By Sam Burnham
One of my favorite stories my Grandpa told me was about visiting his grandmother on her 100th birthday. His knocking was no able to get her to the door and this concerned him. He found the door was unlocked and went in to check further but she was nowhere to be found. He heard a strange noise from the back yard and went to check. He walked through the back door just in time to see an ax come crashing down upon an upright log, splitting it into two pieces. His grandmother bent over to toss the suitable segment aside and then upright the log for another whack. Grandpa intervened asking what she was doing out there splitting wood. Her response? "They say it's going to be cold tonight."
And so I come to think about the famous Southern tale of Steel Magnolias. M'Lynn, Ouiser, Truvy, Clairee, Annelle, and Shelby were truly strong women, different from each other but a strong team together. I don't mean for this to be a rebuttal of their brand of strength or in any way cheapen the portrayal of strong female fictional characters. Instead, I want to highlight just a slightly different level of strength in women from my family and from history who, in an age filled with discussion of feminism, have shaped my thoughts on strong women.
As we start, there are stories today of women qualifying as Army Rangers and the Pentagon has cleared the way for the "first" American women in combat roles. I have to think that the road to this decision was at least partially paved by the numerous women known to have fought in disguise in American wars, including on both sides of the War Between the States.
I also have to mention the stories of two women that fascinate me. They are folklore heroes who actually have some evidence suggesting that the stories are, at least structurally, true. Molly Pitcher and The Warwoman. Both of these women, as well as others, played a role in fighting the British that did not relegate them to behind the lines service.
Molly Pitcher's story of heroism and leadership in the American Revolution at the Battle of Monmouth is somewhat supported in the identity of Mary Ludwig Hays by a annual veteran grant of (1822) $40 "for services rendered".
Then there's the Warwoman. The stories suggest that Nancy Hart would not have won any beauty contests. She was no Disney Princess. She was, however, a determined and capable frontier woman during the Revolutionary War time period. Her legend became so famous and impressive, a Confederate infantry unit named themselves The Nancy Hart Rifles. She worked extensively as a spy. It is also believed that she participated in the important Whig victory at Kettle Creek. The legend grew from stories like this one from New Georgia Encyclopedia:
"The most famous story of Hart's escapades as a frontier patriot began when a group of six (some accounts say five) Tories came to her cabin and demanded information concerning the location of a certain Whig leader. Only minutes earlier, the Whig, hotly pursued by the Tories, had stopped by the Hart cabin and enlisted Hart's aid as he made his escape. Hart insisted that no one had passed through her neck of the woods for days. Convinced that she was lying, one of the Tories shot and killed Hart's prized gobbler. After ordering her to cook the turkey, the Tories entered the cabin, stacked their weapons in the corner, and demanded something to drink. Hart obliged them by opening her jugs ofwine. Once the Tories began to feel the intoxicating effects of the wine, Hart sent her daughter Sukey to the spring for a bucket of water. Hart secretly instructed her to blow a conch shell, which was kept on a nearby stump, to alert the neighbors that Tories were in the cabin.
As Hart served her unwanted guests, she frequently passed between them and their stacked weapons. Inconspicuously, she began to pass the loaded muskets, one by one, through a chink in the cabin wall to Sukey, who had by this time slipped around to the rear of the building. When the Tories noticed what she was doing and sprang to their feet, Hart threatened to shoot the first man who moved a foot. Ignoring her warning, one Tory lunged forward, and Hart pulled the trigger, killing the man. Seizing another weapon, she urged her daughter to run for help. Hart shot a second Tory who made a move toward the stacked weapons and held off the remaining loyalists until her husband and several others arrived. Benjamin Hart wanted to shoot the Tories, but Hart wanted them to hang. Consequently the remaining Tories were hanged from a nearby tree. In 1912 workmen grading a railroad near the site of the old Hart cabin unearthed a neat row of six skeletons that lay under nearly three feet of earth and were estimated to have been buried for at least a century. This discovery seemed to validate the most oft-told story of the Hart legend."
Do not cross the Warwoman of Georgia.
We can add to these stories:
My maternal grandmother who gave birth to six children and helped raise three others. She has buried her husband and three of those children while somehow maintaining her sanity. After losing her husband, she had to sell the farm that was their dream home, a home cut from the scrub brush and sedimentary rock of central Florida with much sweat and toil. But sell it she did and then set out to make a new future for herself. And she's done quite well in the endeavor.
My paternal grandmother had her own struggles. In the end, her doctors told us that she was living only on her will to live. There was no medical reason for her to be alive. Shortly thereafter she told me in her living room that she had 20 more years in her and roughly 20 years later, she decided it was time to go. And so she did - but not one minute before those 20 years were over.
My Aunt Tecola was about as small of a person as you'd ever expect to meet. She'd weigh about 110 pounds if she were carrying two five gallon buckets full of water. But I don't doubt for a minute that she could carry two five gallon buckets of water. She buried her only children in their childhood. Then she, and Uncle Sam, for whom I am named, played a role in raising several of their nieces and nephews, specifically my dad. A chicken in my Aunt Tecola's yard could go from clucking and eating bugs to fried and being eaten by her and Uncle Sam in a matter of a couple hours. And no one touched the chicken in that process but her. Kill it, clean it, cook it. Who needs a grocery store? Not her. A 90 pound woman snapping a chicken neck with one hand is impressive.
And then when my Uncle Sam was in the hospital, lying on his deathbed, the nurse came around to check his vitals. She placed the stethoscope on his chest and he looked up at her and this six foot six inch mountain of a man told that nurse, "You won't find anything there ma'am. Tecola took that 60 years ago."
These are a few of my "Cast Iron Magnolias". Women from historic folklore and women I knew who became part of our family folklore. When I think of strong women, these are the women I have to offer in comparison. When I talk about how a gentleman should treat a lady, it's not because I think women are weaker or less capable. I have first-hand evidence otherwise. On the contrary, I think women should be treated with honor and respect because they deserve it.
So if you see me scoff at Lena Dunham or Joy Behar, it's not because I am misogynistic, it's just that I have really high standards.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire