“Suffragette” by Amy Stonestrom

10 April 2020 on Nonfiction   Tags:

My second favorite thing about going to church was coming home to the bubbling carrots, onions and pork or beef that stewed while we were putting in our time on the hard benches listening to Pastor Johnson. Suddenly hungry, Dad pulled a few Oreos out of the cupboard for us and then heated left-over coffee on the stove. It was a cool summer morning and I shivered in my sundress and shawl as I munched my snack, watching as black crumbs fell on the white Formica of the breakfast counter.

Krissy sat at my feet looking up at me, patiently waiting for her turn. Her white body sandwiched between her black head and black docked tail made her my little terrier version of an Oreo. Mom hurried around the kitchen, making a fruit salad and dessert. We would eat at twelve o’clock while the daily fire siren blared through town. Dinner was at noon, supper was at six. Dad read the Star & Tribune at the kitchen table. This was my chance to ask about something that bothered me about the meeting we had after church.

“Mom?”

“Hmm,” she said as she whisked the vanilla Jello pudding mix into the boiling milk on the stove.

“Why don’t women get to vote in church?”

I kept a tight hold of most of my questions because earlier that year I found a book in Mom’s sewing closet titled How to Raise a Difficult Child. My sister, almost sixteen years older than I, gave it to Mom to help her understand the difficult child in their midst. 

“Because the husbands represent the whole family. Dad and I decide before the meetings and he votes for all of us.”

“Oh.”

I knew nothing about the women’s suffrage movement nearly sixty years prior, but this rule seemed outdated even to a seven-year-old. 

"What if you and Dad didn’t agree about something, he just gets to vote his way and you get . . .” I can’t remember how I finished that sentence. I’m sure it wasn’t with the shaft or screwed over, because I was the biggest goody goody in my grade, but that would have been a nice touch.

What Mom and I both knew is that this was a moot point in our family because Dad wasn’t overly patriarchal. If Mom felt strongly enough about something, she would have asked Dad to vote one way over the other and he would probably say, “Yes Feedie,” and keep reading the funny papers. Dad just did this as his duty as part of the congregation by going to the meetings and putting in his vote.

Other than Feedie, his version of sweetie, Dad called mom Ace. Mom was in charge at our house and that was fine with Dad. Chuck and Audrey were sort of immune to politics or drama from the outside world. Dad disliked all politicians equally and Mom never talked about it.

“How about Mrs. Schultz?” I held on like a pit bull.

“What do you mean dear?”

“Her husband died, does she get to vote?”

Surely, there must be a caveat for lonely widows so they could have their hand counted. She glanced over at Dad. I could hear him chuckling from behind his newspaper.

“No she doesn’t get to vote either.”

My mouth hung open. It never occurred to me that my random chromosome assignment would determine whether or not I would have a say in church when I was grown.

“It is a rule based on scripture. Paul said in his letter to the Colossians and again to the Ephesians that husbands should take care of their families by being their spiritual leaders.

“Do you want bananas on your pudding or just plain?” Mom asked.

“Wasn’t that like a hundred years ago?”

“Almost two thousand,” she said as she tore a not quite ripe banana apart from its group.

This upset me. I wanted not only for Mom to vote, but I wanted her to want to vote. Furthermore, didn’t she want that for me?

In general, she said, Paul’s words were a call to action because men aren’t inclined to be as active in spiritual matters as women are. (Catholics call him St. Paul. Lutherans generally call him Paul or Apostle Paul.) By telling women to submit to their husbands and giving men the spiritual lead, they then will take on responsibility where faith is concerned instead of just leaving it solely to women. Her opinion was that this theology took the pressure off women to do yet another thing. It was, she said, a win-win for everyone. For her this issue was as black-and-white as the dog at my feet and the cookie in my hand.

This was 1980. I assumed (and I hope my mother did too) that this no-lady vote rule came down from the top leadership from the headquarters in Missouri. Which it had—until 1969. Eleven years earlier the leadership of the synod had indeed allowed women to vote within its individual congregations nationwide. We may not have had high speed internet but we did have telephones and a reliable mail system. A horse and buggy could have made the trip many times in eleven years. Hugh Glass crawling on his belly after being mauled by that damn grizzly bear could have made the trip from St. Louis to West Central Minnesota with plenty of time to spare.

In any case, the members of my childhood congregation had either not received the memo that our synod granted them the right to vote in their congregation or they had and decided not to comply with it. Most likely it was brought to a meeting where women weren’t allowed to vote and watched as their fathers and husbands voted against it while they all told themselves it was for the best.

Because tradition. Because bible. It was biblical tradition after all that kept this going. A tradition that began with something a man from antiquities maybe did or didn’t write to people that were not them two millennia prior when women had fewer rights than livestock.

At the time of this particular Sunday dinner sitting in our small farming town in West Central Minnesota in our small and comfortable kitchen I also didn’t know that Paul’s opinions on homosexuality and slave ownership had caused many more problems for many more people over the millennia. Up until this point I only knew then that Paul had a hard time staying on his horse. Everything I knew when I was seven, I would have to un-know one day and that process was going to be very painful indeed. But sitting in the kitchen at the counter in my sundress with dog at my feet, I didn’t know that either.

There is debate among biblical scholars if the Apostle Paul wrote six or seven of the thirteen attributed to him in the New Testament. But within our particular brand of Lutheranism, there wasn’t then and there isn’t now any debate whatsoever. Because, according to Pastor Johnson and the rest of our synod nationwide, Paul wrote all of the books, end of story. Scholarship be damned. The church, long ago, decided to believe the words within Pauls letters to his congregations from antiquity are infallible and unquestionable. The lack of equal voting rights in our church at that time likely came from the literal reading of Paul in 1 Corinthians 14. (Which scholars agree he did indeed write.)

“As in all the churches of the saints the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak but should be subordinate, even as the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

My mom, Audrey, was one of several women who practically ran our church. Pastor Johnson did the pastor stuff. He preached each Sunday and visited sick people and went to meetings in other towns and taught the confirmation classes. He conducted baptisms, communion, visited the sick and inducted new members. Women volunteers from the congregation did the rest though. My mom and the other women made sure mourning family members had something to eat, taught the children in Sunday school, vacation bible school and release time, made quilts for refugees and held benefits for the terminally ill. Mom cleaned the communion ware every first and third Sunday. She made banners, brought flowers and decorated Christmas trees. The vats of coffee she brewed each year could fill the community swimming pool. I felt like she, and the other women like her who did so much, should have a say as to what happens in this church that they so dutifully served.

“When your mom was a kid, men and women sat on separate sides of the church,” Dad said.

That was something I suppose, we did get to sit together in the pews. This was my favorite part of church, sitting between Mom and Dad feeling safe and close in the middle and watching the amber morning sun shine in through the red, yellow, green, and blue stained glass. We had our own little trinity there. Mom and I would sing hymns and I would listen, straining with my right ear, waiting to see if one day Dad would join in.

When Dad and I drove down the gravel in his green Chevy truck on the back roads with the boat to a favorite lake or on the way to pick up cattle with the trailer from one of the local farms he would often sing old, slow ballads that sounded like a black and white photograph. If I closed my eyes I saw my surroundings in charcoals and washed out grey with sepia scalloped edges as he sang. His voice made the wheat fields edged by poplar, the sagging and faded barns and the red winged blackbirds sitting on cattails in the slough all look like a fading memory in my mind. Yet he never hummed a note in church. He said it was because he was deaf in his left ear. He said the organ music threw off his sonar.

“What if I never get married? They won’t ever let me vote in church?” My future career as a modern vestal virgin unfolded in my imagination. “I can vote for the president of the United States right?”

“Yes, when you are 18,” Dad said.

Dad looked at me over his paper while eating a bite of cookie that he had just dunked in his cup of Folgers. My marriage comment caught his attention. Whenever I asked for something too pricey, his response was always, after a whistling out a big sigh, “When you get married.” Some other poor bastard could buy me expensive jeans or take me to Disneyland.

“The Swedes let women vote,” he said, taking refuge behind the newsprint once more. “They can even be preachers.”

Although I did not yet speak fluent Chuck, I understood it well enough to get by. There were four churches in our town of less than a thousand people and many more scattered throughout the countryside. You had the choice of being Catholic, Baptist or two different kinds of Lutheran. The Swedes were the other kind of Lutheran. The liberal kind. We were the Krauts in Chuck-speak—the Lutheran who descended from German immigrants. Dad liked to point out this difference because he brought the Scandinavian blood to our family and, to his way of thinking, some sweet to the sauerkraut.

I couldn’t argue that there were vast differences between my Swedish Lutheran and German Lutheran grandparents, especially between my grandmothers Lydia and Esther.

Grandma Lydia, Dad’s mother, knitted and gardened and did needlepoint like all the other grandmas. But unlike my neat and tidy grandmother Esther who leaned hard toward perfectionism, Lydia never measured any of her ingredients and sometimes her lemon meringue pie was so sweet you could hardly finish the piece on your plate. She never dusted under the furniture and she didn’t wear a bra which I knew because her breasts were in line with her belly button. Lydia made up for all this in my eyes because she was an honest to goodness journalist. Lyd, as Grandpa Bill and her sisters called her, wrote Around Town, a weekly gossip column for the local newspaper. I loved to open the paper and see her photo there above her byline.

Grandpa Esther measured ingredients down to an eighth of a teaspoon, washed sheets every Monday, and scrubbed the kitchen floor on her hands and knees every day, her bra securely fastened to her body during each waking hour.

When she and Grandpa Bill first moved here in the 1940s, they tried to go to the country church that Erwin, Esther, and my mom attended.

“That lasted one Sunday,” Dad said. “After she saw that the men and women sat on opposite sides, she vowed to never go back again.” Not knowing, of course, that she would be returning for her own son’s wedding.

Instead Lyd opted to drive her family fifteen miles out of the way each week to go to a Swedish Lutheran church where they could all sit together. Once on that drive she found my dad, then twenty-years-old, sleeping in his car in the ditch early one Sunday morning and gave him the what-for before heading on to church with Grandpa Bill and her three more well-mannered children.

Still at my feet Krissy’s sharp bark alerted us to guests. Grandma Esther and Grandpa Erwin drove up the driveway, too far for Dad’s liking. He feared for his yellow Alumacraft that we would take to the lake after dinner. On Sundays we worshipped twice—once with Mom in church and then again with Dad in the fishing boat on Crooked Lake.

“Judas Priest. Erwin’s not going to be able to back out again,” he said.

Gramps had a habit of driving off the incline onto our neighbor’s property almost every time he came to visit. For fifty years or more this man drove massive farm equipment all over the county in every kind of weather and terrain but this forty feet of gravel was his bête noire. One time, trying to avoid this predicament he over corrected and hit the corner of our house. Snow banks never helped the situation.

“Hello, hello!” Grandma Esther, not that much taller than I, hugged me tight around the waist and her glasses pressed into my French braid. Still in her church clothes, she had a scarf tied around her head to protect her short dark curls. I took the flat white Tupperware container filled with my favorite cookies and bars. Krissy barked and danced around us, her toenails clicking on the linoleum.

“Yes, yes dog,” she said finally patting Krissy’s black and white head. Gramps came in next, towering over Grandma, wearing his dark sunglasses and church clothes—a thin blue button-down sweater with grey slacks.

“How is everyone today?” Grandma said untying the silk scarf around her head.

“Well Esther, Amel is becoming one of them there feminisms,” Dad said, his annoyance equaling his pride.

“Amy?" Grandma’s typically neutral expression turned to shock, as if Dad just announced that I was running away with a burlesque dance troupe.

She looked at me and hugged me tight to her again, trying to protect me from who I was certain to become.

“But she’s only seven!”

***

Amy Stonestrom's work has appeared in Brevity, Superstition Review, Defunkt, Storm Cellar Quarterly, Parhelion and others. She is the recipient of a Keats Soul Making prize from the National League of American Pen Women and her essay “Beautiful Monster” recently won second place in Streetlight’s Memoir/Essay Contest. She is currently an MFA candidate in Bay Path University's creative nonfiction program. Amy lives with her husband and son on the Minnesota-Wisconsin border. You can find her at amystonestrom.com.

"Dawn of the Dying Day" is a painting by Jeff Musser, a decorated artist whose work has appeared in solo and group shows internationally since 2000. He is the recipient of multiple honors, including a grant from the James Irving Foundation and residencies at the Pantocrator Gallery (Shanghai, China) and in the Dawang Cultural Highland (Shenzhen, China). Jeff's work is held in public and corporate collections, and has been featured as public art. About his craft, Jeff says, "Certain memories about my life are meant to anchor me, to keep me from drifting into severe depression and fear. Other memories, if clung to desperately, over time, will petrify me. And yet memory, the faculty of recall, is constantly under threat from new experiences. This change, this faculty of recall, is where my process of painting comes in...Bold colors coupled with realism and abstraction are employed to seduce, engage, destabilize, and create new memories, new realities on the canvas." Jeff holds a BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and currently resides in California. "Dawn of the Dying Day" first appeared in The Journal.

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