My husband’s grandmother, Catherine Ehr Brosnahan, grew up in Minot, North Dakota. She graduated from the Saint Clare Seminary, a preparatory school of the College of St. Theresa in Winona, Minnesota in 1914. Among some family treasures, I recently discovered her scrapbook from her graduation year. The red leather cover is tattered: the gilt edges are worn. But inside the musty pages is a peek at a girl’s life in 1914.
Home, thought Kate. I won’t miss the regulated routine, that’s for sure. Up at 6:45, morning prayer at 7:15, breakfast at 7:25, even a morning walk was on the schedule for 8:00 — rain, sleet or snow. Every minute of every day at St. Clare’s was scheduled, day in and day out. Now, I’ll be able to make my own schedule. That bit of freedom would be nice. As she and her friends had approached graduation, they chafed at the regulations they were under. “Why are they so strict?” was their constant refrain when the girls gathered for a brief conversation session out of earshot of the Mother Superior.
Kate recalled that her friend Esther had wished to correspond with a young man from her home town. But, the rule stated that every student must present a list, certified by parents, of names of persons with whom a student may correspond. Esther had been afraid to seek permission from her father to receive letters from the young man, and so the friendship that had been budding during the summer before senior year died on the vine. When Esther went home at Christmastime, she learned that her would-be beau was now courting a local girl, one whom he could converse with regularly. Esther had been heartbroken. “I’ll end up an old maid!” she lamented.
Of course, Kate had no young man from Minot that she would have wanted to write to, but still, the idea of the approved list of correspondents seemed extreme. Now, free from the St. Clare’s many regulations, she relished the idea of writing letters back and forth to her friends, and hoped that she’d spend much of her time penning and receiving witty missives.
Yes, but what would those letters say? “Dear Charlotte,” she imagined writing, “Today I bought some blue yarn and I’m going to knit a scarf for my sister Betty. Tomorrow I will attend Sunday Mass with my family.”
For heaven’s sake! I’ll have to do better than that, or no one will bother to reply. Maybe I’ll have to be more imaginative. “Dear Charlotte,” she revised, “Today I made a speech to the Ward County civic leaders on the importance of full suffrage for women. They applauded wildly and quickly vowed to pass a law granting women complete equality in the eyes of the law.”
Ha! Wouldn’t that be something! Kate stifled a grin. Imagine if I become an outspoken suffragette. Are there any in Minot?
“Mother, Father,” she asked, “are there any suffragettes in Minot?”
“Suffragettes? Like the women I’ve read about in the Chicago Tribune, marching through the streets with signs? Certainly not. Minot women are too busy with home and family to concern themselves with political matters. And, the women in Ward County are allowed to vote on school issues, since they are mothers of school children.”
“I think women should be able to vote on everything,” Kate announced.
“That may come in time, my dear. I hope you don’t plan to march in the streets,” her father said, chuckling a bit. “This is NOT Chicago, dear. People will not stand for that in Ward County.”
“What do you think about suffrage, Mother?” Kate asked.
“I just leave politics to your father, Katy. I trust that he gives a good deal of thought to any issues and votes according to what’s best for us all. I simply would not have the time to devote to such things,” her mother said. “However, some day women may be voting. The concept does seem to be spreading in the big cities, am I right, John?”
“We’ll see, Mother. We’ll see,” he replied.
The waiter appeared at their table, whisking away their dinner plates. The threesome was served coffee and pie, a distraction from the talk of voting privileges.
“Wasn’t that a fine meal,” Kate’s father said, taking his napkin from his lap and folding it on the table. “Ladies, shall we head back to our seats?”
Kate and her mother stood up and the three of them made their way from the dining car to their seats in the passenger car. The meal had been a welcome distraction, but there were still hours ahead of them before the train reached Minot.
Kate’s parents settled in. Her father had rolled up his sleeves and began reading a book, something about economics. Her mother resumed her knitting, occasionally setting it down to dab her perspiring brow with her handkerchief. The afternoon sun poured through the window, and Kate fidgeted. She felt grimy and sticky. Her dress, once neatly pressed, was now wrinkled and smudged, and there was a bright yellow spot of the lamb curry sauce on her lap. Kate folded the skirt to hide the stain, hoping her mother wouldn’t spot it and scold her for being careless. “I’m sweltering!” she said.
“Just think of something else, dear. Offer it up for the poor souls,” said her mother.
Offer it up for the poor souls? That’s what she always says, Kate thought, scowling as she stared out the window. The scenery hadn’t changed. I’m sick of these “amber waves of grain”. What would it be like to see “purple mountains’ majesty? Or “sea to shining sea”? Kate rustled through her bag. I can’t concentrate on reading or even saying the rosary. She pulled out her Girl Graduate book and flipped through its pages once again. I think I’ve memorized everything I’ve pasted in here, she thought, as she scanned the Senior Essays program for the second time that day. Several classmates had written about other places. Mary May wrote “The Beauties of the South “and Elizabeth had selected “The Blue Grass State, “and Kate wondered if either girl had ever been to those places. Kate recalled Gladys’s enthusiasm about her topic,“California, the Land of Beauty.” Gladys described the mountains, the Pacific Ocean, the hills of San Francisco, now rebuilding from its terrible earthquake, the palm trees, and the Catholic missions as if she’d seen them with her own eyes. Of course, she hadn’t. Like Kate, Gladys had only dreamed of travel.
(To be continued…)