“Well-behaved women seldom make history” was penned by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in 1976. Do you have a well-behaved woman in your family’s history? A woman who lived through the astounding changes of the 20th century and quietly worked to make a difference? To celebrate Women’s History Month, you might want to reexamine her life from a different perspective and tell her story. I discovered a single scrapbook page that my grandmother, Florence Creer Kelsey, made over sixty years ago. From those scraps of paper and some research on my part, another facet of my grandmother’s life emerged: her public service as a War Mother in World War II.
The phrase,”well-behaved women seldom make history,” went viral after Professor Ulrich published a scholarly article in 1976 about Puritan funeral services. You might have you seen the phrase printed on a card, t-shirt, mug, or bumper sticker and wondered about its origin. A Google search brings up hundreds of references to the quote, though not all of them are correctly attributed to Professor Ulrich. I had the privilege of meeting Professor Ulrich last week at her lecture, “Beyond Letters & Diaries,” presented at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. She encouraged us to consider donating the “stuff” of our lives and our mother’s and grandmother’s lives to an archive so that future historians could better understand us.
Professor Ulrich was speaking in behalf of the Aileen H. Clyde 20th Century Women’s Legacy Archive. The first female history professor at Harvard, she has an impressive resume including receiving the Pulitzer Prize for her book: “A Midwifes’ Tale. The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812.” In the diary, Martha Ballard recounts her day with often mundane details:
October 6 Clear forenoon. cloudy afternoon. Mrs Daw was safe delivered at the 6th hour this morn of a fine son which weighd 11 lb. I tarried with her till 4 pm then Came to Mr Densmores. Tarried all night.
Actually, delivering an 11 lb baby doesn’t seem that mundane to me, but scholars had generally dismissed the diary. Professor Ulrich gave meaning to Martha Ballard’s life by putting her diary in the context of history and the community. As the mother of five children, Ulrich’s experience with homemaking gave her unique insights into the world of Martha Ballard.
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As I listened to the lecture, “Beyond Letters & Diaries,” I was struck by this sentence: “The raw material from which history is made comes from the leavings – or what is left behind.” Professor Ulrich went on to explain that history is an account of the past, based on sources. Some things are left behind because the state requires it, such as census records and birth certificates. Other things are left behind because they meant something to someone. Archives are collections of documents, photographs, and artifacts that have been donated; in short the scraps or leavings of a person’s life. She cautioned us that documents may look useless, but not to throw them out. History becomes history as things change. She cited the example of a 1966 menu that fascinated one of her students. The student cooked everything on the menu for one week including this dinner: clam pie, mixed veggies, and rhubarb cobbler. Ulrich asked “What is in your home that you could donate to a 20th century archive?” She explained that we have no idea what the next generation will care about.
I am a third generation scrapbooker. I put together my first scrapbook in high school and continue to save and collect programs, tickets, photos, letters, etc. My mother, now 88, has an entire bookshelf of scrapbooks and photo albums. My grandmother, Florence Creer Kelsey, also kept a scrapbook filled with news clippings, photos, programs, letters, and more.
Nicole’s post on learning about the public service of our female ancestors for Women’s History Month inspired me to learn more about my grandmother. I called my mother and asked if Grandma Kelsey had ever been involved in public service. She mentioned that grandma had been a War Mother during WWII and a member of the DUP, Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She told me she would gather up everything she could find and mail it to me the next day. When the box arrived, full to the brim, I realized that I would have to split this story in two. I started with grandma’s public service as a War Mother. Sorting through Grandma Kelsey’s “leavings” – the news clippings, flag, photographs, and magazine cover – I knew that I was looking at items she deemed important enough to save in her scrapbook. I needed to uncover the meaning of each item in order to tell her story.
Examining the flag, I noticed that there are only 48 stars, so this was definitely the flag flown during World War II. The magazine cover commemorating the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima and the newspaper heading that the war was over took on more meaning when I considered what it would have been like for Grandma Kelsey as the mother of three sons serving in the Pacific theater of the war. When I paid tribute to my three uncles in my Veteran’s Day post, I focused on their experiences and sacrifices. Now I caught a glimpse of my grandmother’s reality, never knowing if today would be the day she received a telegram with bad news. How did she and the thousands of other war mothers keep their sanity? Examining the photographs and reading the news clippings, I came to the conclusion that they supported one another and they served. For a few hours every week they met together to sew bandages and mend clothing they would donate to veterans of other wars.
As I pored over every scrap of paper I had so many questions. I didn’t know anything about the War Mothers organization and I found very little information online for my initial search of “war mothers of World War II.” Wikipedia had articles for the Blue Star and Gold Star War Mother’s organizations, but the newspaper clippings from my grandma’s scrapbook only called it the “Cassia War Mothers Chapter.” Without any more information to go on from the news clippings and photographs, I serendipitously noticed a loose paper from my Grandmother’s journal in my stash of papers. Picking it up, I read:
June 14th 1967. Attended Silver and Gold Star luncheon at Ponderosa. 50th Anniversary of War Mothers, held convention in Burley. I went with Myrtle Bowen and Selma Whittle. Conversed at Convention Hall after. Met several war mothers, whom I hadn’t seen for years, as it has been ten years since I was president of our chapter and attended convention at Nampa.
The journal entry held the key to my research question. Researching Gold and Silver war mothers, I finally found a reference to “American War Mothers” on Wikipedia.
The American War Mothers was founded in 1917 and given a Congressional charter on February 24, 1925. It is a perpetual patriotic, 501(c) 4 non-profit, non-political, non sectarian non partisan organization whose members are mothers of children who have served or are serving in the Armed Services during a time of conflict.
Florence’s journal entry dated 1967 describing the 50th anniversary convention would fit with the 1917 founding of American War Mothers. The Wikipedia article had a link to the Congressional hearing of May 6, 1924. I read with fascination the interchange between Senator Selden P. Spencer of Missouri and Mrs. Margaret N. McCluer of Kansas City, Missouri. He repeatedly asks why the American War Mothers need a congressional charter and she deftly answers his questions. I love her opening statement:
We thought this an especially fitting time to ask this because your Congress 10 days ago on the 8th day of May passed a bill creating Mother’s Day, which has spread a most wonderful sentiment throughout the world, and that day has been observed by everybody. It brings a little closer the thought of mother and her service to the world, and in the light of the phrase of that bill which pays homage to the American mother so beautifully we thought your body could give additional emphasis to that by your recognition of the mothers of the World War.¹
Through more searching on Wikipedia, I learned that in 1917 a service banner was designed by United States Army Captain Robert L Queisser in honor of his two sons who were serving in World War I. Families all over the country adopted the practice and sewed blue stars for each child serving in the military. If a son or daughter died in active service the gold star replaced the blue.
World War II era service flag²
The Silver Star my Grandmother mentioned emerged in 1917, when the American War Mothers recognized the combat wounded by covering the blue star on a family banner with silver thread. The practice continued through World War II but faded.
Now that I understood a little more about the organization as a whole I wanted to know more specifics about my Grandmother’s involvement. I scoured the two news clippings and two photographs from her scrapbook to see what I could glean:
- My grandmother, Florence Kelsey, served as President and First Vice president of the Cassia War Mothers chapter.
- The war mothers traveled 161 miles from Burley, Idaho to Boise, Idaho by train to visit the Veteran’s hospital.
- They stayed overnight in Boise so they could also visit the Soldier’s Home “where they had taken boxes of clothing for the veterans, along with some magazines, which were welcome gifts to the soldiers.”
- At their annual Christmas dinner they voted to give the Sherman Rose family a cash gift of $25.
- A cash gift was also sent to the Children’s Home and the chapter was planning to make its regular Christmas contribution to the Veterans hospital in Boise and the Soldiers home.
I imagine Grandma Kelsey in her role as President holding meetings with the other officers, planning the trip to Boise, organizing fundraisers and so much more. My mother recalled going with her mother as a teenager to some of their weekly meetings where she helped roll bandages. In the photo below, I’m not sure what the war mothers are doing, but I’m guessing they’re mending clothing for the veterans or sewing bandages for the hospital. If they were taking a special trip to Boise, it would make sense that they would need to prepare their donations.
Cassia chapter of American War Mothers, circa 1944, Burley, Idaho: Florence Kelsey seated center
The news clipping mentioned visiting the Veteran’s Hospital in Boise and the Soldier’s Home. What was a Soldier’s Home? A little more internet sleuthing and I discovered that these were homes for soldiers who were disabled, elderly, or unable to live on their own. Some national “old soldier homes” were run by the federal government, but they were often run by the state and even some larger cities. The FamilySearch Wiki has an excellent article explaining the history and a list by state of homes and where to access their records. Amy Johnson Crow’s blog post: “National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers: A Surprisingly Rich Resource” gives very helpful examples in using and finding these records.
Photo courtesy of the Idaho Meanderings blog.³
The Cassia Chapter of the War Mothers visited the Soldier’s Home in Boise about 1944. Built originally in 1893 to provide a place for veterans of State Militias who had fought in the Civil War, it continued to house veterans, reaching its peak with 132 veterans in 1951. A new home was built in 1966 and the buildings on the old site were razed. It is now a 38 acres Veteran’s park.
Cassia County War Mothers circa 1957 or 1967
I can’t find my Grandma Kelsey in this photo. Maybe she was the photographer? I don’t know exactly where this picture is taken, but I’m guessing it was during one of the conventions she wrote about attending. Her journal entry talks of attending the 1957 and the 1967 convention. The women have aged and are wearing dresses that could be from either the 1950s or 1960s. Notice the hats, poppy corsages, and convention ribbons the ladies are sporting. This was definitely a special occasion. How fortunate that Grandma Kelsey saved it in her scrapbook.
Learning about her public service as an American War Mother has reminded me of the sacrifices of this generation. When I looked at this photo I wondered how many of these mothers lost a son in World War II. I thought of the camaraderie they must have enjoyed as they met weekly to sew. The service they gave the veterans was something they could do while the fate of their sons and daughters was out of their hands.
Returning to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s statement: “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” I’m grateful that my Grandma Kelsey kept her scrapbook. Little did she know that seventy years later her granddaughter would be interested in the “leavings” of her life.
To all of the well-behaved women past and present who do their part, large or small in public service: Thank You!
¹United States. Congress. House. Committee on the Judiciary. To Incorporate the American War Mothers: Hearings Before the United States House Committee On the Judiciary, And Senate Committee On the Judiciary, Sixty-Eighth Congress, First Session, On May 6, 1924. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1924.