Monday, October 5, 2015

Wyoming, the Equality State

We had a great trip through Wyoming; vast stretches of high desert with occasional glimpses of steers and sheep, or small bunches of elk. While we glided through in relative comfort on I-80, I imagined Sara and the Swedes bumping along in their Overland Six. They were trying to make about 100 miles a day; with a top speed of 15 mph, and often much slower when the road was rough, which meant many weary hours in the car. They stopped in Evanston, Rock Springs, Rawlins, having small meetings there, and then had larger events in Laramie and Cheyenne.

Shot of the main drag in Rawlins, c. 1916, from the Carbon County Museum.
It probably looked a lot like this when the envoys came through, except they were headed in the other direction.
The long, open stretches of road offered time for introspection, though Sara complained the voluble Swedes interrupted her contemplation. She was pretty consumed by thoughts of her lover, Erskine, who was much older than she was. Sara seemed to have a thing for father figures as her first husband, Albert Ehrgott, was 19 years older than she was when she married him. She was just 18. Her devoutly religious father had refused to send her to college ecause her older sister Mary, after enrolling in the University of Michigan, had rebelled against their strict upbringing and left the faith.  So the only exit strategy from her father’s house was to marry, and Albert, a dogmatic Baptist minister, was planning to be a missionary in Rangoon, Burma. That at least seemed like some sort of an adventure, and so Sara encouraged his courtship and married him in 1900.[1]

Ironically, the travel provide as broadening as the education her father refused to give her, and it sowed the seeds of her later exit from the church and from her marriage to Albert. She was fascinated by Asian religions. She was also struck by how coldly her husband treated people from other religions (even Christians) if they weren’t Baptists, even as she appreciated the many kindnesses they showed her. She became pregnant during the trip over and had her first child in Burma, so as a young mother away from family, and in a completely alien culture, it was her friendships with other missionaries that got her through.

Sara and Erskine, Cerca 1920. Photo obtained from
Sara's oral history, part of the California Digital Library.
She’d met Erskine in Portland, OR around 1912 through their mutual friend Clarence Darrow. Darrow described him as a “philosophical anarchist” and by all accounts he was brilliant, engaging, and possessed of a poet’s soul. Erskine was also married but believed in free love, so Sara became his newest mistress and eventually divorced Albert in 1914.

Our knowledge of the envoys’ trip is due in large part to Sara’s letters to Erskine. With him she shares the details omitted from the official accounts given to the newspapers. Complaints about the physical ordeal and her traveling companions are interspersed with passionate declarations of her love for him and the anguish she feels at their long separation. “I am gnawed with hunger for you,” she wrote him from Cheyenne. “I am physically nervous with the spiritual ache for you. And I must cry a little cry of gratitude for your wonderful precious letter. Oh my darling, that you so love me brings tears to my eyes.”[2]  Her seeming dependence on him stands in marked contrast to courage and independence and grit she'd shown in divorcing Albert and pursuing her own life, and of course in this trip as a suffrage envoy.

She had hoped to be pregnant with his child but her period coincided with their arrival in Salt Lake City. Erskine had come down from Portland to witness the spectacle of the envoys’ launch from the Panama-Pacific, and they’d had a few nights together, but it sounds as if they’d been trying for some time. “As to our own child,” she wrote. “When I found myself unwell I was stabbed anew with disappointment but even, had I conceived, I doubt if I could have escaped a miscarriage on account of the awful shaking and jouncing…How…could I expect that the womb would retain its precious and frail freight if love had placed it there?”

Given how hard the trip was for Sara it’s hard to imagine that she would have been able to manage a pregnancy. Even if she had, she would have just made it to DC by the time she was starting to show. I can just imagine the headlines “Suffrage Envoy Pregnant with Married Lover’s Child” or something to that effect. That wouldn’t have made Alice Paul too happy, I suspect; she tightly controlled the image of the Congressional Union, and while she privately might have supported Sara shifting the conversation from voting rights to free love wasn't in the plans.

Adultery, divorce, and (attempted) out-of-wedlock babies; these were all frowned on in 1915, especially for someone washed in the blood of the lamb. They show just how far Sara had traveled from her repressive Baptist childhood.

One of the ways things have changed for the better in the last 100 years is the ability of people to love and live with each other outside of marriage, if they choose, and for same-sex couples to love openly and to marry. I was struck by that as we came through Evanston and I met Nonie Profitt, a sheepherder and part-time librarian. Nonie was born and brought up in Evanston, and knew pretty early that she was interested in women although rural Wyoming was not the place to figure it out. Luckily she went off to college, returning several years later with her (woman) partner. Nonie credits their acceptance to her being from Evanston, going back several generations, but I’m guessing it also helped that she’s blessed with a great grin and outgoing personality, which make her easy to like. Whatever the case, the town quietly accepted her relationship with her partner, with whom she adopted a son, and later supported and grieved for her through their very painful break-up.  
Nonie Profitt (right) and Cora Courage (left).
From the National Center for Lesbian Rights

A couple of years later she started dating Cora Courage, a psychologist at the local hospital who was also in the army reserves. Cora ended up getting deployed three different times; in Desert Storm, in the subsequent surge in Iraq, and eventually to Afghanistan. According to Nonie, Cora had been “witch-hunted” out of the military years earlier, but had re-enlisted under the army’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. In the first two deployments the new couple suffered through lengthy separations, afraid to voice their feelings for each other because their communication was monitored. “That’s a long time to go without being able to say ‘I love you’,” says Nonie quietly. It also meant that, although they were a committed couple, they had none of the rights that married couple would have (access to benefits, etc.)

But society was changing. First the military revoked "don’t ask, don’t tell” (2011) and then the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), paving the way for same sex couples to marry. Nonie and Cora had long since married in another state, but conservative Wyoming didn’t respect that legal tie even after DOMA was struck down.

With help from three law firms and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Nonie and Cora sued the state of Wyoming in March 2014, challenging Wyoming’s laws that prohibit same-sex couples from marrying and ignore the legal marriages of same-sex couples who married in other states. They were joined by three other same-sex couples. This was a gutsy move in the state that became synonymous with hate crimes following the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay student at the University of Wyoming, in 1998. Nonie recalls that some members of her extended family were clued into her sexual orientation when the local newspaper broke the story on its front page.

There were various legal shenanigans along the way but the long and short of it is that same sex couples in Wyoming are now permitted to marry and they have the same rights as hetero-sexual couples. So Wyoming can once again lay claim to its state motto, “Equal Rights.” Challenges remain, but in this area, at least, it's headed in the right direction.

[1] Suffragists Oral History Project, Sara Bard Field: Poet and Suffragist, Conducted by Amelia R. Fry, c. 1979.

[2] Sara Bard Field to C.E.S. Wood, October 9, 1915, WD Box 276, C.E.S. Wood Papers, The Huntington Library, San Marino, California. 

1 comment:

  1. You remind me of the many reasons to be proud that this country has changed. Loved the tie in between Sara's unconventional life and the present day struggle for marriage equality. Beautiful thing to see the changes.