On This Day
On November 22, 1963, the president of the United States was assassinated. It was three days after my eighth birthday. The day before, my mother gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The boy only lived a few minutes. I think there was a drizzly rain as we stood by the tiny grave and watched the burial.
The story of The Liberators of Willow Run begins twenty years earlier, during a time of war and societal upheaval and uncertainty. Able-bodied men were away, women filled factory jobs to support the war effort, and some used the commotion of the times to hide and to begin lives that could never be lived fully, honestly, in settled times. Nona, a black girl from Kentucky, determined to earn and save as much as she can from the high-paying job at the Willow Run bomber plant, has stepped outside the expected life to forge one of her own making. She plans to save every dime and go to college. Audrey has left her home and family wishing only to be free of their expectations and condemnation, to lose herself in the war effort. To forget the tragedy she feels responsible for. And Ruth, who winds up in Ypsilanti almost by accident, after giving a baby up for adoption, determined that she will not go back to a life of marriage and children.
Each of these women, and others, try to figure out how to live more honestly, more freely, than prewar norms. From the moment Audrey and Nona meet, while Ruth serves her time at the Crittendon Home for Unwed Mothers, this is a story of courage and self examination, of second chances and self taught skills used to navigate what seems to be a new world. Or it is the old world, turned upside down, where women go off to the factory jobs with lunch pails, and the absence of men makes friendships between these working women something special, more valued than friendships in peacetime, when of course husbands and boyfriends came first?
Reading this book, at this particular time in this country’s history, brought emotions to the surface that I didn’t realize I felt. Two weeks ago, we elected as president a man whose every policy and pronouncement seems aimed at turning back the clock on hard won achievements for women, for LGBT, for people of color, for immigrants, even for veterans. Many of us have been stunned by this transition to come in January. Many justifiably fear what may come in this new administration. Many are wondering whether we may have to fight the same battles again that we assumed were won and done, the Voting Rights Act, Roe v Wade, marriage equality, don’t ask don’t tell, health insurance for those with pre-existing conditions. Weariness and disillusion sets in, and we begin to feel hopeless.
Just as those thousands of women must have felt when they were forced from their manufacturing jobs to make way for returning servicemen, as Nona and Audrey surely felt. How can they just shove these confident women back into kitchens and parlors? It seems like a terrible waste. Was it all wasted effort? What do Nona and Audrey and the other women like them do with newly acquired skills and confidence in their own capabilities? What a bitter pill that must have been for thousands of women, to be told they are no longer needed, to go back home and raise a family, to make way for the young men returning from war who deserve those jobs.
Forgive me for drawing this parallel, but reading this book is the first time I have felt hopeful since the election. Those thousands of women did go home. The next decade was one of silent, benign conformity for women. The fifties and sixties were the time of the peaceful protests and angry confrontations that achieved the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The sixties was also marked by breaking bonds of convention, of questioning society’s roles, of defying the government. And the next decade? The women’s movement.
Like Audrey and Ruth, like Amelia and Lillian and Mrs. Bailey, we must find the fortitude to tackle questions we believed were settled, to fight again the battles those before us also fought> What does it feel like to be made lesser than we are? A lot like Ruth felt when she left that unwed mothers’ home and struck out on her own. It feels an awful lot like all those women who helped win the war with manufacturing production unseen till then in the world. Stephen Ambrose states that the man who invented the Higgins boats won the war for the Allies. That man may have designed the Higgins boats that delivered six divisions to the beaches of Normandy, but it was women workers who built them, in the quantity and in the time needed. They delivered.
Ruth and Audrey and Nona struggled to be honest with themselves about who they were and about what they wanted. They decided to keep fighting even after the war for things they believed in. This wonderful book, so beautifully written, gives me hope that we too who are disappointed at the end of this election campaign can begin again, fight the fight, reject being thought of as lesser than. If you are as old as I am, and you remember all those marches, boycotts and peaceful protests that changed this country, then you know we can do it all again if we have to. Those of you in a younger generation may not yet realize that some things you take for granted can be, might be, taken from you. But I do believe in your enthusiasm for change. That makes an unbeatable alliance.