Image: “An illustration of a woman crying while another woman attempts to console her,” from https://etc.usf.edu/clipart/55800/55853/55853_woman-cry.htm
In my last blog, we found Maggie running for town council and, after much encouragement, addressing a crowd gathered at Greybeal House. The response she receives is highly supportive. After concluding the speech, she walks back into the house to thunderous applause and cheering.
Maggie should be happy. But the truth is that she is shaken to her core and, once inside, she breaks down into tears. Her daughters Lydia and Frankie, and husband Eli, spend the next few pages trying to discover what on earth could be upsetting her. The best Maggie can say is that she is not a politician and that she is terrified of making a mistake while on that town council. The last thing she wants is hurt the people of her town.
After smothering their mother with daughterly affection and reassurance, the girls leave Maggie alone with her husband, who is determined to get to the root of the issue. This is their conversation:
“Would you like to tell me what made you cry?”
She sighed. “I don’t want them to make a hero of me.”
“Do you think they would?”
“You heard them out there. The applause. The cheering. The reality is that I cannot rescue them from anything. They must do the rescuing themselves. If things are to change, it is they who must do it, not I.”
Eli considered this. “But they do need a leader. Someone to encourage them. Someone who listens to them and advises them. Politics is a give and take process, Maggie. A leader inspires the people, the people respond, and then the leader works with them and encourages them as they work toward their goal.”
“Yes, well,” she muttered, “I’m hardly a leader, Elijah. Women are neither leaders nor politicians. It’s just not done.”
“Well, it should be done! And, Maggie, you are a leader, whether you think so or not. It takes leadership to run a boarding house, to help organize and run a school, to run Greybeal House. It takes leadership to raise a family. And, by the way, you’ve raised two strong, young women who are leaders, too. And you did all of that in a gentle, kindly spirit – not like some puffed-up industrialist or judge or man who inherited his wealth. You would never strut around like you’re better than the people you’re serving. And you’d certainly never expect people to do anything that you would not do.”
A skeptical expression remained on her face.
“You’re going to be fine, sweetheart,” Eli reassured her. “And you know why? You’ve got what no one else on that town council has.”
“And, pray, what is that?”
“Vision.” He kissed her. “And that’s something we badly need right now.”
Maggie’s anxiety is real. While it was becoming increasingly common in the 1860s for women to advocate for various kinds of social change as well as to promote their churches to undertake missionary work (and to become missionaries themselves), politics was considered part of the “male sphere.”
Indeed, Maggie is a trail blazer for her era – especially if she is elected to the Town Council. For one thing, at that time, women in New Jersey could not vote. Women’s suffrage in that era was determined on a state-by-state basis. Women were just starting to flex their political muscles.
“The right to vote on school issues, and to be elected to educational positions, were among the most successful campaigns across the nation throughout the 1860s and 1870s. In some states, especially in the west and Midwest, women also gained ‘municipal suffrage’, the right to vote and be elected to offices on the town, county, and/or state levels.” (“Women by State and Territory,” Her Hat Was in the Ring).
The first women to enter political office were elected in the mid-1850s to the school board of Ashland, Massachusetts (“Eastern States,” Her Hat Was in the Ring). The earliest woman to win an election in New Jersey appears to be Hannah Scholfield of Morris County, who in 1874 was elected to a school committee.
So, truthfully, it would have been highly unusual in 1864 for a woman to run for Town Council in New Jersey. If there was such a woman, we have yet to uncover her.
No wonder Maggie has mixed feelings! As she says, “It just isn’t done.”
But then again, her daughters are pursuing things that “just aren’t done,” too. Women physicians were rare in the mid-1800s, although nursing was rising as a profession. As for female ministers or preachers… scarce as hen’s teeth, as the old-timers might say.
Still, that’s the glory of writing historical fiction. Of course, I need to be aware of the history of my chosen time period. But I also get to play with the “what ifs,” provided my particular “what if” it fits the “well, it could have been possible” test.
So, will Maggie win the election? I don’t know. At this point, I don’t even know if the book will go all the way to Election Day (we’re still in early October as I write).
What I do know is that typhoid fever is coming to town and Maggie and family are going to have to help the town through a health crisis coming close on the heels of a human-made crisis. And, believe me, I had no idea we’d now be in the middle of a pandemic when I would start writing this part of the series. The idea of an epidemic presented itself to me after I finished Seeing the Elephant in 2016. It’s taken me four years to ramp up and begin another full-length novel. I’m not prescient. Really. So, don’t ask me to predict anything. The crystal ball is offline. In fact, it’s never been online.
Anyway, as I said, I’m still working out plot details, although I have a general idea where it all is going. That said, sometimes my characters take things into their own hands and I end up with a different story from what I originally thought.
And now, friends, as we begin to open things up during this time of COVID, just a reminder to please take care of yourself, your family, and others. Any kind of a recovery won’t happen if we don’t do this together.
Janet R. Stafford
If you're interested in women and suffrage, you might want to check out a website called "Her Hat Was in the Ring," which is where I found the information for this blog. http://www.herhatwasinthering.org/
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder