the nobility of the ordinary…musings on women’s history

Although her hair was snowy white, and her skin bore the creases of old age, there was nothing frail about my Grandma Runa. She was an indefatigable, person, strong and sure as the earth. Full of spunk and stubbornness till the day she died. Content with little. Generous. Capable. Happy.

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She never learned to drive, but walked everywhere in her tiny mining town in northern Minnesota, summer or bitterly-cold-winter. That, a lifetime of gardening, and a bowl of oatmeal every morning, made her fit as a fiddle. Well into her 80s she continued to venture off for long days in blueberry patches, hauling home gallons of tiny, purple berries.

I remember as a young child, nestling into her lap on the sofa. I had an odd fascination with that little hollow just above the center of her clavicle. It was such a nice cranny, the perfect size for a marble, I thought. Ploop. A translucent peerie fit perfectly. Grandma would giggle at this ridiculous game, her eyes twinkly amid a radiance of crow’s feet, her merry smile lighting up her face.

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What a strong person she was, this hale and hearty woman, a-smiling at the world. Strong was what she had to be. She was widowed young. Suddenly, utterly unexpectedly, a few days after Christmas 1941, her husband died in his sleep. Massive heart attack. There she was, left with four young children at the tail end of the Depression, eking out a living as a seamstress, growing flowers to sell for weddings and funerals, taking in laundry. Imperturbably happy, she welcomed her children’s mob of friends into her pocket-sized living room and served them fresh-baked cream puffs after frosty sledding parties. My mother and her siblings grew to be some of the most cheerful, content people I know.

It’s not as though Runa didn’t have practice standing strong in strained circumstances. Her own mother died when she was just two weeks old, a wee baby in the woods of northern Wisconsin, and the young mail-order bride who eventually became her stepmother had apparently read too many fairy tales; she neglected and mistreated little Runa throughout her childhood.

Runa shouldered more than her share of chores, cooked meals at a local boardinghouse to help support the family, yet managed to stay in school through the 10th grade before striking out on her own, a 1920s working girl. She sported a new, short bob, sewed herself fashionable clothes, and tuned her radio to opera music. When she met Cap, a long drink of water from Ashland, Wisconsin, they fell in love. Two struggling kids in a world full of promise. The scallop-edged, black-and-white photos show a couple deliriously sweet on one another.

After Cap’s death, after those brief gladsome years, Runa continued to stand strong. Strong for my mother. Strong for me. All these years later, I often feel myself standing on her strong shoulders, hearing her voice of faith and hope, drawing strength from her strength.

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Yet what an obscure life she led, nearly entirely spent on ragged farms and in unremarkable towns. Ninety years of everyday life without a spit of fanfare. Eminently ordinary, by society’s usual measures.

Every year in March as I cull through stacks of fascinating, inspiring biographies for my Women’s History posts, I feel a compulsion to advocate for ordinary women as well, women like Runa, and me, and probably you. While it is soul-stirring to read about women breaking barriers, paving ways, becoming the first, changing thought, making sacrifices so we who follow have more room, more choice, more freedom, still — I have a profound admiration for ordinary women.

by Manly MacDonald

Land Girls Hoeing by Manly MacDonald

Growing up in a small town, I encountered a lot of these women who lived their entire lives in small places, doing seemingly small things, all the while gracing those around them with provision, pluck, and love. Their life stories are not told in lengthy biographies, but we can catch a glimpse of them in the lovingly-written lines of an obituary.
There, I’ve read about a woman who grew up during the Depression, the seventh of nine children, whose father was a country butcher and veterinarian. She married a disabled war veteran and cared for him while working odd jobs. She fished, hunted, and generously gave away “many batches of homemade pickles, wild mushrooms, hand dug horseradish, hand crafted blood sausage, head cheese, beans with pigs feet, and especially snapping turtle stew.” What an extraordinary person!
And there’s a woman named Hattie who spent her almost-100-years as a homemaker and farmer, loved her dairy cows and chickens, spent many summers chasing turkeys and working in the potato fields, and was well known for delicious doughnuts and beautiful wheel rugs which she gave away by the hundreds to family and friends.
What a ballast to her rural community she must have been.

Women-Working-Millstone by Hung Liu

Women Working — Millstone by Hung Liu

These hidden lives, tucked away on farms and in small townships, comprised of the day in, day out for an entire lifetime, bear marks of transcendent beauty. There is little of the sublime in the details. Casting a line, bleeding a pig, grubbing out potatoes, rhythmically tapping the treadle on a sewing machine, resound with the ordinary, conjure up fish slime, muck and stink, soil-caked fingernails, monotony. Yet there is something captivating about the totality of these women, their rugged personalities, the brawn and fullness of their lives. In the aggregate, the details add up to glory. There is nobility in the ordinary.

the ironers by Jacob Lawrence

The Ironers by Jacob Lawrence

All around the world woman carry on without limelight or fanfare, and clearly there are never going to be biographies written about most of the billions of us. But today I want to honor this cohort, recognize the profound impact of each one of our lives. It is ordinary women going about their commonplace lives who have been the bedrock of society.
For millennia women have fed and clothed their households as well as their neighbors in need, nurtured children, tended the sick, buried the dead;
farmed the land, built community, forged iron-clad friendships;
invented, healed, taught, improvised, restored;
started up, lifted up, borne up, spoken up.
Ordinary women have changed the course of the world. Indeed, women’s history belongs to all women.

the child's head on its mother's arms by kollwitz

The Child’s Head on its Mother’s Arms by Kathe Kollwitz

Who are the women that stand out in your corner of the world, in your memory? I would so love to hear about them in the comments section today!

Read my previous posts for this year’s Women’s History Month, plum full of extraordinary lives — here, here, and here, and find over 150 superb biographies on my Women’s History Page.