icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

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.

1982: And the Ladies of the Club

I’m not sure exactly what I was busy with in 1982, but something. By great good fortune, I had an agent for my first book, but she was busy, too, and months would go by without a letter from her in the mail. (Yes, children, we waited for postal delivery back then.) I probably was on the board of the Mango Elementary School PTA in 1982 and active in Women’s Political Caucus, a bi-partisan organization that disappeared after Republicans disavowed the Equal Rights Amendment.

And 1982 was the year that our good friend in the Florida legislature, George Sheldon, lost his congressional race by one-half of one percent to Michael Bilirakis, who ran as an outsider and term-limit supporter. He soon forgot that; his son Gus inherited the seat; and this Republican dynasty remains today, sort of representing people who have no idea who represents them. And the district drawers in the legislature want these newcomers to remain ignorant.

Anyway, I was too busy for And the Ladies of the Club, which became the #1 international bestseller soon after its 1982 publication. It sat on a shelf literally for decades, although our daughter – who reads quickly and comprehensively – enjoyed it as a teenager. Despite her recommendation, I was reluctant to take on its 1433 pages, but recently decided to do so. This is an election year that younger people can handle.

Although set exclusively in Ohio, the novel first became a hit with publishers in London and in Sydney, Australia; I see that the copy I have was priced at £3.95 in UK currency. Its author doubtless worked on it for many years before it was rushed into print – occasional proofreading mistakes prove that – because she was nearly 90 years old. Helen Hoover Santmyer was a retired librarian and English professor, and that background shows on every page. I’m sure she wrote what she knew, as it likely is the story of her own family and friends. Most of its characters are upper-middle class women who were not allowed to go to college and had no recourse except self-education.

Just a Bit of The Story

It begins in 1868 on graduation day at Waynesboro Female Academy, one of the era’s private and costly institutions that provided the only educational opportunity available to teenage girls. Some were boarders and some lived in the town, but all were bound for marriage and motherhood, not careers. That worked out in some cases, but far from all – and even if a woman was a happy wife and mother, she had no chance for intellectual stimulation after her school days ended. Thus their literary club, something that women all over the nation emulated between the 1870s and 1890s. Most were democratic in their membership, but this was an invitation-only sorority that limited itself to twenty members. Yet with deaths, resignations, and new members, the book could use a chart to connect the dozens of ladies of the club.

The beginning year of 1868 also is significant. The Civil War was over, and Union General U.S. Grant would be elected president in November. One of the novel’s two main protagonists, a banker’s daughter, meets an army officer returned from the South on graduation day, and as the years go by, the businesses owned by that couple become the town’s largest employer. The other chief protagonist is the daughter of the town’s doctor, and she marries a medic traumatized by the war. He apprentices to her father, and she learns to accept her husband’s moodiness and occasional misbehavior – as well as his willingness to sacrifice his own health for others. When the story finally ends in 1932, that family is in its fourth generation of doctors.

All were men, something that is not really representative of that era, when female physicians were more common than later – after the AMA began and legalized discrimination against women. State laws already discriminated against them, and because state law defines who can become lawyers, female attorneys were much less then likely back than female physicians. Doctors could merely hang out their shingle and see who turned up, but attorneys had to pass the bar. One of the book’s characters never attempted to become a lawyer, even though her father was a prominent judge and she worked in his law office for many years. Both he and her mother were liberals who championed the abolition of slavery and women’s rights, but she did not take up these causes. Instead, she became increasingly embittered as she discovers the town’s secrets by snooping in sealed legal files.

She deplores her sister’s marriage to the church organist and his humble occupation of teaching music. The sisters eventually divide their parents’ mansion into separate residences – but they manage to cover their hostilities enough to host some of the club’s bi-weekly meetings. The organist, by the way, played at the mainstream Presbyterian church, and the club’s greatest division may have been between them and the “Reformed” Presbyterians. Called “RPs” in the novel, they were not at all reformed in the sense of modern reforms: instead they were extreme conservatives whose only “music” was psalm singing. The RP women had to be slowly coaxed into joining the club’s Christmas programs.

One, whose theologian husband objected to her attendance at a Shakespeare play, died with her sixth pregnancy, and two of her daughters later rebelled. Another club member had been a teacher at the female academy until she bewitched a dim-witted former army general. With postwar patriotism at its height, he won election to Congress – and then got caught up in the many scandals of the Grant administration. Their spoiled daughter similarly would entrap the third-generation of good doctors, but the most important aspect of the book to me was via its war veterans and their window to politics.

The Ohio setting made this easy, as that state had vastly disproportionate influence: the presidential winners from 1868 to 1884 all were from Ohio, as were the winners in 1896, 1900, 1908, and 1920. Only the earliest club members supported the vote for women, but most nonetheless were active at elections: one even tried to time her pregnancies so that she could go with her husband to national Republican conventions. Of course, all were Republicans. That was unquestioned, even as the party moved away from its radical abolitionist beginnings. As the old liberals died, Republicans of the 1850s would not recognize their conservative grandchildren of the 1890s.

Even more than with their men, a large part of the club members’ partisanship was because of their axiomatic, unexamined rejection of anyone who wasn’t Anglo. European immigrants who fled persecution in 1848 settled Ohio almost as soon as East Coast Americans did, but even decades later, were far from accepted. Catholic or Lutheran or non-religious, these Germanic women often were better educated, more cosmopolitan, and even as financially successful as the clubwomen -- but none ever was considered for membership. That was even truer of the town’s few Jews: men might interact on commercial and political matters, but women did not socialize. The town’s Irish were condemned as drunken, superstitious Catholics. Its “colored” population was beyond any recognition, even though those women faithfully provided care to generations of white families.

And the Ladies of the Club was enjoyable and accurate historical fiction and a real page-turner with fire, flood, blizzards, epidemics, and especially romances -- but it was most valuable to me as a way to get inside the heads of conservative women. I could feel the personal threat that the older women saw in the young women who had college degrees and who had traveled the world, even though the young did not intend to be threatening. It gave me a better understanding of why those who are born privileged are so fearful of change -- and fear is the basis of all conservatism. As FDR famously advised us, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Librarians and Words

If you still are with me, I want to share some of the novel’s unfamiliar vocabulary. Its word usage was a clear sign of the elderly author’s background in literacy and librarianship. I made notes at the back of the book and sat down with Hubby – who loves word shopping -- to find them on his laptop. Among those new to me:

• benison – a noun meaning blessing

• moquette – carpet that is velvet-like, but durable

• oakum – a mixture of plant fiber and tar used as caulking

• quinsy – sore throat

• apologetics – a branch of theology; defense of Christianity

• quondam – former, erstwhile; used as “Quondam Liberals”

• furbelow – garment trim akin to ruffles

Another usage was “Interurban Electric,” by which the author meant a streetcar. That was one of the successful investments of the business couple. After his death, she served as bank president: the town’s depositors accepted that partly because she could get advice from one of their worthless sons who, like the prodigal, had returned home divorced and bankrupt. The era also brought other major inventions, and electricity, the car, and the telephone especially made a difference in the physician family -- changes that could be both a blessing and a curse.

Here’s another thing I learned. Remember the 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? Written by a guy named Thomas Frank, it examined the question of why people vote against their own self-interest, and with the subtitle of How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, was a big hit. Well, it turns out that this historical novel, first published in 1982, mentioned a book called What’s the Matter with Kansas? authored by William Allen White. I already knew that he was a Kansan and a big deal journalist in the 1920s, so naturally I had to do some detective work on these duplicate titles.

The USF Library has a long list of William Allen White’s works in its database, but nothing matching What’s the Matter with Kansas? Of course, USF has the modern book by Thomas Frank, but I had to go to the database of World Cat[alogue] to find the old one. It seems to be very rare now, with fewer than a dozen universities listing it. None are closer than Duke, so of course I want to stop there next time I’m going up the East Coast.

Meanwhile, I plan to read books rejected by the puritanical RPs of the literary club. I may start with Diana of the Crossroads, which the woman who scorned her church organist brother-in-law found “morally reprehensible.” USF doesn’t have it either, but Amazon apologetically offers an imperfect reprint and informs us that it was published “prior to 1923.” Curiously, the hardback is $25.95 and the paperback $29.75 – but isn’t it wonderful to live in a world where we can find anything online? I’m so glad to have made it to this point!


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.
Make a comment to the author