Breathes There the Woman…

Once upon a time (actually in May, 1945) a twenty-year-old clean-shaven, blonde-haired, short in stature, recently honorably discharged 1st. Lieutenant World War II Air Corps navigator flew home to Texas across the pond from where he had been serving in the Eighth Air Force in England since December, 1944. Although his combat service was brief, he participated in thirty-two bombing missions over Germany which were part of the final blows to the Nazi regime.

When he returned to Texas, he immediately eloped with his childhood sweetheart who had been in love with him since she was in the eighth grade when he came to go hunting and fishing with her three older brothers. It was the end of World War II and the beginning of freedom from fear of foreign tyranny  with optimism for life after the deaths and devastation he had seen in Europe.

The following April, I was born into what would become known as the Baby Boom generation. The war ended, the boys returned home to marry their girlfriends who had been waiting for them and then Boom, here come the babies. Millions of us born into families who now had amazing educational opportunities through the miracle of the GI Bill to do what their parents couldn’t have done. My father took advantage of the veterans’ benefits to enroll in college while he also worked to support his little family of me and my mom.

Ultimately, he realized the importance of education as the only way to break cycles of poverty and ignorance. He became a public school teacher, a high school basketball coach and finally superintendent of the tiny southeast Texas school district of Richards in Grimes County, one of the poorest counties in the state. He made very little money, but his name was known and respected by many in his community and beyond.

At the same time he was teaching and coaching, he supported and encouraged my mother to make the fifty-mile round trip commute to Sam Houston Teachers College in Huntsville five days a week so that she could finish her college degree she had started at Baylor University during the War. I was in the fourth grade when my mother enrolled and in the sixth grade when she graduated. She came to teach music part-time the next year when I was in the seventh grade and I have to say it was a nightmare being in my mother’s music class and going to a school where my father was superintendent. I remember thinking it was a curse to my happiness in growing up and I kept wondering why me, God, why my mother and daddy.

But I survived…and in my home there was never a discussion about going to college when I finished high school. No. The discussions were about which college I would attend and how education opened doors of endless opportunities. My father once told me that the whole earth was my territory – that I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard and believed in myself.

It was good advice, although I discovered after my graduation from the University of Texas in Austin with an accounting degree and my first job working for a prestigious accounting firm in Houston, that my territory was missing a basic component known as a level playing field.  For example, I made $600 /month working side by side with a male friend who complained about his $900 /month salary. Same job. Same duties. I was a cum laude graduate – he wasn’t. Long story short – I talked to my dad who suggested I confront my HR guy and figure out where the problem was.

My boss Mr. Terrell sat behind a desk as big as my cubicle in an office the size of my apartment. We were on the 17th. floor of the Bank of the Southwest building in downtown Houston, and I looked out on his incredible vista of the city as I sat down to talk. The talk was brief and to the point: I was a woman who might become pregnant  when I got married and, therefore, waste their investment in me while my  cohort John was a man who would get married and become the provider for his family and continue his uninterrupted career. End of discussion.

I explored different parts of my territory while I worked in several jobs as a CPA in the early 1970s from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Northwest  to end up in the southeastern Atlantic Coast state of South Carolina after a detour for a couple of years in Fort Worth, Texas. Every position I had was the same. I always was paid less for equal work. I was in a nontraditional occupation for a woman in those days and struggled against the oppression I felt wherever I went.

I was with my father in his hospital room at Herman Hospital in Houston in August of 1974. He had just gone through the ordeal of a surgery that removed much of his colon and left him with a colostomy bag that he was struggling to get to know.  But he was talking to me about my career and the reality of my territory.  Why don’t you be your own boss then? Why don’t you set up your own CPA business if you don’t like how you’re being treated?

So in a time when our code of ethics prohibited any form of advertising if you were a CPA, I started my own business and made my way with the help of my clients who became my friends for the next thirty-four years from small business owner to financial planning for other small business owners to participating in helping people with savings for education, retirement, and estate planning to provide a safe financial future for their loved ones.

I found my place in my territory, but my father wasn’t with me on the journey. He died in 1976, twenty-two months after that surgery and my conversation with him. He was fifty-one years old.  He was my mentor and my friend and the best example of public service in an era that valued educators.

Now his once-upon-a-time vision of his daughter’s territory will be realized forty years later for another Baby Boomer daughter whose mother dared to believe she could become President of the United States of America.

One of my favorite Texas cousins, Nita Jean, texted me Tuesday night as history was being made right in front of us on the Democratic National Convention floor as we watched from our respective living rooms in Texas and South Carolina. State after state on the roll call cast votes for Hillary Rodham Clinton to become the first woman nominated by a major political party. Honestly, I wept through that entire roll call. Regardless of feelings about Secretary Clinton, it was a moment that affirmed me and every other little girl and woman in this country and was a statement about our worth across the globe that transcended partisan politics.

Nita Jean’s text was jubilant, and she asked me this question: What do you think your father would have thought about this night?

I replied that I thought he would have been ecstatic and happy to celebrate with me!

My dad taught me my love of poetry, and one of his favorite poems I memorized when I was a child listening to him read to me out of his Best Loved Poems of the American People was from the Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott. I’m sure my father wouldn’t have minded my substituting the word “woman” for “man” on this historic occasion.

Breathes there the woman with soul so dead who 

never to herself has said,

This is my own, my native land.

Whose heart has ne’er within her burned

as homeward her footsteps she has turned

from wandering on a foreign strand…

This is my own, my native land…my territory, and tonight I hear the echoes of a group of women at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 as they gathered for the first women’s rights convention in the nation. I wonder if they ever dreamed of a day when a woman could be nominated for President. Thank you, Shirley Chisholm and all those women and men who have worked to make the hopes and dreams of that Seneca Falls Convention come true. We the people are better for it.

About Sheila Morris

Sheila Morris is a personal historian, essayist with humorist tendencies, lesbian activist, truth seeker and speaker in the tradition of other female Texas storytellers including her paternal grandmother. In December, 2017, the University of South Carolina Press published her collection of first-person accounts of a few of the people primarily responsible for the development of LGBTQ organizations in South Carolina. Southern Perspectives on the Queer Movement: Committed to Home will resonate with everyone interested in LGBTQ history in the South during the tumultuous times from the AIDS pandemic to marriage equality. She has published five nonfiction books including two memoirs, an essay compilation and two collections of her favorite blogs from I'll Call It Like I See It. Her first book, Deep in the Heart: A Memoir of Love and Longing received a Golden Crown Literary Society Award in 2008. Her writings have been included in various anthologies - most recently the 2017 Saints and Sinners Literary Magazine. Her latest book, Four Ticket Ride, was released in January, 2019. She is a displaced Texan living in South Carolina with her wife Teresa Williams and their dogs Spike, Charly and Carl. She is also Naynay to her two granddaughters Ella and Molly James who light up her life for real. Born in rural Grimes County, Texas in 1946 her Texas roots still run wide and deep.
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10 Responses to Breathes There the Woman…

  1. Wayside Artist says:

    Here’s to remarkable, brave women who carve out their territories and to their fathers who encouraged them!!

    Great article, Sheila. Very moving. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Breathes There the Woman… – Red's Rants and Raves

  3. Betsy says:

    Excellent Sheila. I enjoy your writings 🙂 Keep on keeping on. Betsy

    Liked by 1 person

  4. diannegray says:

    Wonderful story, Shelia. Well done xxxx

    Liked by 1 person

  5. reocochran says:

    I liked reading about your parents, mine were similar and never a doubt in the direction to go: supported Civil Rights, dragged us 3 kids over Mom’s and our summer “vacations” to teach (unpaid) Head Start out of an inner city Baptist church basement. Mom brought breakfast and lunch, we packed our toys in the station wagon and I was put in “one on one” with the kids who needed extra help, as I was the oldest. My Mom signed for a friend in college’s abortion papers, her fear of parents and the rape they may have felt SHE caused. My Mom taught HS so we had Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner once a week (at least!) I dated a young man from Ghana I met at a joint school function.
    I was proud of Chelsea’s speech, especially charged up and ignited for Hillary’s acceptance speech! Inequity in wages, Roe vs. Wade, love versus hatred and so many more issues are making me proud to be a woman and hapoy to be able to Vote for our First American Woman President, Sheila! xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

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