I met Nan last fall when she took the initiative to start a book club in my condo building. On that first Thursday afternoon, we nibbled on snacks, sipped wine, and got to know each other a bit before starting our discussion of Unbroken. I was talking to Nan about my book project involving women journalists in the era of Women’s Liberation. “I had a small part of that history,” she told me. “The first National Organization for Women meeting in Kitsap County was held in my house.”
This was a story I needed to hear, but it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that we got together over tea to talk. As we settled in, I asked the simple question – how did that NOW meeting come to be held at her home? The opening of the story was classic. “Well,” she said, “it probably wouldn’t have happened if I married the right man.”
It was 1962, and Nan had just graduated from college and was embarking on a teaching career. Her first job was at Bainbridge Island High School in Washington. The vice principal was 29 years old, and he helped her when she encountered some problems with discipline in the classroom. He was a nice man, and he “kind of swept me off my feet with his waterfront home.”
They were married in 1963, and when she took up residence in that waterfront home there was one piece of art hanging on the walls. Nan described it as a “tavern picture” with the caption “Silent Woman.” The woman is beheaded.
This should have been a sign for Nan, but she didn’t see it. “What did I know? He was six foot five. He was a veritable font of responsibility.”
Their son was born in 1964. Their daughter arrived 15 months later. So there was Nan in an isolated town with two small children and a husband who was not at all what she hoped for. “I couldn’t get him to read a book with me. Share a thought with me. Couldn’t get him to converse with me.” She made an effort to be the model wife he hoped for. “I went hunting. I went fishing. I was trying to do everything. I put up pickles. I learned to bake pies. I really did try.”
But this life was just not working for Nan. She knew she didn’t want any more children. She knew she wanted to keep teaching. She knew her marriage bad. And then she read this book, The Feminine Mystique, that got her thinking about what could be done.
Nan had converted to Catholicism in high school. So one of her first moves was to go to church.
I remember going to confession and telling the priest that I was troubled that any man, whether he was the pope or a priest, could decide for any woman whether it was right or not for her to have a child. And I remember at the end of this long heart-felt confession when I’d questioned papal infallibility, I’d questioned the church’s stance on birth control and abortion, there was a long pause while I waited for whatever response was going to be given. And this priest said to me, “Do you think you’re better than Christ?” I sat there on the other side of the screen and I thought for a minute and I said, “No Father, I don’t.” And I walked out and that was the end of my relationship with the Catholic Church.
The end of her relationship with her husband was a bit longer in the making. But she knew she wanted out. So she scoped out a job close to her mother’s home across the state and decided to go for it. Her mother secured her an apartment. Some friends watched the kids while she packed the car. And she “just kind of moved out in the middle of the night in January – I knew if he found out, he would find a way to keep me from going.”
She taught for that spring semester. But she missed the western side of the state. The school situation wasn’t great. And she found that “any young woman who looked like I did at that age was considered fair game and maybe even easy kill by all the predator males out there.”
So she returned to her husband. “When school was out, I went back. Defeated. But he promised he would be better, would be more attentive, would maybe go to a movie with me now and again.”
It wasn’t better. There were still things that were “way wrong” with the marriage. “He was abusive. He teased and ridiculed and had a temper and there would be silences and he didn’t pitch in with the kids and it was just not good. I was going crazy.” The new job she’d found at a different high school was also terrible.
So Nan decided it was time. She would divorce and start a new life. But this time it would be different.
This time, I thought, instead of my leaving and going through all the inconvenience, I’m going to talk to a lawyer and I’m going to see if we can make him leave. The kids and I can be comfortable while the divorce is being settled and then if he wants his home he can pay for my part of it and I’ll move out.
That’s what happened. Until the divorce was final, Nan lived in that waterfront house with her children. Her husband was under a restraining order. And then, Nan said:
I read in the paper that the National Organization for Women was looking for a place it Kitsap County where they could hold its organizational meeting. I picked up the phone and said, I know the ideal place. As long as there aren’t more than about 15 women, they would be more than welcome to meet in my home.
And so the first NOW meeting in Kitsap County was held in that waterfront home. I didn’t ask if Nan took down the “Silent Woman” painting before the meeting. If it was still hanging, I’m quite sure it was the only silent woman in the room.
We’re now coming to the end of Women’s History Month. Throughout March, I’ve read a lot of big pieces about the parts of history that have been silenced or downplayed. During this month, a lot of important women from the past have been raised up and praised.
It’s good to read about women history books have forgotten. But it’s more important to remember that women’s history goes beyond the big stories. Women’s history is a woman confronting the untenable aspects of her life and doing something. Women’s history a group of women speaking in a waterfront home where before there had only been silence.
So look around. There are undoubtedly a lot of Nans in your life. Sit down with them and hear their stories.