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The State of Women: August 26, 1920 by Tara Gilboy | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

March 15, 2013      

The State of Women: August 26, 1920 by Tara Gilboy

The Victorious

In order to see it, the women rise before dawn. They fry eggs for sleepy-eyed children, make the beds, brew coffee for husbands. Too excited to eat, the women scrub their faces, pin up their hair, and lace into corsets. They kiss sons and daughters goodbye. This morning, their children will stay with a neighbor. This morning, the women board streetcars into the city, like their men. The lines into DC, usually drab with dark suits, are bright spots of color. Lacy handkerchiefs flutter; gloved hands wave; women cry out to greet one another. “Today!” they shout. “Today we will see it signed!”
     Today, the Susan B. Anthony Amendment will become the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution. The struggle has taken over forty years: so long that it was first proposed as the sixteenth amendment, then the seventeenth, then the eighteenth. Motions have been filed to block the amendment, but the Secretary of State says he will sign it, and the women are confident that the long battle for political equality has finally been won.
     The women gather on the steps of the State Department building. One shawled old woman has brought a hamper of food that she shares with the others as they wait, passing out pickles, cheese sandwiches, mason jars filled with lemonade. The weather is hot and flies buzz; the atmosphere is that of a party. Midmorning, a hum ripples through the crowd, and a mustached man makes his way through the throng. “Mr. Secretary!” someone shouts. The man tugs at his collar, adjusts his tie, clears his throat. “Congratulations,” he says, but he won’t meet their eyes. “I signed the proclamation this morning at eight o’clock.”
     At first the women are silent. He signed it without them?
     “I received the document this morning,” Mr. Secretary says. “I wanted to sign it as soon as possible, so I did so at my home in the presence of Mr. Nielson and Mr. Cook of the State Department.”
     “So on an occasion so momentous to American women,” the old woman shouts, “no woman was present to see it signed?”
     “The important thing is that it has been signed,” Mr. Secretary says. “Ladies, you have been enfranchised.”
     He looks at them as if expecting a cheer, but they are silent until one woman asks: “Will you sign it again so we can watch?”
     “I don’t believe that’s necessary,” Mr. Secretary says.

The Beauty

In Venice, California, men and women line the streets. The air smells like ocean. Little girls wave flags. Mothers hold their children’s hands so they won’t dart into the road. At a distance, the sound of a marching band.
     A parade is coming, and nearly 20,000 people have gathered to watch. Girls in bathing suits ride by on floats, waving. A banner proclaims: Blonde Versus Brunette Bathing Girl Parade and Contest. Men whistle. Redhaired women sigh; they don’t have a chance. The women on the floats – slim in sleeveless wool bathing costumes, knee socks, and Mary Jane shoes – are perfect examples of the “flappers” folks are always whispering about lately. They look athletic, with their boyish hips, flat chests, and bobbed hair, but you can see some of them are holding their breath, sucking in their stomachs. Some girls’ breasts look squashed and lumpy, and you can tell that, under their tops, they must have bound them in cloth to make them appear smaller.
     The judges gather; they whisper, confer. Who will be chosen most beautiful?
     That one? No, her teeth are too crooked.
     That blonde’s eyes are too close together.
     That girl’s nose is too large.
     She’s wearing too much rouge.
     But look at her. She’s not wearing enough.
     Too young, too old, too short, too tall, too thin, too fat, too…
     Ah, they have chosen a winner. The award for most beautiful girl in Venice goes to a brunette. Second place is given to a girl named Ruth, a blonde. The competition was close, enough so that women will not need to rush to the pharmacy to buy hair dye today.

The Bitch

The divorce courts are busy. Perhaps because of the changing political climate, or the high cost of living; too much bathtub gin, too much jazz. Across the country, one in six marriages ends in divorce, when just a generation ago, the figure was one in eighteen. In one city in Iowa, eleven petitions for divorce have been filed in the last eleven days. Many of the divorces are initiated by women, most of them claiming desertion.
     Or adultery.
     Abuse.
     Cruelty.
     Abandonment.
     Inhuman treatment.
     Not being provided for.
     The husbands ask for the cases to be dismissed. Their wives are crazy, they say.
     In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Victor says his wife threatened to kill him and threw a flower pot at his head.
     Adam, another Iowa man, says his wife signed checks on his bank account and refused to take care of him when he was sick.
     In Philadelphia, Adelbert says he hunted for the wife who had abandoned him, only to discover her living with another woman.
     In San Francisco, William, a trolley conductor, complains his wife goes on “nagging expeditions.” She boards his trolley car without paying fare and spends the rides annoying and nagging him.
     In Washington DC, Arthur asks the court to dismiss his wife’s suit for divorce. His wife says he won’t give her enough money to pay for the household expenses, but Arthur tells the court she simply has a “nagging and fault finding disposition and a hysterical temperament.” She even made him take a job he didn’t want. She should not be allowed to divorce him.
     In a New York courtroom, Jacob is arraigned for shooting a pistol at his wife through a window. He complains that his wife abandoned him, taking the couple’s son and the man’s savings with her. The judge fixes the man with a glare. “Don’t give your money to your wife,” the judge says. “It is foolish. Put your hard earned cash in a savings bank where it belongs.”

The Mother

In Brooklyn, a woman gave birth to triplets yesterday: two boys and a girl. Today her friends and neighbors are coming to see the babies. The woman and her husband came to America from Italy only seven months ago, but already they have developed a community eager to meet the new members of their family.
     The mother is tired and sore from her labor. Even so, she is house-proud; she does not want her visitors to see a messy place. The little house where she and her husband live is only four rooms, and even the least clutter makes it look atrocious. She does not have time to lie in bed, neglecting her housework.
     So the mother scrubs and sweeps. Her husband was forced to cook for himself while she was in labor, and plates and a frying pan caked with grease wait in the dishpan. The mother heats water on the stove, washes the dishes, dumps the water out, heats some more, washes diapers and hangs them on a line near the window to dry. Keeping three babies in clean diapers means a lot of laundry.
     When she has finished the washing, she irons a shirt for her husband so he will look presentable when the guests arrive. “Grazie, il mio amore,” he says, kissing her on the nose. She sinks into a chair to rest. One of the babies cries, waking the others. She feeds two of them, but the other must wait: she has only two breasts.
     The guests arrive: the women bring steaming dishes of polenta and gnocchi and warm loaves of bread wrapped in towels. One of the men has brought a bottle of homebrewed wine tucked inside his jacket, and the husbands drink wine and smoke cigarettes while their wives take turns holding the babies and whispering their own childbirth stories. The father is congratulated on his virility: three babies! What a feat! He beams. “Look at my wife,” he says. “So beautiful and healthy. She is a good woman.”

The Body

The woman is young, no more than twenty. She has money; you can tell just by her clothing (blue georgette automobile veil, gauzy dress, black patent leather pumps with four-inch heels, still shiny and new) that she comes from a wealthy family. She’s not wearing any jewelry, but perhaps this was taken from her.
     The woman lies on the cold metal table, and the men examine her under a light bulb that dangles on a drop cord from the ceiling: they poke and prod; they lift up her skirt to peek at her private parts, examine her teeth, eyes, hair. It is proper for them to do this – they are trained medical professionals.
     The woman has a mole on her back. One of her feet is slightly deformed. Her skin is pale, but if she was smiling (which she is not) she would probably be beautiful. In her hand, she clutches a piece of dark blue fabric that looks like it might have been torn from a coat.
     The men take out tools to examine her better: scales, rulers, scissors, knives. “What was she doing out in the woods?” one of the men says. “These are not walking clothes.”
     “She must have been in an automobile,” the other man remarks. “There’s not even any dirt on her shoes. The police think she may have been at the amusement park nearby.”
     The men pry her mouth open. Several of her teeth are missing. One is lodged in her windpipe: she must have breathed it in. Her skull is fractured, her throat a bloody gash.
     The woman’s husband refuses to identify her body. Instead, the men bring her clothes into the room where he waits, and he nods that, yes, these belong to his wife. The husband is allowed to return home, but soon after he leaves, a detective follows him for questioning. One of the doctors says it is the most violent murder he has ever seen.
     “She fought desperately,” the other says.

IMG_0552About the author:

Tara Gilboy is an MFA candidate in the University of British Columbia’s creative writing program, where she also serves on the editorial board of PRISM. Her work has appeared in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Straylight Literary Arts Magazine, and The Best of Everyday Fiction Three. She is working on her first novel.

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