Why women are my heroes

As Hillary Clinton was relinquishing her post as Secretary of State, I thought about all the many reasons she has always been one of my heroes. First and foremost, perhaps, would be her great strength and ability to lead without hesitation. She doesn’t now, nor ever has, deferred to men in any situation. Whatever authority she has, she uses.

Hillary Clinton has also set a great example as a believer in her fellow humans – not man or woman – humans. She has stated her core belief that all humans have the same rights and that all rights are human rights, not subject to law or debate. And she lives that belief.

Barbara Jordan, U.S. representative from Houston, was another woman who never hesitated to stand up for what she believed.  A powerful leader and speaker, Jordan first served in the Texas legislature, a black woman who defied conventions to make her way to leadership there and beyond.

Another Texan also comes to mind: Molly Ivins. Oh, how I miss Molly, that enormously influential writer and speaker for whom telling it straight was a way of life. No one — no one  — has said it better, more forcefully and funnier. In these times of divisive political bodies and turbulent times, her voice of sanity and reason is sorely missed. She was damn funny, too.

My inclination to look to women as my leaders and heroes started at home. Many folks have written about what courage and strength it took for pioneering women who helped their families survive in the toughest of conditions.

I don’t have to read about it, however: I lived it in my own family. “Strong women who were leaders” describes my great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. My great-grandma, Martha Ann Day Venrick, left her comfortable home in Indiana with her new husband, a man of no means – as her father, a man of considerable means – pointed out.

They went by wagon to eastern Nebraska, where they settled near some friends and started their family. Before long, they took up a homestead in northwestern Kansas, a bare spot on the high plains. They went by train to western Nebraska, where they got a wagon and some supplies with the last of their money.

While they ate lunch, the supplies were stolen from the wagon. They pressed on, heading south to their homestead plot. There they made a sod house and dug deep into the dry earth to dig a well for water. In that sod house, more children were born – there eventually were 11. The oldest of these children walked to a school held in a sod building. On Sundays they attended church in a sod structure.

As the years passed, and Grandpa Venrick proved he couldn’t make it as a farmer of that barren land, they moved into Norcatur, the closest town. By that time, Grandma Venrick had taken up assisting the local doctors with their rounds. She assisted at births and tended the seriously ill. In short, she worked as a nurse on a daily basis outside the home.

Grandpa took up building trades. He poured the sidewalks throughout the town. He did carpentry and decorative work such as faux painting on wordwork. He built an addition to their house, a suite to house his mother who lived many years with them.

Their daughter, Florence, my grandmother, married a local boy, one of a large two-family clan (the Wards and the Reagers) who were also homesteaders. Starting their life together, they bought a ranch in southwestern Kansas, hoping to raise enough cattle to make a living.

Several events ended that dream: the Spanish flu epidemic and a severe winter with storms and blizzards that made keeping the cattle fed and safe impossible. We were told stories of Grandma Ward standing in the back door of the ranch house and shooting coyotes preying on the penned up cattle.

The ranch hands were forced to take shelter in the house, and besides nursing everyone through the flu, Grandma also read to them the complete works of Dickens, a set sent to them by her brother stationed with the Army in Europe.

Come spring, they sold out and went back to Norcatur, where Grandpa Ward ran a store called a creamery where he sold feed and seed and bought and sold cream and eggs. Grandma was busy with their children, church and civic activities. They lived in her parents’ house, and Grandma Venrick, stayed the rest of her life with them.

Grandma was always the mainstay of the family: Grandpa was known for his impish wit and determination to have a good time. He and one of his brothers were usually cooking up some scheme or elaborate practical joke to play on someone. The grandkids related to him because he seemed more like one of us. He was funny and loved to play. He also taught us things like how to play cards – penny ante and poker.

By WWII, Grandpa was not well and died in 1947 of heart disease. At that time, Grandma Ward took up a full-time career. She was officially the city clerk for Norcatur, but she also ran the library and jail, housed in City Hall, handled booking the City Hall meeting rooms, managed the city cemetery and served as city judge. She worked until she was nearly 80.

As for my own mother, she was much like her mother and grandmother, always ready to step up and do what she had to do to survive and take care of home and family. Sometimes she was a stay-at-home mom, who made all our clothes and taught us to love learning and reading. Over her lifetime, however, she worked at many jobs from being a sales clerk to helping run gift shops.

She was like her mother and her grandmother but had a trait that was all her own: she never showed it if she was discouraged. If the lyric “Look on the Bright Side of Life” applied to anyone, it was our mother. Her classic line was, “Well, this has possibilities.”

The way we grew up, the examples that were set for us were that women had to be strong. They had to be flexible and capable, ready to step up to do whatever needed doing. In the Deep South, that has not been the social convention.

When we moved here from Texas, and I started inquiring about jobs, the pay associated with them was shockingly low.

“That’s a good salary for a woman here,” I was told.

Unfortunately, it has been and still is a struggle for women here to be accepted as equals capable of being leaders and doing whatever needs to be done.

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