My Mother’s Lesbian Affair

FloHSgrad
Flo in about 1930

Chapter One

Rummaging through my mom’s scrapbooks from the 1930s I came across a packet of letters, a rare find. My mother saved minutiae from her life: bridge tallies, restaurant menus, cocktail napkins, greeting cards, dance cards, wedding invitations. But she saved almost no personal letters, although I know she wrote and received troves of them.

OpenFriSatSunThe envelopes are all addressed to Miss Florence Wick and marked on the outside: “Via the usual route,” “To be read on Friday,” “To be read on Saturday” and “To be read on Sunday.” Carefully opening the tattered envelopes, I found hand-written notes on stationery from the Neil House Hotel in Columbus, Ohio. They looked to me like love notes—from a woman named Edna L.

 

Florence, darlin’—

Haven’t we had fun with meetings and parties and “baths” and rushin’ ‘round! And what am I going to do without you when you are gone? You will just have to come to New York sometime soon so we can share some other experiences….

Love and a hug—Edna L.

 

What did she mean “baths”? OMGoddess! I had to call my brother Don immediately.

“Flo had an affair with a woman! I have proof!” I blurted. Perhaps I could have approached the delivery of this information differently, building up to the climax with more suspense. My brother’s lack of excitement revealed my failure.

“You’re making up things again.” He could have added, “just like Dad.” Our father was an accomplished teller of tales, amusing but not to be believed.

My wife Holly was equally suspicious. I hadn’t realized I’d built such a reputation for exaggeration. No one believed me. I just had to revel in my discovery alone.

ELtrainI delved further, looking for more information about Edna L. I read the letters over. Edna sometimes signed her name Eddie or Edie, but she never included her last name. I love that she called herself Eddie, a definite lesbian cue. She illustrated the notes with endearing stick figure drawings. From the letters I learned that Eddie and Flo had roomed together at the national YWCA council meeting in Columbus. Eddie had written the notes during their time together and given them to Flo to be opened each day on the train ride home to Washington State. How romantic!

I read through all the accompanying articles and programs about the national YWCA council meetings that Flo had attended in Chicago and Columbus in 1937 and 1938, but I couldn’t find any mention of Eddie. I looked at every picture in the two scrapbooks. Flo had devoted two pages of one scrapbook to pictures of a woman who had died, kind of a shrine. The pictures show Flo and the friend on a camping trip in the mountains. The woman’s death photo, showing her body lying on a coffin-like bed, is in an envelope pasted in the scrapbook, but there is not a single clue as to who she was. I pulled up the photos to see if there was anything written on the reverse side. Nothing.

camping
With the friend who died

The woman in the photos looked rather morose. Could the dead woman be Eddie? Did Eddie kill herself after Flo spurned her advances? Reading the letters, I can see she was clearly smitten, but there’s no indication that Flo felt the same. I let my imagination run wild. My poor mother! She must have felt terrible guilt. No wonder she left no clues about the identity of the dead woman.

She is still a mystery
She is still a mystery

My brother seemed slightly more interested in this new theory and he agreed to help me research the dead woman’s identity. We found one clue in a picture that decisively ties the dead woman to Flo’s hometown Biz-Pro group, and from her letters we know that Eddie was from New York, so I had to abandon my romantic story about Eddie. However, I’m holding onto the suicide theory until we can identify the dead woman. I can totally see how my adorable young mother might have inspired unrequited love.

In the Company of Women

 

Florence Wick early 1930s
Florence Wick early 1930s

My mother used to wonder aloud why my generation of girls and young women chose to hang out in co-ed groups. Why was there so much pressure to be with boys? She told me that as a young woman she’d had loads of fun communing with sisters in same sex groups. They invited boys to dances and events that they organized, but otherwise they sought the companionship of other women. Now, looking through scrapbooks she made in the 1930s, I can see what she was talking about.

My mother, Florence Wick, had graduated from Yakima High School at age 16 in the class of 1929½, just as the country sank into the Great Depression. She was planning to enroll at Washington State University (my alma mater) when the stock market crashed and ended her dream of going to college. SeattleSecyInstead she went to secretarial school. She got a job as a stenographer and worked steadily throughout the decade, living at home and supporting her family when her father lost his teaching job. In the 1930s my mother actively participated in women’s organizations that I now see set the stage for the feminist movement of the 1970s.

Flo was Biz-Pro president in 1936
Flo was Biz-Pro president in 1936

While she could never afford college, she did join a sorority, Epsilon Sigma Alpha, which had been reorganized from a college group to include businesswomen. She was also a member and president of the Business and Professional Women’s Club (Biz-Pro) one of the “business girls” clubs that fell under the umbrella of the YWCA. These linked organizations provided opportunities for what we now call networking, but they also promoted the rights and welfare of workingwomen by sponsoring legislation for equal pay and to prohibit legislation denying jobs to married women. Founded to address the surge of women into the workforce during WWI, Biz-Pro still continues to advocate for workingwomen promoting equal pay, comparable worth and family leave legislation.

The sorority met twice a month, once for a study program and once for a social event. My mother saved programs and newspaper articles reporting on their events. Flo sometimes appears in the programs reviewing books (Stanley Walker’s Mrs. Astor’s Horse) or authoring skits. She participated in a bridge club and took home prizes. She directed a questionnaire on current event topics at one meeting. At another she reported on the biography of Nijinsky written by his wife. Politics was also on the agenda. On the Oct. 6, 1936 program, Miss Sylvia Murray presented a “Symposium of Nazism and Fascism.” Flo presented “Excerpts from Days of Wrath by Andre Malraux.” They had picnic summer potlucks. They played games. The local news reported: At the Thanksgiving party, 30 members and their friends were expected. The colors were yellow, orange and brown.

Smart cotton frocks of today’s vogue and demure fashions of 50 years ago vied for supremacy last evening when Epsilon Sigma Alpha sorority members entertained at a dessert bridge party in the Woman’s Century clubhouse. The sorority will have a horseback riding party as a feature of its next meeting, reported the local Yakima newspaper. In news articles the married women are referred to by their husbands’ names. A dinner and theater party were planned by sorority members at their meeting last evening in the home of Mrs. Malcolm Mays.

Bridge Tallies
Bridge Tallies

The Biz-Pro meetings, too, sought to combine business and pleasure.

Miss Edith Livingston had charge of decorating the tables with white cellophane Christmas trees, snowmen, blue streamers and white tapers. Girls made a contribution to the iron lung fund.

Despite their name, the business and professional women were not above movie stars and gossip.

Mrs. Gledhill, the former Miss Margaret Buck of Yakima, related interesting Hollywood anecdotes and described the YWCA work in the southern city. She particularly mentioned the Studio club in Hollywood where girls who are hoping for a “break” live and rehearse, “even tap dancers,” she says. Among board members are Mary Pickford and Mrs. Cecil De Mille.pledge

Both my mother and I were active in the YWCA during the 1970s when its “One Imperative” was to “use its collective power to eliminate racism by any means necessary.” Together we attended the 1973 national conference in San Diego where the farmworker leader Cesar Chavez spoke. But I hadn’t realized how involved she had been in the YW during the 1930s. After its members demanded a focus on workingwomen at the 1910 world conference in Berlin, the YW’s objectives changed from protecting women from the vagaries of industrialization to promoting their equal inclusion. To this day the YW remains a worldwide force working against violence and supporting women, racial minorities, people with AIDS and refugees.

Flo represented Biz-Pro as a council member at its conference in Chicago in November 1937. A newspaper report of the meeting quoted her: “It was grand and I liked Chicago so much,” says Miss Florence Wick, all in one breath, of the National Business and Professional Women’s Council of the YWCA meeting in Chicago from which she returned this week. The article says of the 26 council members, she was the youngest (she was 24). The meetings were held in the McCormick residence in Chicago, a memorial to Harriet McCormick, an early supporter of the YW. “The loveliest building you ever saw,” according to Miss Wick. “I met so many notables in YWCA work, I feel so very insignificant,” Miss Wick remarks, laughing.

Flo as drawn by her sister Ruth
Flo as drawn by her teenage (biological) sister Ruth Wick

In April 1938, she traveled to Columbus, Ohio to the national YWCA convention and later explained the “reorganization of the business girls’ groups” to her local chapter. She traveled around the Northwest to represent the local group along with others including her best friend and my namesake, Molly (Mildred) Hardin, another single workingwoman. By that time they called themselves the “Business and Professional and Industrial Girls.” Industrial referred to women who worked in factories and plants, as opposed to the “business girls” who worked in offices.

Flo told me she had accepted that she would be an “old maid” when, at 33, she met my father. Still working as a stenographer, she had assumed the identity of “career girl.” Her sister Eva, my aunt, told me Flo was always popular. She had lots of boyfriends but she was in no hurry to get married. She enjoyed the independence and self-esteem that came from earning her own living as a workingwoman. And she thoroughly enjoyed the rich friendships and associations she cultivated in the women’s organizations she joined.

 

A 1930s Poetry Scrapbook

Fishing was a favorite pastime in the 1930s
Fishing was a favorite pastime in the 1930s

In my quest to archive the papers stored in my mold-infested storage room, I this week photographed two albums made by my mother in the 1930s. My mother, Florence Wick, graduated from Yakima (WA) High School in 1929 ½ (no explanation as to why there were half-year graduations) at age 16. She had skipped ahead a year. From the dates I found in these albums, it seems she assembled them after graduation. The first date is 1929. The last dates I found are in 1941.PoemPage

One album is a scrapbook, mostly a collection of poems cut out of magazines and pasted onto the pages. There’s a typed list titled Keep Your Friends Friendly with penciled annotations. A handwritten poem titled Friends is also pasted in. It could be Flo’s writing, but I don’t think it is. There’s a typed “poem” titled I Like, which starts, “I like polka dots. And molasses. And Spanish antiques.” That piece also is annotated with question marks and underlining. It’s followed by a long list of likes that Flo has apparently added in uncharacteristic rather messy writing. It starts: “red ties, Dresden china, first editions,” and ends, “farms, horses and hay.”I Like

My mother was an avid reader throughout her life. Flo told us about sneaking books into bed and reading through the night with a flashlight under the covers when she was a kid. As a young person, she also wrote poetry and won at least one poetry contest, although none of her own poetry appears in this scrapbook. As an adult she collected volumes of poems that lived on a bookcase in our family’s living room. She must have schooled me in poetry because I remember arguing with a teacher in grade school about how a poem should be read (I knew the poem; the teacher didn’t). But I never appreciated poetry as my mother did.

KeepFriendsTucked into the inside cover of this scrapbook is a photo of a young man dressed in knickers smoking a pipe and holding what appears to be a fox kit in what looks like a rather cold, stark place with some houses in the background (I think this is her boyfriend who spent time in the Pribilof Islands, and I remember other pictures of him, but not what he was doing there). The one other picture is cut out from a magazine—a young woman trying to bait a fishing hook.FoxKit

One newspaper clipping tells of her father’s death of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 1938. Other pages cut from magazines contain instructive stories (“If you must run after a man…the really smart girl is the girl who, while joining in the chase, makes it appear as if she weren’t”). I think Flo cut these out not for the stories, but for the poems on the reverse side. If I were a dedicated researcher I’d read and analyze all the poems, but perhaps I’ll save that task for another day.

Writing to Mom about Sex Etc.

10-67Over the years a horrible sickening black mold has infected the room next to the garage where I’ve stored boxes of my old stuff. In order to access anything from that dark cavernous space I must wear a respirator and gloves. Now that I can use my iPhone to photograph papers and store them in my computer, I’m slowly archiving them. Chucking the mold-infected sheaves into the recycling gives me great pleasure.

1-17-69
January 17, 1969

I’ve imagined that the mold was introduced from items that had previously been stored in my grandmother’s root cellar/basement in my hometown of Yakima, I guess because the smell is similar. That’s silly, but it started me wondering about molds and how they travel. It might be stachybotrys atra (also known as black mold). Whatever type of mold it is, and there are more than 100,000 kinds, it is nasty and takes little time to activate my asthma if breathed in. Molds require moisture to grow. When we were remodeling this building in the early 21st century I discovered a crack in the foundation that allowed moisture

May 20, 1974
May 20, 1974

into the storage room. I patched it, but of course that did not rid the room of mold, and perhaps there is no way to get rid of it. Removing the contents might help.

This week I’ve been pulling out my mother’s papers to aid in reconstructing her life in Yakima and her work as a Red Cross Donut Girl in Europe during WWII. I still have Flo’s cardboard American Red Cross suitcase issued to her in Washington DC and then carried from Italy through France and into Germany during 1944-46. She saw the liberation of Dachau, so I suppose the evil mold could have traveled in the suitcase from Nazi concentration camps. It’s a theory.

74?
A Thursday in 1974
74
A Sunday in 1974, Seattle

When I opened the suitcase I found two scrapbooks that my mother had assembled in the 20s and the 30s, a sheaf of her letters, and a bundle of letters written by me to her in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. These I perused immediately. What a gift, that my mother had saved these letters! In the days when people wrote letters as a primary way of communicating, I wrote my mother often just to tell her what was going on in my life (long distance phone calls were expensive).

The letters span a period from the fall of 1967 when I first left home in Yakima to start college at WSU in Pullman (a 190-mile three-and-a half-hour drive away), up to the summer of 1981 after I’d moved into the house where I’ve lived ever since here in San Francisco. I haven’t yet counted the number of different addresses where I lived in Pullman, Seattle and San Francisco during this time, but it is certainly in the double digits.

10-23-76
October 23, 1976, San Francisco

The most frequent subjects of the letters were money—borrowing and paying back, the cost of things, not having enough—and job hunting. I’m glad for the mundane everyday minutia, what things cost in 1970,

“The prescription for progesterone that cost $1 to fill in Yakima cost $13 in Seattle. I should have sprung for the $6 bus ticket and bought it there.”

the many jobs I applied for and was rejected from (newspaper reporter, telemarketer, printer’s apprentice, waitress, library clerk, federal civil service, county extension agent, phone operator, bus driver).9-4-77

“Thanks for your help. Didn’t include you as a reference. It’s never a good bet to use a relative, especially your mother, no matter who she knows and how well respected.”

11-28-78I was struck by the close relationship between my mother and her daughter, the “never trust anyone over thirty” feminist revolutionary. No doubt this was the work of my mother’s efforts to maintain a bond, more than mine, but the letters make it clear that I depended on her for a great many things besides loans—support in whatever endeavors I worked at, help with writing, bouncing off opinions about politics and life in general. She was truly my rock and I hope I was hers.

7-19-77
July 19, 1977, San Francisco

Letters from 1967 through the spring of 1969 when I lived in dormitories (the only option for female undergraduates then) are filled with reports of studying, dating boys, finding rides home, gossip about people from Yakima and complaints about the cost of books and clothes. I’m surprised at how conventional I seemed, but I don’t think this was just a put-on for the benefit of my mother.

After I moved off campus in the fall of 1969, my letters expressed interest in “alternative lifestyles” and “building viable counterculture community institutions.”

I wrote about founding the League for the Promotion of Militant Atheism:

“College campuses need more militant anti-Jesus freaks.”

I wrote about politics and social change, racism, feminism, sex and gay liberation. I had embraced the unconventional.

So very many things changed during those explosive years, but some things never did. The last of these letters, dated 8/18/81, starts:

“Here’s some money I promised. Still looking for work.”5-5-77

Women’s Equality Day: Revolting in Yakima WA

The feminist revolution in Yakima, Washington was not televised but I can testify that we were just as angry and militant as the sisters in New York who got all the press.

In the summer of 1970 I got a job as a reporter at the Yakima Herald-Republic, returning to my hometown to raise money to finance my senior year at college. I’d joined the feminist movement and I’d brought along my mom, Flo. She was already feminist material, a prolific writer of letters to the editor–an activist at heart. A look at my first paycheck radicalized her further. She’d been making a quarter of that all her life as the kind of secretary who actually runs the business while being paid as a typist.

Big Rally
Our NOW group’s poster from 1970

At that time, newspaper reporter was a non-traditional job for women. It was ok for women to write for the women’s section and the food section and to work as secretaries, but reporter was a man’s job. The reporters at the YH-R had been organized into the Newspaper Guild and this was my first union job. I was elated, although I knew the Guild to be a weak union. I felt strongly that the secretaries and office workers ought to have a union too so I started talking up the idea of organizing. That got shut down fast! The office workers made it clear that they felt joining a union would be treasonous. They identified with the owners of the paper, at that time the descendants of its founding family. So, at the outset, this radical feminist succeeded in making enemies of the women workers. But they had been predisposed to dislike me from the beginning, especially one territorial secretary who saw me as a threat and whose put-downs had me hiding in the bathroom crying—the only time in my working career.

cigar2 copy (2)
Me at the news desk “smoking” a cigar and reading the paper, wearing a sleeveless dress, a Mary Tyler Moore hairdo and black-rimmed glasses

In the newsroom, the editor predictably assigned me to the women’s page, where readers turned to discover which of Yakima’s maidens were getting married that week. My job was to type up the wedding descriptions, which involved all of the fussy details like the cut of the bride’s dress and color of the bridesmaids’ frocks. In journalism school and as a student newspaper editor, I’d learned well the craft of editing. In my world, these unimportant details didn’t belong in any story. My wedding paragraphs got shorter and shorter until–busted! Brides’ mothers had begun calling my editor demanding to know why all the important details were missing. It turned out some people thought, and I venture to guess still think, that the color of the bride’s mother’s dress is big news. So my editor returned to writing up weddings and I went on to the news desk.

I did want to write about women, just not weddings. The features editor threw a few human-interest stories my way: a legally blind woman who’d become a pilot, a man who tatted, a dog that could ride on the back of a bike. I pitched a story to the news editor about where women in the Yakima Valley worked. Agriculture, mostly fruit orchards, was still the economic base of the region. My own grandmother had worked the line at a fruit processor and I’d picked apples in high school. I was truly interested in the demographics, but also wanted to investigate where we were not allowed to work. The editor thought it was a pretty good idea, but later reproached me, saying he had not known I was a feminist. How could I possibly write about this subject objectively, he wanted to know? Word sure got around fast.

gramonline
My grandmother, Gerda Wick (R), sorting cherries. Late 1930s?

When I pitched a story about the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage, they bit. Maybe I could find some real suffragists who’d been part of the struggle to win the vote! Washington women got the vote in 1910, the fifth state to give women the vote, ten years before the 19th amendment became law, so I figured there must have been a suffrage movement. My mother, who’d grown up in Yakima, wasn’t born until 1913. She didn’t know any suffragists, but I got a few leads and started searching nursing homes. I did find women to interview, but they had been mostly too busy raising kids and running farms to pay attention to politics, they said. This I dutifully reported in a feature article. If there had been militant suffragists in the early 1900s in Yakima, I failed to find them.

flo and molly
Me and Flo in about 1978

Yakima is a conservative place, infamous as the hometown of liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas. When FDR appointed Douglas to the Court, the Yakima paper disowned him. “Not From Here” said the headline. Douglas had been born in Minnesota and raised in Yakima. Ironically, Douglas was nominated to the Court as a representative of the West. But he couldn’t wait to get away from Yakima to seek his fortune. He wrote a book titled Go East Young Man.

Though I was undeniably a Yakima native, like Douglas I couldn’t wait to get away from my hometown. But the prospect of living with my parents, working as a reporter and making trouble just for the summer seemed like fun. A small group of us formed Yakima’s first National Organization for Women chapter, meeting at the home of a woman even older than my mom to document the inequality we experienced. We listed low pay, poor access to jobs and humiliating dress requirements, like having to wear hot pants to work as a waitress. There were restaurants and bars reserved for men only; and all those cultural expectations that we would serve our husbands, bear children and become homemakers. Also, everything we read placed the women’s movement in New York City. We chafed at that version and wanted to show that sisterhood was powerful in little towns in the West too.

In the back seat of a VW bug on the way to the first meeting, the young woman sharing the seat with me whispered that her female lover had left her. Distraught, closeted, and with no community, she was looking for a friend to talk to. She saw in me something I had yet to see: I was a sister dyke. Later, I regretted that my own life experience was too sparse to understand or even to sympathize. I had yet to love and lose. I had yet to come out, even to myself.

While not well schooled in romance, by this time I was an experienced organizer, having planned and executed anti-war and women’s liberation protests at college. I’d learned how to run a campaign, how to get media attention. I’d written and performed in guerrilla theater plays and given speeches, painted protest signs and silk-screened armbands. I’d participated in consciousness-raising and I was ready to act to change my world.

We aimed our first action at a restaurant where businessmen lunched that barred women. We had read about McSorley’s bar in Manhattan, which had denied women entry for 116 years until it was forced to admit us that very summer. A journalist, Lucy Komisar, the first to test the judge’s order, was dowsed in beer by jeering men. Our plan was to just walk in, sit down and demand service. We doubted beer dousing would follow, but who really knew what the reaction would be.

Resisting authority always made me nervous but also thrilled me. Just that spring we students had staged a giant strike and shut down Washington State University over racism. Flo had joined me at student demonstrations against the Vietnam War. My mother had saved me from threatened expulsion for moving off campus by making my case in a letter to the university president. Women’s protests had led to the college aborting in loco parentis rules requiring us to wear dresses and to observe curfew. Old sexist ways were crumbling in our wake, making us feel the power of sisterhood. We were on a roll.

We had cased the restaurant and, as planned, six of us marched in and took a table right under the sign that read “MEN ONLY.” Flustered waiters ran to the manager for advice and we were asked to leave. Would they call the police to arrest us, we wondered. We weren’t doing anything illegal were we? They refused to serve us but we did take up a table during the lunch hour. As it turned out, men didn’t give up their privileges easily, but no dousing followed our restaurant protest and after some resistance we helped the restaurant to see the light. We won! I don’t remember the names, or how many visits it took, but I do remember the determination, the camaraderie and the elation we felt when the restaurant gave up its policy and served us all lunch.

That summer our other protests involved wearing pants to work (handy tip: start with culottes) and pasting stickers that said “This Insults Women” on public signs and ads we deemed sexist (the ubiquity of these messages is hard for us to remember and for the young to imagine now).

Our NOW group chose as its summer coup de gras a rally to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women’s right to vote on August 26, 1970. One day, at my desk at the newspaper, I got a call from the New York Times. They were doing a story about how feminist groups across the country were celebrating Women’s Equality Day. Elated, I eagerly catalogued our victories and detailed our plans for the rally.

In preparation for our celebration, the artist in our group made signs that we posted about town, others secured a sound system and a soapbox. We planned to rally in Franklin Park, near the city center. We arrived dressed in 1920s garb, imagining throngs of women all excited to speak out about their oppression publicly, but the hoped-for crowd didn’t materialize as it had on the college campus. We gave a few short speeches, and then made the microphone available for other women to speak. No one stepped onto the soapbox except young boys experimenting with guttural sounds. Among the lessons we learned: maintain control of your mic and know your audience.

I couldn’t wait to see how my phone interview with the New York Times had come out. I rushed to the library to check out the paper and found the story–not in the women’s section. Our rally may not have been televised, but our little group of Yakima activists made the Times!

Epilogue: We went on to change our world.