistently found that theologically conservative, evangelical churches were the least responsive to opportunities she offered to equip staff and congregations to welcome and help those affected by these traumatic issues. Still, she persevered in her calling to support survivors and prevent more victims.
She saw prevention of problems as being just as important as intervention when there were problems. In light of a prevention mindset, she brought life-affirming skills and nurturing into her job as a teacher, into her long-time leadership in Girl Scouts, and in her godmother role of mentoring 20/30/40-somethings in her church parish and community. Building health into next generations was one way she took concrete action to demonstrate her hope for a better future.
She maintained that balance of ministries for prevention and intervention all of her adult life. Sadly, she died at age 60, but left a huge legacy of investment in the lives of others.
Niece – Millennials
I remember about 30-ish years ago, numerous instances of my sister telling her young daughter that she could grow up to be anything she wanted, and follow after any career she chose. That meant teacher, artist, doctor, firefighter … perhaps even President of the United States of America.
My niece is a Millennial, and her future is still unfolding. But, who knows, she truly could become the first woman President. Definitely, the opportunities open to her are definitely different from those in my sister’s, mother’s, and grandmother’s generations. The ripening fruits of the first and second wave women’s rights/feminist movements mean that cultural stereotypes of men and women have been changing, glass ceilings have been cracking, and various male-dominated professions really are now far more feasible for women than they ever had been before. And we may not care for the person or politics of modern-era women who have been Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates or nominees from 1940 to the present – but it’s undeniable that their presence has helped forged the way forward for women in the political realm.
But just because things are significantly different now for American women, what might some mechanisms for continued future change be? How can men and women work together for a more civil society, where there is a spirit of collaboration in order to find or create common ground for the common good?
[Continued in Part 2.]