Women at the White House

After some work of mine appeared in The Paumanok Review, a kindly editor from Muse Apprentice Guild e-mailed me and said they liked what they read and asked if I had anything I might like to send them. At the time, I was working on a novel entitled Victory Garden set around the woman suffrage movement and WWI. I sent them two pieces of the novel that I felt could stand alone, and they liked what they read enough to publish it. This is the first piece, entitled “Women at the White House.”

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I was there that day at the White House, just before the new war in 1917. We had gone to ask Woodrow Wilson for the help he had promised the woman suffrage movement when he, as the governor of New Jersey, wanted to become President of the United States. Then, he thought our influence worthy of courting.  After he was inaugurated as president in 1912 we were nuisances. He said he didn’t remember his election promises, which is the way of most politicians. But we would no longer allow ourselves to be unremembered. We had been unremembered 70 years by then. We wanted Wilson to see that our war was the same war that our men would soon be fighting over there. We wanted the same thing as the politicians, we wanted liberty and justice for all, but we didn’t need guns or bombs or blood-won trenches to get it. We needed determined, dedicated women willing to wait so that their daughters and granddaughters would no longer have to.

That day, past the flowering lawns and the black, wrought-iron gates, inside the pristine, colonial walls of the White House, we were shown into a reception room by a blank-faced attendant. We seated ourselves in the chairs set out in neat, school-like rows, with one chair up front for Teacher, as though the People’s House had been transformed into a school for insolent girls. We removed our low-lying hats and tugged at our gloves. We smoothed our ankle-length skirts and set our faces.

The president was busy, very busy, the overburdened aid said when he appeared. There’s to be a war on soon. There’s to be blood and battles and soldiers and death. We can no longer isolate ourselves in the world. This is our time to propel ourselves into greathood. This is our time to achieve our most worthy ideals of democracy and freedom for the world’s encumbered. There are people who are oppressed in the world.

But we are oppressed in the world, too, we said.

There are whole countries with whole languages with whole peoples suffering from the injustice of misguided imperialism, said the aide. We are going to join this war and we are going to free the people of the world and we are going to put ourselves on the highest rung of the earth’s ladder. We will help win this European war against evil and wrong. We will vindicate ourselves.

President Wilson is busy. He will not see you today.

Lucy Burns stood and addressed the man directly.

“He has promised,” she said. “He has promised for days, months even. Do men not elect presidents who keep their promises?”

“He is busy with pressing matters.”

“We are pressing matters.”

“He is dealing with issues of whole-world importance.”

“Then we will wait.”

Her rusted red hair nearly matched the intensity of her eyes and the glow of her skin. Lucy Burns was not bitter in her tone. She was not angry or forlorn. She sat down as the aide left the room.

“We will wait,” she said again. We will wait because it is our fate to wait. He has promised to hear us and we will wait until he does. We will wait for however long it takes. We have stories to tell and songs to sing. We have been waiting long for our time, waiting long for acknowledgement and respect and understanding. We will wait our whole lives, just as our mothers waited their whole lives, as our grandmothers waited, and their mothers and grandmothers before them. We will continue to wait, only now we will be visible. You will see us waiting.

When the aide passed through some time later and found us still waiting, he shook his head and backed away, disappearing into antiques and tapestries. I was sitting close to the window, and as I put my white gloves on I could see the black automobile with the straight-sitting chauffeur and the President, dressed in gray, proper, unblinking under his owl-eyed rims. His expression revealed nothing as the car passed through the White House gates. We gathered our handbags and our parasols, adjusted our hats and left escorted by guards from the White House grounds. We would not see the president that day, or any day soon. We would have to continue the fight another day.

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