Posted May 1, 2020 to News
An open letter to anyone who identifies as a Texas woman:
How’s it going? All right? You? All right. Wait, what day is it?
We’re sheltering in place. This is open, that is closed. There are tests available, there aren’t. We’re flattening the curve, or are we? Do we know who to listen to for the best recommendations?
All I know for sure is this: we are living in historic times.
Now, stop and think about what you have read in history books about pandemics or outbreaks of diseases that affect the entire world. Not a lot in there. Particularly not about the contributions of women during those times.
Future textbook entries about this pandemic will likely be boiled down to dates, and, depending on who is writing it, the viewpoint of the government’s response, and the death toll. Newsflash: typical K-12 history textbooks aren’t written by historians--they’re written primarily by book publishers and are in the voice of the dominant culture and gender. College textbooks and supplemental sources are written by historians, and I know this: one hundred years from now, historians will want to examine the thoughts and actions of those living during the pandemic of 2020. They’ll look at newspapers and may have some access to some social media posts, but they’ll be missing access to you and your experience.
First person narratives of women in Texas history are tragically rare, which leaves few resources for historians to draw upon. Even when primary sources like diaries do exist, about 99.9% were written by white women of means. Poor women and women of color didn’t have the luxury of domestic help to handle day-to-day events so they could write down their thoughts on the latest events in their lives. Even if they wrote letters, precious few were preserved by recipients. Fewer still found their way into archives.
For example, look at the diary of the suffragist Jane Yelvington McCallum in the archives of the Austin History Center, Austin Public Library. McCallum was married to the superintendent of the Austin School District. They had five children, and Jane’s mother and a domestic servant helped her run the household, leaving her time for club work, for social activism, and for recording her thoughts about these events. Her diary is really a treasure, but because it is the only one from this time in Austin, it is impossible to know how her reflections might have compared with other women whose lives weren’t like hers.
See? This is what I’m talking about.
Some say that we’ll get through this pandemic because “we’re all in the same boat,” but we aren’t. We’re having different experiences. You don’t want my diary, by a sixty-year-old white, single woman in Austin, to be assumed to be the same as what you experienced during this pandemic, wherever you are.
So don’t let it. Keep a journal, on paper, on your computer or in an online platform. The goal is to record ordinary happenings, feelings and the things you’d typically never tell anyone else. Tell the truth.
Writing makes us better observers. In her beautiful book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells us that writing becomes its own reward and that writing allows us to better understand ourselves. Here are my/our recommendations for tackling this task:
Your first entry needs to introduce yourself: Who are you, when were you born, what is your occupation and where do you live? If you’re not a native Texan, why are you in Texas now? Who is in the household and what is the situation? Since the pandemic began, have you been:
- working from home?
- homeschooling your kids?
- homeschooling yourself while you can’t get back to your college campus?
- teaching from home?
- food insecure?
- an essential worker?
- let go from your job?
- worried about making mortgage or rent?
- retired, isolated?
After the introduction and basic scenario, here are some topics to write about:
Writing in your diary may help you to better examine how you are coping on a day-to day or even minute-to-minute basis. Are you comparing yourself to others on social media who are taking this lockdown thing well? (If so, stop it, ok?). Are you:
- the one googling how to keep from offing your family for leaving one hundred and two jelly knives stuck to the counter and the toilet seat up for the thirtyjillionth time?
- feeling guilty for being happy at home alone, doing your part to ‘flatten the curve’?
- learning a new language?
- letting the dust bunnies roam free and multiply at will?
- sheltering alone, yearning for human touch? No hugs, no pedicure, no hairdresser, no sex.
- in your pajamas eating cereal out of the box binge watching Tiger King? (For the love of Pete, somebody has to include this in their story for historians to unravel a century from now.)
Turning to a diary is like funneling our inner thoughts and worries into a plaster jug. We can filter and even conceal our worries about how we might feed our children and keep a roof over their heads until that someday when they are old enough to uncork the jug and pour out the contents. We can also reflect about how we managed the craziness and take pride in our resourcefulness or in humbling ourselves by asking for help. How do you:
- stretch your food resources?
- manage to pay your bills?
- lift your spirits?
- lift the spirits of others?
- take precautions when you do go out for a quick essential errand?
- celebrate your birthday? Your child’s birthday?
- deal with aging parents in facilities away from family members?
- mourn the loss of a friend or family member?
- keep your wits about you, deal with depression and/or anxiety, cope with the news and constant barrage of information and misinformation?
Technology has gone from “nice to have” to “essential,” but not all of us have access to computers or social media. Internet access has played a dynamic role in our ability to work or go to school from home. What role does technology play for you, and what were the challenges?
- How are you carving out a safe, quiet place for those video meetings without kids screaming (“Be quiet, sweetie; Popsicles at 10 a.m.!”)?
- Are you using it for personal gatherings for families? Friends? Happy hour?
- Producing family dance videos?
- Making tele-doctor visits? Doing emotional therapy online?
- Have you celebrated a child’s birthday in captivity with creativity?
- If you share custody of your children, has technology helped a schedule that has been disrupted by limited travel?
- Were your last words to a loved one by video chat?
- What will you want to remember?
- What will you want to forget?
- What was sad?
- What was funny? (Don’t get me started on entries about toilet paper. I can see that dissertation proposal coming in a hundred years.)
- What’s the recommended format and how long should you do this?
So all you Texas women: record your experiences in journals or diaries for a year. Do you have the opportunity to write in it daily? Great! How about once a week? Terrific. We recommend doing this electronically (online or saved as a pdf) or scanning it after complete and saving to a thumbdrive. The important thing is that WE want the women in Texas, our contributions, our sorrows and joys to be on record. We must give future Texans the tools they need to see that we mattered and that we had a voice. You have a lot to say. Say it. Invite the women in your lives to join in.
If you’d like to receive periodic emails to encourage you to write and new questions you might consider, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WITH is currently looking at options for storage for what we hope will be a large collection of journals of women in Texas, so check back in a bit. Until then, stay safe and tell tomorrow’s Texans how you handled this pandemic.