How Women Built Community

I expected that my reference to the Practical Conservative’s post arguing that homeschooling undermined conservative political advocacy would generate quite a bit of discussion. And it did. There are a lot of substantive comments on the thread that are well worth reading.

I think one point of confusing is that while I used the term “activism” in the title, she refers to “organizing,” with a broader implication. She refers to things like the founding of La Leche League in addition to just pure politics like opposing the ERA.

To shed more light on the social organizing function women played in communities prior to the mass entry of married women into the workforce and the homeschooling movement, I’ll share an excerpt from Brian Alexander’s book Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.

Glass House is about the destructive role of private equity in undermining communities. It will tell you more about how the economy really works today than any conservative writings will. It’s very much on my recommended reading list.

Alexander is definitely a liberal, but his keen journalistic observations make any number of perhaps unintended conservative points.

Here’s what he wrote about the role women used to play in his subject community of Lancaster, Ohio:

Through it all, Nancy threw herself into civic life. She was invited to join Twig 1 (of several Twigs), a women’s group with a mission to raise funds for the hospital. She volunteered as a “gray lady” in the hospital, working in a gray uniform at the reception desk, distributing newspapers to rooms, selling snacks.

She campaigned for school levies. When Nancy came to town, there were four main elementary schools, dating from the 1920s and 1930s and prosaically named West, North, East, and South. They were the result of a series of levies and bond issues passed by a previous generation. In 1938, despite the Great Depression and the possibility of a new world war, Lancaster’s voters passed a $268,000 school bond issue by 80%. Now, with more children and new neighborhoods, the city needed new grade schools. “And within not many years, we built all these new schools,” Nancy recalled. “We passed one bond levy after another, and we all didn’t have a lot of money, either, but we voted for them.”

She was a Cub Scout leader and a Girl Scout leader. In 1962, seven women formed the Fairfield Heritage Association to begin preserving Lancaster’s old buildings. Nancy joined. “We all worked on the Heritage,” Nancy said. The Sherman House, the Georgian, and other old buildings were rejuvenated. The association held a tour every year that attracted people from all over Ohio.

Nancy was not unique. She was one of scores of young women – the “Anchor wives,” but also the wives of men who worked at Diamond Power or Lancaster Glass (the renamed Lancaster Lens), doctors’ wives, lawyers’ wives – who poured effort into bettering the town.

“We were busy girls. Our husbands were gone all the time, so we didn’t have to have a big, fancy dinner every night. We had dinner, but the kids wanted applesauce and fish sticks or hamburgers, you know. So you just kept dinner warm in the oven, and the kids rode their bikes to [sports] practice; you didn’t take them. So there was time to be a mom, because there wasn’t as much expected, or we didn’t expect as much – I don’t know which”

When the polio vaccine came out, the women ran inoculation drives. They agitated for improved sidewalks. They formed Parent League, an organization that attempted (and largely failed) to civilize children by teaching them how to play bridge and dance a waltz. The wives made Lancaster work.

Nancy enjoyed this life. She didn’t feel the nagging disquiet or disappointment described in 1963 by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. She was using her talents every day to build a community.

“I was happy with what I was doing,” she told me. “I loved being a mom. I didn’t mind keeping house and doing all the other things. And we did a lot of fun things.”

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