When The Feedsack Dress came out in 2007, I started a blog on Typepad that focused on life during the late 1940s and early 1950s. I stopped posting there in 2012, but you can still link to The Feedsack Kids. I’m posting some new blogs and my favorite old ones here.
The fiftieth anniversary of Title IX, a landmark law requiring gender equality in schools receiving federal funds, reminded me of how little opportunity to play sports most females of my generation had. (Title IX changed much more than sports, but that’s another story.)
In my one-room school with roughly a dozen students in grades one through eight, we had no organized physical education program for girls or boys. We played together at recess and noon, mostly baseball or games involving some form of tag. Our entire sporting equipment consisted of two bats, a softball, a baseball, and a volleyball (used for playing handy-over, with half the school on one side of the coal shed and half on the other).
In ninth grade, as I wrote in The Feedsack Dress, the most familiar sport to country kids—and the least played in girls’ P.E. class—was softball. By the time I learned the basic skills of an exotic game like deck tennis (played much like volleyball but with a hard rubber ring), a new game popped up. I added little to my homeroom’s intramural teams.
Neither my senior high school nor college in Kirksville, Missouri, fielded girls’ teams that competed with other schools. Neither had a swimming pool, and the high school had no playing field or tennis courts for girls. High school P.E. classes met in the basement gym. There we did boring calisthenics and played deck tennis, aerial darts, badminton, volleyball, and basketball. I was surprised to learn I had lettered my senior year (rare for a girl). I did it by recruiting the school’s best players for my intramural teams. If my memory is accurate, we won all the tournaments. The only mention of girls’ sports in the high school yearbook was the page above, which shows the members of the Girls’ Recreation Association (I’m second from left on the front row).
The college’s program offered little more than the high school did, though I did learn to play table tennis and jump on a trampoline. My athletic high point: The women’s P.E. Department (two women) let me substitute a softball elective for a required calisthenics course. As a grad student at the University of Missouri, I saw no opportunity to participate in any sports. One woman among several men in the renowned journalism school aspired to be a sports writer.
Finally, during Peace Corps training at Georgetown University, I received introductions to swimming, soccer, and cross-country running. My physical education consisted of appetizers but no main course.
The real national awakening to the potential of women’s sports took place in September 1973, more than a year after Title IX, when Billie Jean King took down Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. She changed not just tennis but the recognition of women as athletes. She has continued to push for equal pay and power on the court and off ever since.
Even with the much greater (though not equal) opportunities today, I wouldn’t have become a great—even a good—athlete, but several of my classmates could have. And school would all have been more fun.
Equal opportunity, wherever you find it, makes life less frustrating and more rewarding.
When I began writing The Feedsack Dress almost 50 years ago, I asked my mother and two sisters to talk about their memories of 1949. I’d chosen that year for the novel because my recollections and my research identified it as a time of transition for the country, our rural Missouri community, and our family.
Our discussion evoked many forgotten details and produced a major plot point.
We gathered around the kitchen table at my parents’ farm on a hot summer day. To my surprise, each of us remembered not only different movies and music but also different versions of events, including family reunions and what happened when I broke my arm. (I tested the knot in a rope I’d tied around a tree limb by sliding down it. The knot failed the test.) The discrepancies convinced me of the unreliability of eyewitness accounts, a factor I consider in writing both nonfiction and fiction.
Judy, four years younger than I, remembered the least, but even she recalled the drudgery of pumping water for the milk cows and the excitement when REA extended the electric lines past our place. Overnight my parents could milk triple the number of cows, my mother didn’t have to bear the heat of a wood cooking stove, and we could listen to Kirksville’s new radio station without fear of running down the battery and read under strong lights rather than dim kerosene lamps. Electricity improved our daily lives and increased our income.
Donna and I spent many hours on 4-H sewing projects. Our mother taught us to sew on a treadle machine, using patterned feedsacks that had contained chicken feed to make tea towels, potholders, pillow slips, and, as our skills grew, clothing—skirts, blouses, shorts, and dresses. An electric sewing machine made the work easier. New synthetic fabrics didn’t, at least for a couple years.
Unlike me, Donna loved to sew, partly because it gave her a chance to expand her limited wardrobe in an age of hand-me-downs. Five years older than I, she’d been born in the Depression, walked alone a mile and a half to the one-room school (New Hope) that my father and his mother had attended and at which my mother had taught, and become a teenager as my parents put aside every possible penny to pay off the farm they bought at the end of World War II. My big sister became a skilled seamstress. For decades she took pleasure in making clothes to wear to college and then to work as a bookkeeper. She also made clothes for others, including her kids and me.
I took special note of Donna’s difficulties in moving from a class of three in a grade school with about 15 pupils to classes of 30 in a junior high with about 500 students. She was tiny and timid, preferring to be unseen and silent. Our grade school’s limited resources and mediocre teaching hadn’t prepared her well for the tough competition. (Judy and I had an excellent teacher and went to town better prepared.) Determined to hold her own, Donna studied hard and earned membership in the National Honor Society. One test day when snow blocked the roads, she persuaded my father to take her the five miles to high school on the tractor.
A key plot point for The Feedsack Dress came to me when Donna vividly recalled ninth graders passing around slam books, often the little autograph books then popular, with mean comments about fellow students. My protagonist has to deal with those slams as she forms friendships and makes enemies.
I recalled the four of us talking about 1949 recently because my big sister, Donna Lee Mulford Helton, died February 5, 2021. Now no one shares those memories.
Air conditioning keeps me comfortable during the current heat wave, but I remember how we tried to cool off when nothing but the movie theater was air conditioned.
July and August approximated hell when I was a kid. No day was so hot that we wouldn’t work in the fields and the garden. Only the persistent breeze made the heat and humidity bearable.
The steamy days heated the house, making it equally miserable. When we got electricity, fans helped a little. During the day the coolest place to be was in the shade of a big elm. (Sadly Dutch elm disease killed these majesic trees some 50 years ago.)
After we’d milked and watered the cows in the evening, we’d sit on the front porch to catch the breeze, or to create it by swinging in the swing suspended from the porch ceiling with chains. When the sun set and the lightning bugs came out, my sisters and I would leave the porch to catch bugs to put in a fruit jar. We’d also compete to see the first star (the one you wished on) and then the Big Dipper.
Most nights we’d sleep inside, often after sprinkling the sheets with water the way we did the clothes before ironing them. On particularly hot nights, my sisters and I would spread an old blanket on the grass and try to sleep there. I don’t think we ever lasted the whole night. Chiggers, mosquitoes, and dew drove us inside.
Despite the discomfort, those nights sleeping in the yard thrilled me. The star-stuffed sky offered a magical, memorable panorama.
When I started writing The Feedsack Dress, my own memories of farm life and the ninth grade guided the plot, but I needed facts about life in 1949. I looked for them in the same places I would have if I were writing an article.
At the library I wore out my eyes scrolling through microfilm copies of the Kirksville Daily Express and two great photo magazines, Life and Look. These answered such questions as the styles of dresses or skirts and blouses a fashionable ninth grader wore to school and how much they cost. Few girls wore jeans or slacks to school back then.
Copies of fair catalogs told me what exhibits 4-Hers would enter in hopes of winning prize money. As a 4-Her in the 1940s and 1950s, I knew that only country kids belonged to 4-H then.
Books and local and national newspapers told me about historical events. By the time I did my final draft, I used the Internet to find such riches as President Truman’s speeches, the history of feedsack dresses, and lists of popular songs, radio shows (almost no one had television), movies, and books.
The most enjoyable part of the initial research was talking to my mother and others who remembered 1949 well. They linked important events in their lives to that year. They, and I, recalled how a chicken bounded around after a well-aimed hatchet removed its head and the awful stench when you dunk the chicken into a bucket of hot water to make it easier to pull out the feathers.
Some things you’d rather forget.