Ettabell, Maudie and Lillian, on Dress Reform, Marriage, and the Writing Game by Alice Curtice Moyer Wing

Alice Curtice Moyer Wing wanted equal voting rights for women. She traveled the Missouri Ozarks with her horse La Belle in the 1910s, talking to people about voting rights. Her experiences were chronicled in a series of articles published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1916-1919. Missouriwomen.org is featuring Moyer Wing’s articles as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights. For more information about Moyer Wing and her activism, see Alice Curtice Moyer Wing and Woman Suffrage in the Ozarks, 1916-1919.

The following was Moyer Wing’s twenty second article published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on February 10, 1918:

The first named wore “overhalls,” not with any idea of being a crusader, but because she is more comfortable in ’em as she helps “pa” on the farm – Maudie is just 14, but she’s afraid she’s going to be an old maid, while Lillian wonders if an inspiration is anything like being bitten by a rat

By Alice Curtice Moyer-Wing

“Hadn’t you better be a-skeedaddlin’ fer home? Them’s snow clouds, shore’s you’re born, and you air liable to git caught out in it.”

I said that I was “skeedaddlin'” for home that very moment, and inquired of the good-lookin boy the nearest way to the schoolhouse, from which point I thought I knew a direct route.

The boy removed his cap from a shapely head to put back a stray lock that was threatening to come down and revealed a heap of smooth, brown braids.

“Oh.” I said.

“Oh,” said the boy, putting on the cap again and smiling. “So you see I’m a girl, after all.” And that was my introduction to Ettabell.

“I’ve jist started to chop a coon out of a tree over back of the field,” she explained. “The dawgs treed it this mornin’ ‘fore breakfast.”

“And have they stayed by it all this time?” I asked.

“You don’t know our dawgs. They’d stay all day, if they didn’t nobody come. It’s only 9 o’clock. Five hours ain’t nothin’.”

22 2

Five hours since breakfast and it was only 9 o’clock! Some sort of blind obedience impossible to understand to something or other equally impossible to comprehend, drags out of bed by the hair of the head, thousands upon thousands of otherwise perfectly good and sane farmers at 3 o’clock every morning; summer and winter alike, with unvarying regularity. Maybe they like the needless burning of their fuel. Maybe there is a joy in seeing the wood go up in smoke so that they may have the supreme pleasure of sawing and hauling another supply. Maybe they just like to sit around and wait till it is light enough to see to feed the stock or begin a daily task, thus having at least one waking period of idleness. I dismissed the wonder of it from my mind – it has always been too much for me – and asked Ettabell, with interest: “Are you an apostle of dress reform?”

“I ain’t troublin’ my head about reformin’ anything,” replied Ettabell. “It’s jist this way: My brother is away a heap and I have to help pa with the work. He’ll be gone a lot more if the war lasts. I can git about and be more comfortable in my work if I wear overhalls. That’s why I wear ‘em.”

“Then you are, after all, an apostle of dress reform,” I said. “For that is the main object of it all – convenience and comfort in getting about.”

“That’s plumb interestin’, ain’t it, to be something without knowin’ it? I’m purty shore of one thing, though: us women of the country can give you city women pinters on some few things and cloes is one o’ ‘em. We’re a heap freer than the city women. Why, you city women is slaves – plumb slaves – that’s what. If you ain’t got money, you’re skeered to death all the time fer fear you ain’t in style, er ain’t a-goin’ to be, and you skimp and starve to buy cloes like them that’s got money to burn, and when you git ‘em, you diskiver that them with money to burn has saw to it that they is somethin’ else jist a little newer. And even the money-burners is skeered, I reckon, about somethin’ er nuther, fer fear that they cain’t git everything that nobody else cain’t afford, maybe. And they ain’t no hope, I’m afeerd, frum them. And them that’s strainin’ their lives out tryin’ to be like ‘em is skeered to death at the idee of thinkin’ fer theirselves or bein’ independent of ‘em. So it looks to me that this here thing has got to come through the country women that’s free enough and brave enough to say to the fashion makin’ fellers that is a-gettin’ rich out of you’ns, ‘Look-a-here! You ain’t no call to lay awake nights thinkin’ up a new style on our account. This here suit I bought last winter ain’t wore out yet and you cain’t sell me another till it is!’ And then we ain’t afeerd to stick to our word.

“Look at the good sense of men, now – how they buy a suit and wear it out. Women ain’t never goin’ to amount to what they ort till they git the independence to make theirselves free frum some of the things that has been a-holdin’ ‘em down and a-keepin’ their noses on the grindstone. And it seems to me that right now is the time to show what kind of stuff you’re made of when it comes to cloes. Some of ‘em air. I’ve read how some women air a-savin’ on cloes so as to give to the war, but they’s a heap sight more that don’t. My cousin has a store in town and she says they is more fine dresses bought right now than ever before.

“Now, jist who is the friends to their country these days – the women spendin’ money a-tryin’ to foller the fashions or the women who is brave enough not to?”

“Are you a suffragist?” I asked, feeling that her argument needed no reply.

“I’m fer women. I reckon that answers the question, don’t it? But about these here overhalls. You’ll notice that I don’t wear them kind with ruffles around the ankles, like I seen in some of the fashion catalogues. I jist take the plain blue kind like my brother wears. Like as not, I’ll cut his off to fit me and wear ‘em out when he goes away. The money I’ll save that way will help somewhere else.

“Shore, when I fix up on Sunday I wear dresses. I ain’t a-talkin’ about dressed-up misery; jist workin’ comfort.”

“Does your brother go soon?” I asked in sympathy.

“Maybe.” Ettabell kicked a stone viciously with the toe of her little cowhide shoe. She looked up: “I ain’t one of them girls that insults theirselves and makes the men feel all smart and puffed up by wishin’ theirselves boys. I’ve never wanted to be a boy. I like girls better than boys. But here’s a time when I cain’t help envyin’ my brother. He can fight in this great, big, terrible, necessary, awful war and I cain’t. If it wasn’t that I cain’t, you couldn’t see me fer the dust I’d make a-gittin’ to it. As it is, I can only do my part here at home, which I reckon is the next best thing. I’ll help pa in the fields and I’ll wear overhalls and try to be a example to you women in the city.”

I bade Ettabell good-by with regret, but a look at the snow clouds sent me hurrying on.

After traveling several miles, we were, to all appearance, as far from the schoolhouse as when Ettabell directed us. Plainly, we had missed our way some place back on the ridge, where the dim neighborhood trails were criss-crossed in every conceivable direction.

And then I did what I always do when I want to go home and don’t know the way. I put the responsibility upon La Belle. She sensed it at once and led off through the woods at an angle which nobody but La Belle could have convinced me was correct. It is to La Belle’s credit that we found Maudie.

She came racing out as she saw us advancing and by the time we had reached her gate she was handing a post-card photo to me and saying excitedly: “I knowed it was you and I want you to see that I have got a nag of my own. Maybe not as big and maybe not as hikaflutin’ as La Belle, but he’s purty good. He ain’t registered, Jack ain’t; he’s jist black and shiny and purty; and this is my pitcher, tuck on him. And I’m shore crazy fer me and Jack to be in a story and we’d ruther be in a suffrage story than any kind, ‘cause we’re fer it. I read ever’ one of yours that I can git, and they ain’t none of the pitchers any better lookin’ than me and Jack. Air they?”

I said they were not.

22 1

She looked at me searchingly and then said, confidentially: “How old do you think a girl ort to be ‘fore she is counted a old maid? Ain’t 18 kinder young? Purty nigh all the girls round here gits married at 15 or 16 fer fear they’ll git to be 18 and be a old maid. Now I’ve heerd that they ain’t no sich a thing as a old maid in the city. Why,” excitedly, “I’ve heerd that a woman of 20 is still a young girl and that no matter how old you air, you can still live single and be independent and not never be a old maid. Is it so?”

I told her it was.

Maudie was thoughtful. “I think,” she said finally, “that I’d ruther go to the city and har (hire) out and stay single than to live here and git married ‘fore I’m 18. My aunt lives there and wants me to come. Pappy and mommy have about said I can go. Of course, if I git tard of it, I can come back home. But if I git along all right, hit’s me fer the city where they ain’t no old maids. Shiloh Webb will wait fer me if I want him to. I could stay a right smart while and git back fore I’m 18, couldn’t I? You see, I’m only 14 now. Tillie Sands is jist a month older than me and she was married last week. Wasn’t so plumb awful crazy about the feller she married, nuther, but she was skeered that she might not git another chance, and she’d jist nacherly ruther die, she said than to be a old maid like her sister. Her sister is 19.”

She looked off at the clouds. “I b’leeve hit’s a-going to snow purty soon.” She said it brightly. The old maid question had been satisfactorily settled for Maudie, now that she knew there was a way of escape – also that there was an escape from the way of escape if she desired it after a trial, for she could stay a “right smart” while and still get back before she reached the doleful, hopeless age of 18.

“Them clouds shore look like snow,” she repeated, “and if I was out like you, I’d be skeedaddlin’ fer home.”

I didn’t have time to stop again, but I was waylaid by Lillian – and this story of my day of “skeedaddlin’” wouldn’t be complete without her.

She looked at me keenly and waded right into the heart of the thing she most wanted to talk about: “What I want to know,” she drawled, “is whuther a person, to write a story er a poem er somethin’ has got to git kinder crazy to git it right.

“Sorter looney,” she elaborated. “My cousin Jimmie, he says he knows a feller that cain’t write a thing ‘les he gits all worked up about it. He says he gits up in the middle of the night if a inspiration gits a-hold of him, and that no matter how sleepy he is, he hops right out of bed and writes till mornin’ a heap of times, without knowin’ whuther he is cold er nothin’ He shore is awful work-brittle to do that, hain’t he? Cousin Jimmie says a inspiration is somethin’ awful serious. Did one ever git a-hold of you? Did it hurt? I was bit by a rat once that we ketched in a trap. Was it somethin’ like bein’ bit by a rat?”

I was mercifully saved by Lillian’s continued chatter, which made replies superfluous. That is, if her slow, continuous drawl could be classed as chatter. At any rate, it was continuous.

“Cousin Jimmie says I’ve got eyes like a poet. Do you think I have? Maudie Bates phoned me you was a-comin’ this way, so I jist run down to the road a-purpose to git to talk with you about it. Do you think I’ve got eyes like a poet, huh?”

“They’re very brown and very beautiful,” I said truthfully, “and dreamy,” I added.

“Dreamy. That sounds like what Cousin Jimmie says. He says, too, if I ain’t keerful I’ll jist dream all my time away, thinkin’ what I’d like to do, but never tryin’ very hard to do it. Then, fust think I know, he says, my time will all be tuck up and I still won’t be no place like I’d planned. He says most people is that-a way. He teached our school last year. He’s awful smart. But do you think most people is that-a way? Like Cousin Jimmie says?”

I took a look at the clouds and replied cautiously, Cousin Jimmie, I told her, would be considered by many people as entirely correct and by others wholly wrong. But that, in all probability, his idea of it, in many, many cases, fitted exactly.

Then I made haste to use this opportunity to get in a word edgewise and asked her if she believed in woman suffrage. If she didn’t, then, regardless of snow clouds, I must give time to her conversion. For when the vote is handed to Lillian without the cost of a single, solitary effort on her part, she has got to value it. If she believes in it, its value in her mind is already established. The occasion for these horseback journeys is the purpose to sow suffrage seed in the bare spots of my State, and, regardless of the startling and distracting situations that fall to our lot – mine and La Belle’s – in this campaign of ours, that fundamental fact must never for one moment be forgotten. I dreaded, today, to spend the time on Lillian that her type usually demands. There was an air about her of the lackadaisical, the dreamy, the clinging vine, or all three in one. But without looking again at the clouds I managed to ask her whether she would like to vote. And without giving any sign that she heard my question, she calmly continued a discussion of her own greatest interest, which was, at least, humanly natural.

“If I thought they was more on that side than t’other,” she mused, “more like Cousin Jimmie says, you know, I’d quit it in spite of all git-out. If they’s anything I hate it’s bein’ like purty nigh everybody else.”

“But do you want to” –

“Jist give me a chance and I’ll show you,” she smiled. “You don’t need to waste no time on me, which is shore lucky on a day like this.” And then I resolved, as I have done many, many times before, to quit passing judgment without trial.

Lillian read my pleased surprise. “And that ain’t all,” she said. “I’ve got the whole fambly a-believin’ in it.” And to my confusion, added: “You shore cain’t tell jist by lookin’ at a frawg how fur it can jump. But what I’d like to know is,” returning to the question on her mind, “do you reckon I’d be safe a-writin’ poetry? Would a inspiration – But never mind,” she said suddenly, “I’ll jist find out fer myself. I can believe it a heap harder if I find out from my own experience,” in which instance she was again humanly natural.

A tiny flake of snow dropped onto her hand. “If I was you,” she said, with her slow smile, “I’d jist natcherly be a-skeedaddlin’ fer home.”

 

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