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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Women and Memorial Day

Summer, in the minds of Americans, begins with Memorial Day and ends with Labor Day, with a nod to Flag Day in June and great celebration of Independence Day in July. Too often, though, we hear speeches about the founding fathers with little attention to the founding mothers – without whom, history would end in a generation.

The first of these, Memorial Day, is noteworthy: unheralded women were almost entirely responsible for beginning this holiday. Its origin was the Civil War – and until recently, May 30 focused on the terrible War Between the States that, at tremendous human cost, ended slavery.

The late spring date was chosen because flowers would be in bloom all across the nation, which enabled everyone to join in what still sometimes is called “decoration day.” Flowers – usually grown by women – were central to Memorial Day ceremonies. They served as reminders of eternal hope and new beginnings.

Modern advertisers, however, seem to see even the most sacred holidays merely as reasons to shop and spend. The public confuses Memorial Day with November’s Veterans Day, and its Civil War message largely is lost. That horrific war – the worst ever for Americans -- should be remembered, and women’s role in creating it especially merits recognition.

As from time immemorial, women cleaned up the mess. They took the gruesome reality of nearly 400,000 dead men, and by promoting cemeteries, led the way in turning blood and gore into something that encouraged serenity and reflection.

Usually named some variant of “women’s relief society,” groups sprang up in both the North and South that not only memorialized the dead, but also cared for the war’s disabled and its widows and orphans. In a time prior to today’s well-organized Pentagon, women also ran countless “soldiers’ homes.” Some were temporary, offering respite to men who walked hundreds of miles home from duty, while other soldiers’ homes proved permanent residences for the war’s disabled and displaced.

Perhaps the earliest unacknowledged leader in this movement was Ellen Call Long of Tallahassee. Her father had been governor when Florida still was a territory, and he opposed secession from the Union. She did, too, but the voices of women and elderly men were ignored when Florida became the third state to secede -- two months prior to Lincoln’s inauguration, and by a vote of 62-7. Former Governor Richard Keith Call died of natural causes during the war, and wartime Governor John Milton killed himself at its end, when he saw the consequences of the conflict that he so thoughtlessly had encouraged.

Ellen Call Long, however, was there to lead when the fighting ceased in April 1865. Just weeks later, she organized a women’s memorial society to reconcile embittered enemies. On June 22, 1865, Tallahassee women adopted these profound, forgiving, and future-oriented resolutions – a much better analysis of the crisis that anything that came from men. The document read:

The object of this meeting is to initiate a Memorial Association...that shall perpetuate in an honorable manner the memory of the gallant dead...

Our purpose is...to reclaim from oblivion and defamation the memory and graves of those who, right or wrong, stood by their country’s cause, firmly believing that…posterity will acknowledge...we did our duty...

In no invidious spirit do we come; the political storm that shook our country to its foundation, we hope, is passed... We are done with the [Confederate] cause...and are willing to do all that women can do to stem the tide of bitterness...and angry feelings... We will practice and teach forbearance and patience, which must finally bring peace and justice...

[This] society shall not be ephemeral in its character, but a permanent institution…, establishing an Anniversary of Memorial Observances, the object of which will be to renew and ornament...the graves of soldiers, whether strangers or our own sons...

This society proposes, moreover, to make provision for the education of as many children of deceased soldiers...as may be compatible with the means of said Association…

The memories of the past are written in blood, and cannot be effaced. But go forward we must, crushed, oppressed, and heartsick.
Yet we shall not forget.

Most of us have forgotten. We women also have forgotten to create a national holiday on August 26, the anniversary of our own right to vote. In fact, with the exception of Mother’s Day – which is on a Sunday – there are no American holidays that honor women. Even a casual glance around our nation’s capital reveals dozens of men on horses who fought a war, but there are almost none to the women who also contributed to victories – or who simply stayed home, ran farms and businesses, bore and reared the next generation, and worked to bring peace.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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