Nancy's Travelblogue

... there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going. -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Location: California, United States

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

All the Strong Women Before Women's Lib

cFelix S. & Lucy Kramer Cohen Photograph Collection
My friend Nancy Bickel recently screened her documentary, A twentieth century woman:  Lucy Kramer Cohen, 1907-2007. It made me wonder about the strong, smart women who survived and thrived before Betty Freidan and Glora Steinem and NOW.
As the film so lovingly depicts, Lucy Kramer Cohen was an extraordinary woman, living among extraordinary people, in extraordinary times.  As a smart daughter of Jewish immigrants in NYC, she was clearly destined for a life of the mind. At Barnard College in the mid 1920s she studied mathematics, anthropology, Greek, and Latin, and worked as Franz Boas' research assistant.

Her marriage to Felix Cohen was a partnership of the mind as well as in life. Lucy was a partner and soulmate in political causes, philosophical interests, and in his work developing a legal code for American Indians.Though their partnership was equal and mutually respectful, the film implies that much of the work and wrtings that bear Felix's name really were in a large part Lucy's as well.

Lucy's story got me wondering about the strong women in my own family past. Both my grandmothers were doctors. I never knew this side of their story till I was an adult and had to dig it out on my own, after their deaths. Their public face was wife, mother, and grandmother.

My paternal grandmother, Grace Wilson Milne, was an osteopathic physician in a dusty town in western Colorado, in the early 20th century. The story is that she was a "modern woman" in a small-minded small town. They say she was the first woman in Grand Junction to become a doctor and the first woman to own a car. And she married at age 40.She was not liked by my father's large Scottish family, so I never heard her side of the story. Probably she was rather controlling and a little crazy, but what else could you be if you are a woman who is smart, visionary, energetic, and female in a small dusty town in western Colorado?

Sarah MacKay Austin, South America
My maternal grandmother, Sarah MacKay Austin, grew up in a country home in western Illinois. She had all the proper education -- finishing school (Francis Schimer Academy), then University of Illinois, then Vassar, then University of Michigan to become the first woman PhD in Psychology (about 1918).
In the midst of her education she "said yes" to her long time suitor (my grandfather) and began her life as a wife, mother, and grandmother. The photo to the right is Sarah somewhere in South America on her honeymoon about 1915 (she married a mining engineer, but that is another story).
 I got to know Sarah when I was a teenager and my family moved nearby. By that time she had been married -- as far as I know, happily --  almost 50 years. I knew her only as an efficient household manager, charming entertainers, and a stable -- though emotionally distant -- grandmother.

Lucy. Grace. Sarah. Intelligent, worldly, educated women who came of age about a century ago and viewed their role through a lens of their time. Did they ask the same questions we do about women's role? Did they feel they traded a career or life-of-the-mind for home and family? Where did their thoughts wander to in those quiet moments between tending to little ones and tending to the hearth? I suspect they asked questions like everybody does, but that they were shaped differently. I'm not sure my grandmothers would approve of the world today. I suspect they made decisions based on life circumstances, their own instincts, and a little bit of randomness. As for Lucy, she said it right out loud, "I loved math, I love thinking things out, and I needed a job."


Blogger nkbickel said...

What a great bunch of women. Like my aunt Lucy's, your grandmothers' stories raise so many questions and leave me wanting to know more.
To mention only one simple puzzle why is your father's mother's last name Milne and your mother's mother McKay Austin. do ttell us more. And was your grandfather the mining engineer? They must have had an adventurous life together if so. More seriously, Lucy was very lucky to live in nyc and dc with many other bright educated idealistic people rather than more isolated in Midwest or west. Nancy Bickel

3/14/2012 12:01 AM  

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