Until the summer of 1864, Maggie’s activities have been along the lines of many women who wished to make changes in American society. But this changes once Maggie learns that Blaineton, her hometown, has had a recent change in School Board policy. The school located on the town square is now for white students only, while the school on Water Street, where most people of color in Blaineton live, is reserved for black students. However, as the Water Street population dwindled over the course of the war, school age children on Water Street dropped to a total of six students and the town stopped funding their school. Maggie’s activism emerges as she and friends Emily and Rosa set out to find a way to give these children a decent education.
Since, industrialist Josiah Norton is chairman of the School Board, Maggie seeks him out and suggests that, given the situation, black children should be educated with white children in the school on the town square. Josiah explains that the majority of the townspeople would be against such a move and that she does not understand politics: “Mrs. Smith, you are a woman, and naturally you have a woman’s heart. However, you lack the rational capabilities of a man. These greater issues are beyond your comprehension. You should be content with keeping house.”
Insulted and furious, Maggie decides to “shake the dust off her feet” and move on. “I thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Norton. However, I am afraid I must leave. My husband is watching our baby and it is time I returned to ‘keeping house,’ as you say.”
Later, Maggie, Emily, and Rosa travel to Water Street to check on a rumor that a school is still there. What they find is a fourteen-year-old Mandy Hancock teaching a group of five children in a ramshackle building with few resources.
The women resolve to start a private school and locate it at Greybeal House, where all three live. To help them, they recruit Maggie’s sister-in-law, Abigail, who had been a teacher before she married.
When Josiah hears of the plan, he feels she is sticking her nose into places it doesn’t belong.:
When Maggie responds by saying her interest in the problem is because she is a woman and a mother. “And mothers, regardless of race, want their children to receive an education and fair treatment. And before you say it, I also am perfectly aware that the vicissitudes of life often make educating one’s children difficult. If more men took the time to recognize the hopes and dreams women have for their children –”
“Then the world would be in a pretty mess, don’t you think? No, Mrs. Smith, you know nothing of politics and nothing of the greater world. And that is as it should be.”
If Josiah thinks it is bad enough that Maggie is sticking her nose into a political matter by starting a private school, he goes ballistic when the new school enrolls a family of Irish students, who are the brothers and sisters of Moira and Birgit, who are working as maids at Greybeal House.
But Maggie’s compassion comes into play because the Irish are considered “less than” other people of European ancestry. To complicate matters, the Brennan children live on a farm a good five miles or so outside of town, which means someone would need to bring them to school each day . But that is impossible because the family needs their only wagon for farm work. Of course, the children could board with families in town. But it would cost more than their family could afford. Additionally, who would be willing to house Irish children?
As far as Maggie is concerned, the answer is simple: the children will attend the school at Greybeal House and board there.
This of course does not go down well with many people and causes an uproar that threatens the not only the school, but life in the town itself. And that is how Maggie finds herself in the unlikely position of trying to bring sense and healing back to the people of Blaineton.
But is she willing to take the big leap into politics itself? When Maggie reveals to Eli that some individuals have suggested that she run for Town Council (despite the fact that women cannot vote), she almost immediate demurs: “I probably shouldn’t. It’s just not done. Women don’t belong in politics.”
To which, her supportive husband replies, “Bunkum! I think women ought to be in politics. Men are complete asses.”
“See that? You had to remind me about my tendency to cuss. That is because, like every other man I know, I’m an impulsive dunderhead.”
Obviously, Eli believes that the male preserve of politics could use the moral tempering that women possess.
But will Maggie take the plunge?
Well, if she does, it will be for very specific reasons.
And I’ll talk about those reasons in my next blog.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder