My Grandma Marys: G-r-r-r-l power

Happy belated Women's Equality Day! In case you missed it, Sunday was the 71st anniversary of passage of the19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Whoa, before you turn the page, allow me to introduce you to my Grandma Marys, the faces of discrimination circa 1920.

These are their pictures - Grandma Mary Ellen was my father's mother, and Grandma Mary Ann, my mother's mother. I literally owe them my life for producing the boy and girl who became my parents.

I started thinking about my grandmothers as I read up on Women's Equality Day, which marks the anniversary of Aug. 26, 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified.

The language of the constitutional change is simple and elegant:

"The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex."

Where could I find women who were alive when it was illegal to vote? I conjured up my Grandma Marys, who are old angels now, but were considered outside the law when it came to voting for the president of the United States.

Grandma Mary Ellen was born in Painesville, Ohio, on Nov. 16, 1872. Grandma Mary Ann, I believe, was born in Upstate New York in the mid-1880s.

Both were American citizens, born to Irish immigrant parents. As far as I know, neither had a criminal record (although that would make family reunions much more interesting).

In the eyes of our government, my grandmothers' only crime was that they weren't grandfathers.

I try to picture them on Aug. 26, 1920 - Grandma Mary Ellen in Ohio and Grandma Mary Ann in Pittsburgh, Pa.

My father, the oldest of Mary Ellen's four children, was 13, and my aunts, Helen and the twins Allie and Aggie, came in short order after that.

In Pennsylvania, Mary Ann was taking care of my mother, who was 6, and my uncles, who were 5 and 4. In addition, my grandfather was a doctor who treated patients in their home. They met in a hospital where Mary Ann was a nurse. She assisted in his office and tried to keep three little children out from underfoot at the same time.

I am not sure what day of the week it was, but I don't imagine their routines changed much. Even if Aug. 26 was Sunday like this year, it was no day of rest for a mother in 1920. My Grandma Marys labored from dawn until dark cooking, cleaning, mending, gardening, laundering and performing 1,000 other chores that came with running a busy household. But up until that hot August day, they were not allowed to vote.

Arguments against giving my grandmothers the right to vote were that they weren't intelligent enough (that would be Mary Ellen the seamstress and Mary Ann the nurse), their husbands' votes could count for them and, if my Grandma Marys could vote, the family would go to hell in a hand basket.

Did my Grandma Mary Ellen bake better oatmeal bread because she could vote? No, but if her right to vote and her worth depended on her ability to bake bread, crochet, and keep a family together after her husband died, she should have been elected president.

The same goes for Mary Ann, who lost my uncle to rheumatic fever when he was 10 and put up with my tyrannical grandfather until she died in 1940.

My grandmothers were no troublemakers or suffragettes. They were not ringleaders of the revolution. I imagine they were too exhausted to give the right to vote much thought.

Mary Ellen was nearly 50 years old and Mary Ann was 40 before they voted in a national election.

Sitting in the shade of my family tree, I started feeling some residual anger for my grandmothers, aunts, cousins and all the other females in my family (and your family, too) who couldn't vote until Aug. 26, 1920. Then I fast-forwarded to Aug. 26, 2001, and thought about what we do to today's Grandma Marys. Picture my grandmothers' sweet faces the next time you think someone is less equal because they are the wrong sex or sexual preference, a different race or religion, disabled, homeless, or illiterate.

I don't know if you believe in ghosts or reincarnation, but my Grandma Marys are talking about joining the Boy Scouts.

Sheila Gardner is night desk editor for the Nevada Appeal.


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