" . . . salt tears . . ."
Women's History Month is followed by April—Poetry Month. Happily there are many many women's history poems. Here are just three:
On November 18, 1892, Clara Barton, Civil War nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, read her poem, "The Women Who Went to the Field," at a National Women's Relief Corp gathering at the Willard Hotel, Washington, D. C. It's a long poem—91 lines. The first 23 lines describe stereotypes, e.g., Women "would scream at the sight of a gun." The "place for women was in their own homes/There to patiently wait until victory comes." But then Barton transitions, writing—"But later, it chanced, just how no one knew./That the lines slipped a bit and some 'gan to crowd through./Dix, Dame, Bickerdyke,—Edson, Harvey and Moore." Line after line, Barton named women and described their actions in the field
tending to wounded and dying soldiers." (Barton's poem is an indispensable source about women, who are typically invisible in historical accounts of the Civil War.)
On March 3, 1913, Ida B. Wells, a member of the integrated Illinois delegation, was preparing to march in the Great Suffrage Parade in Washington, D.C. Concerns about protests by southern delegations, however, prompted organizers to ask her to march at the back of the parade. Wells refused and made a plan with Belle Squire and Virginia Brooks, two white delegates who had helped her found the first all-Black suffrage club in Chicago. As the Illinois delegation marched by, Wells, who
was standing in the crowd, dressed in her delegation's garb, stepped into the line beside Squire and Brooks. A photograph documented the three women marching together. Bettiola H. Fortson wrote a poem, "Queen of Our Race," commemorating the bold move: Here is the first stanza:: "Side by side with the whites she walked,/Step after step the southerners balked,/But Illinois, fond of order and grace,/Stuck to the black Queen of our Race." (Bettiola Fortson a poet, suffragist, and organizer of literary clubs and societies, died at the age of 26 from tuberculosis. Ida B. Wells gave the eulogy at her funeral.)
Inez Milholland, an activist lawyer, suffragist, and charismatic speaker, led the 1913 Great Suffrage Parade atop a white horse. Three years later, ignoring her doctor's advice, she set off on a marathon suffrage speaking tour. In Los Angeles, she collapsed on the stage, dying a month later in a hospital.
Mourning Inez's death, poet Carl Sandburg wrote a poem “Repetitions.“
"They are crying salt tears/Over the beautiful beloved body/Of Inez Milholland,/Because they
are glad she lived,/Because she loved open-armed,/Throwing love for a cheap thing/Belonging to everybody—/Cheap as sunlight,/And morning air."
Images: “Mother Bickerdyke Memorial” for Civil War nurse Mary Ann Bickerdyke, unveiled on May 22, 1906, in Galesburg, Illinoix; Bettiola Heloise Fortson; Memorial poster for Inez Millholland (Boissevain was her married name).