While writing my master’s thesis, I spent a little over a week learning about calendars. You see, in his autobiography, Levi Sheftall double-dated the year of his birth 1739/40, despite the fact that he maintained his father’s records of Savannah’s Jewry which clearly put Levi’s birth in 1739. With the appearance of several other double-dates in the records, I found myself spending a week reading about the United Kingdom’s stubborn refusal to adopt the Gregorian calendar. The delightful rabbit hole resulted in a footnote.
Transcribing Grace Raymond Hebard’s suffrage correspondence, I stumbled upon another delightful rabbit hole that unfortunately probably wouldn’t even make a footnote in Hebard’s biography. Fortunately, it did not take me an entire week to suss out the details nor give me a brief existential crisis about the subjectivity of time. Thanks to the digitizing efforts of the Wyoming State Library and the prideful Wyoming newspapers of 1922, the salacious details are readily available.
For me, it all started with a letter Dr. Hebard received dated June 3rd, 1922 from Virginia Roderick, editor for “The Woman Citizen.” The weekly periodical, also known by “The Woman’s Journal,” was established in 1917 when Carrie Chapman Catt purchased and combined three suffrage journals. Dr. Hebard frequently contributed, submitting articles on her Americanization classes, her war efforts including her gardening and knitting classes, the first all-woman jury, and other Wyoming suffrage history. Dr. Hebard’s never-ending promotion of Wyoming found a ready platform on the pages of “The Woman Citizen.” In fact, Roderick’s letter from 1922 tells Hebard, “You are– I say it without a qualm– our star contributing editor. You have given us the most of any one on our list– and all good too.” [Box 21, Folder 8]
The letter concludes with a gossipy confession, “Would it amuse you to know that I wouldn’t run Mrs. Willsie’s editorial in the next issue after yours, or would you just think that a mild insanity? Somehow it would have seemed impolite to bring you together in that forced way!”
One of the repeat jokes I tell about being a historian is that we are basically glorified snoops. I read other people’s letters and diaries for a living. I love to dig into someone else’s financial records. I feel especially snoop-ish when I stumble upon a juicy tidbit like a possible feud. My mind flared, WHO IS MRS. WILLSIE?!
With the same energy as an internet sleuth hunting down the latest scandal, I immediately turned to Dr. Hebard’s Papers at the American Heritage Center. Sure enough, Box 47, Folder 22 dedicated to Honore Willsie. For a time, that was as far down the rabbit hole as I could jump. I had to swallow my excitement until I could plan a research trip to Laramie to collect Series II, Hebard’s Biographical files. My chance finally came last January. I starred the folder on my list, hoping against hope for letters rather than newspaper clippings.
So much for hoping. Box 47, Folder 22 consists of a book advert and a newspaper clipping. That newspaper clipping, however, told the story.
As much as I wanted the “woman correspondent” to be Grace R. Hebard, likely it was Lucy R. Taliaferro of Rock Springs since she responded to Willsie’s libels with her own letter to “The Woman Citizen.” Unsurprisingly, Taliaferro’s letter received a published sarcastic reply. Wyoming readers of the “The Woman Citizen” shared their outrage with the rest of the state when the Wyoming State Tribune heeded the call “to Publish Facts” by publishing all three letters with the headline:
Just what did Honore Willsie say about Wyoming that would cause Virginia Roderick to refuse to publish her with Wyoming’s biggest promoter, Dr. Herbard?
To research her latest novel, Honore Willsie spent a romantic winter in the Rocky Mountains, returning to the east with an unflattering sketch of her host community. After generalized slights calling Wyomingites’ morals “easy,” critiquing the lack of a church and the foul-mouthed women, Willsie described domestic abuse “The men “treat their women rough!” One rancher, a fine-looking, upstanding American, kicked his wife and daughter indiscriminately, when the mood was on him” She described the women of Wyoming as particularly oppressed– bearing the brunt of the labor while being highly intelligent and seeking “solace in a book or magazine,” and concealing their obvious dissatisfaction behind “sentimental rot” trained into them for “countless generations.”
While that was certainly an unflattering depiction of the Equality State, Willsie’s next sentiment is likely what sent Lucy R. Taliaferro and other Wyomingites over the edge.
“One of the foremost journalists in the world said to me once, “There is only one new thing left. We know all about men. History is the story of men’s minds. We know what men will do under any given set of circumstances. But women’s minds, their actions and reactions, we do not know. What women forced into economic independence will say and do is the really great news now in the world.” It was this statement that I recalled when I contemplated these women working and suffering in pioneer conditions that did not need to at all be pioneer. And I wondered what they would say when women’s new freedom reach their superb and isolated valley.”
To claim that Wyoming’s women did not know freedom was an insult to the birthplace of woman’s suffrage in the United States. By 1922, nationally women had only had the right to vote for two years, while women of Wyoming had claimed the right for 53 years. Willsie’s point of economic independence was buried under the weight of Wyoming’s history. Taliaferro sarcastically retorted that if any of the intelligent and loose moral women did not know about the cradle of Equality called home, they deserved the licks given by all the men treating their women rough. Her full-throated defense of Wyoming and her citizens gave constant refrain to the freedom long enjoyed within the borders by an upstanding citizenry. Claiming a wide acquaintance with the state, Taliaferro stated that she “has never seen, neither has she ever heard, in all the years of her residence, of such a situation as is described…” Taliaferro denied the gross generalities with even broader claims. In response to Willsie’s depiction of Wyoming men lazing about for eight months out of the year, Taliaferro stated: “I can truthfully say, I have never seen a man in this state who will voluntarily stay in the house more than a few hours, winter or summer.” She demanded Willsie to name the offending community and return to Wyoming for a proper tour of the state.
In response to Taliferro’s denial of a community such as she described, Willsie wrote, “It is hard to smile and act like a lady when another lady has called you a liar, especially when you drew “the thing as you saw it for the good of things as they are!” With her own sarcastic tone, Willsie put-upon surprise at the “perfect state of Wyoming,” which she had supposed to have the same diversity of conditions, morals, and people as any other state in the Union. “It appears that neither my eyes nor my ears are to be trusted. Mrs. Taliaferro after a long residence in Wyoming says as much. She says that conditions such as can exist in any isolated community in America cannot exist in Wyoming. Let’s let it go at that!” Ultimately, Willsie refused to answer Taliaferro’s demand that she name the community she visited, remarking that her only regret was to have written thoughtlessly unkind things about a group of people whom she “honestly liked and in many ways admired deeply.”
And so I find myself at the bottom of a rabbit hole, which ultimately had little to do with Dr. Hebard and where I started. Still, it left me thinking about Wyoming and her reputation. Like Virginia Roderick, it is impossible for me to think on this subject, without thinking of Wyoming’s ultimate promoter. All this time in her archives and reading her romanticized Wyoming has set me to wondering about my own depiction of my home state. Over the years, I’ve told people that they were statistically more likely to meet someone from China than someone from Wyoming. For many, I am the only Wyomingite they know. In my travels as an ambassador of my home state, I have played both the roles of Taliaferro and Willsie. Wyoming is a complicated love for me. I wore my state citizenship like a badge of honor in college. I talked of wind and sprawling views; defended the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains; boasted of the lakes and starry skies. Then I shared stories of the swastikas vandalized on my front steps, the slur spat at me during the fair, and the Holocaust “jokes” I endured through high school. My stories horrified people outside the state.
Honore Willsie was right, these conditions–the good and bad–are not isolated to Wyoming or outside it. When you love something and see it insulted, it is easy to become Taliaferro and dive into a blind defense. But I refuse to deny my bad experiences to save the reputation of my home. I would rather see my home grow. Growth in all things can be painful, a difficult conversation to uplift us and bring us closer together. To play both Willsie and Taliaferro is to speak hard truths with the hope of making my home a better place. Sitting on the bottom of this rabbit hole, all I found was a mirror.
1 thought on “Rabbit Holes and Reputation”
I enjoyed this story because it was historic. It was informative and well written. It shows that women should always view factors in life with an open mind and not generalize based on limited information or experiences.