This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work.
I’ve got a bone to pick with Dr. Sarah Parcak, the celebrity Egyptologist who is an associate professor at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. She annoyed me so much that I impulsively unfollowed her on Twitter, but don’t worry, I’ll be back. I’m an archaeology junkie.
What could this bright, funny young academic possibly have done to annoy me enough to forswear feeding my addiction to daily snippets of archaeology news? Nothing much, except tweet one sentence, accompanied by clapping hands. “Anybody who asks me about work and family in future will get the same response,” she said, with a finger pointing down to an excerpt from an interview with author Laura Groff. The interview appeared last week in the Harvard Gazette.
Gazette:You are a mother of two. In 10 years you have produced three novels and two short story collections. Can you talk about your process and how you manage work and family?
Groff:I understand that this is a question of vital importance for many women, particularly to other mothers who are artists trying to get their work done, and know that I feel for everyone in the struggle. But until I see a male writer asked this question, I’m going to respectfully decline to answer it.
OK, bear with me, because I know I’m swimming against the current here. The Twitterverse has been full of praise for Groff, and the Huffington Postcrowed, “Pushing back to sexist questions has been a slowly emerging sea-change for those in the public eye.”
The need for family-friendly workplaces: Here’s the problem for me, Dr. Parcak. This isn’t just about you. This is about millions of women who need family-friendly workplaces in order to balance the demands of children and work. Not even a rewarding career; just plain old work to put food on the table. They need successful women who will talk about the difficulties of managing both, without sugar-coating, and talk about the need for subsidized child care, paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers, and flexible, family-friendly work hours.
So why am I calling out Sarah Parcak and not Laura Groff? I suppose a little background is required. I know how Laura Groff does it, because I’ve done it myself. A writer has that most necessary prerequisite for having a family—flexible time.
When my children were young, I worked from home as a contributing editor for a national trade magazine. I woke up at 5 a.m. to write and was able to get by with a babysitter for a few hours a week to conduct phone interviews and take the train into New York City to visit the office. Full-time childcare for several children would have been much too expensive. I met deadlines shortly after giving birth and kept my newborns with me while the older children were in preschool or childcare. I nursed my babies to keep them quiet while I interviewed company execs.
Dr. Parcak is different. Although her work is glamorous, she doesn’t work for herself. She is beholden to an employer; she works for the University of Alabama at Birmingham, so her situation is more like that of most women. To do what she does, she needs an amenable workplace, a supportive spouse, or family nearby who help out. Ideally, she has all three.
I work for a university in Alabama too, so I know she’s got plenty of sick and vacation time to take off when one of her children is up all night crying with an earache. Only 46 percent of service workers and 47 percent of workers in construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry occupations had paid sick leave benefits as of March 2017, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And clearly her husband, Dr. Greg Mumford, is supportive, since she works in partnership with him to survey and excavate projects in the Sinai and the Nile delta. For many women, however, Prince Charming turned out to be a jerk. They don’t have that kind of support, and the cost of daycare is killing them.
Using satellite imagery and other remote sensing tools, Dr. Parcak explores subtle differences in topography, geology and plant life to expose forgotten sites from multiple lost cultures, explains Smithsonian magazine. “She and her team have expanded the civilization’s known scope, spotting more than 3,000 ancient settlements, more than a dozen pyramids and over a thousand lost tombs, and uncovered the city grid of Tanis, of Raiders of the Lost Ark fame,” the article notes.
I admit it, she’s living my dream life. But that gives me a clue that maybe, just maybe, Dr. Parcak also gets help from her family, or at the very least a live-in nanny who likes to travel. For all my flexibility, there’s no way I could have managed a working trip to Egypt with my kids in tow, since my family lived more than 1,500 miles away.
None of this is to criticize Dr. Parcak. She’s amazing. But she is a woman of talent, intelligence and, yes, privilege. We need women like Dr. Parcak to tell the world that children need lots of time and attention. They aren’t always easy. They can be messy and inconvenient. They aren’t like wind-up dolls that can be put away on a shelf when you’re through with them.
A bigger problem: There is a bigger problem here that is talked about only sporadically, which is that the U.S. population, sans immigrants, is not replacing itself. The “replacement” fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman of childbearing age is generally considered enough to renew the population. In 2017, the total fertility rate dropped to 1.76 in the U.S., continuing a slide downward that started in the early 1970s.
Given concerns about resources, some might say that is a good thing. This “replacement level,” however, is considered an important measure of demographic health. Young people are needed to replace an aging workforce and to generate stable tax revenues to continue to fund programs like Medicare and Social Security, whose costs will balloon when the population skews geriatric.
I don’t think there is any way to pretend that one of the reasons the birthrate is plummeting is because the rate of women in the workforce has soared. In fact, it is my observation that men often expect their wives (or significant others) to work, valuing their role as cash cows over their role as mothers. And let me tell you, combining a career and parenting is damn hard work, whether the primary caretaker is man or woman, and even if they completely share responsibilities.
I’m old enough to be Dr. Parcak’s mother, so forgive me for seeming old-fashioned and not appreciating how “sexist” it is to ask about managing full-time work and full-time children. I am of an age where I had friends who were discouraged from being anything but nurses or teachers. My widowed grandmother told me to never stop working, because men die or they go away. And my father told me I’d have to work twice as hard as any man to get the same recognition. I’m glad those days are over.
“Having vulnerable, beautiful, beloved dependents is like having had my own heart replicated and sent out into the world,” Laura Groff also told the Harvard Gazette. “Nothing feels more urgent to me than that.”
She gets it, and I’m sure every other celebrity mother who will stop and think about it does, too. And it would be most helpful if Laura Groff and Sarah Parcak and every other celebrity mother out there talked about the challenges, because I will certainly tell you that being a parent was the most demanding and difficult and fascinating job I ever had.
I like to say my grandmother’s uncle won women the right to vote.
The state of American politics these days has got me ruminating about the uncle who died six years before I was born—a minor character in the drama of history, a forgotten footnote to a very important chapter.
He’s also my hero, a testament to the consequences of personal and political courage.
I pray that today’s legislators will learn to be true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.
Albert Houston Roberts was first a schoolteacher, then an attorney, then governor of Tennessee. He took office in 1919—just in time to help change history.
That year, Congress passed the 19th Amendment, 39 straightforward words that inflamed passions nationwide. If ratified by 36 states, the amendment would enfranchise women.
One by one, 35 states signed. One more was needed to complete the “Perfect 36,” but none of the recalcitrant Southern or Western states looked ready to budge.
August 1920 was muggy in Nashville. If Tennessee failed to pass the amendment in special session, it likely would die. Family lore says Roberts passionately believed women should vote. Opposition in Tennessee ran high, so Roberts called in every favor and used every ounce of influence to force the issue. In a close vote, the measure passed.
As a child, I discounted the story. My children still do. But journalist that I am I sensed a story. I wrote to American Heritage magazine, suggesting I research the story and record the process.
If the editor deigned to answer, I expected a thin letter. Instead, I got a thick packet. The story—far more dramatic than I imagined—already had been written.
That oppressive summer, the nation focused attention on Nashville, which teemed with reporters from New York, Chicago, Washington and Boston. Suffragists wrote letters, staged rallies and canvassed legislators. Telegrams shot back and forth between the White House and the State House in Nashville. Tempers flared.
Supporters wore yellow roses. Those opposed wore red. Legislators showed their sentiments by pinning roses to their lapels—and the roses showed the amendment would be defeated, 49-47.
A motion to table was defeated when one legislator switched sides. A vote on the amendment was called, and again legislators split, 48-48. A second vote was called, and young Harry Burn—red rose pinned brazenly to his collar—broke the deadlock and voted to enfranchise women. Pandemonium erupted, and Burn climbed out a a third-floor window to escape the mob. He hid in the Capitol attic.
Later, Burn explained that he wore a red rose, but in his pocket he carried his mother’s telegram. His mother’s wishes won out over political expediency and superficial coalitions. He voted for the controversial amendment.
The battle wasn’t over, however. Opponents managed to delay official ratification. Anti-suffrage legislators fled the state to avoid a quorum, and their associates held massive rallies. The coalition held, however, and Tennessee reaffirmed the vote.
On Aug. 28, my uncle signed the bill. Two days later, women earned the constitutional right that white men had possessed since the nation was born, and that black men had possessed since the 1860s.
What did Roberts’ courage win him? Absolutely nothing, in the pragmatists’s view. He’s not mentioned in the history books. Family legend says he was considered for inclusion in Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage but missed the cut. He failed in his bid for re-election and took up the practice of law with his son in Nashville.
He left a legacy, however, a legacy of which his family, his state and his country can be proud. Now, as a government shutdown threatens and rumors of corruption are rampant, I pray that our legislators will become true leaders—and be willing to pay the price.
Photo: Tennessee Governor Albert H. Roberts (1868–1946) certifying the state’s ratification of the 19th Amendment in August 1920. Memphis suffragist Charl Williams stands watching. Photo credit: Nashville Tennessean (in the Tennessee State Library and Archives).
When Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.
By Jacqueline White Kochak
I am in my Grandmother White’s powder-blue living room in her house on Second Avenue in Dodge City, Kansas. The living room is perfect and neat, with low plush carpeting and a fireplace at one end of the long room. She has lived in this house since before my grandfather died, since before I was born, and I will always associate my grandmother with the soft shade of powder blue.
On this day, Grandmother White has decided to share a family secret with me, a family secret so awful that it had been buried for almost half a century. I am 20-ish and staying with her—I don’t remember why—and we don’t often talk about anything serious. With no preamble and without words, she hands me a yellowed newspaper clipping that she has obviously kept hidden for decades. The story covers the whole front page of the publication, and the aging newsprint is splitting along the fold lines.
We are a family that keeps and guards our secrets zealously. The corollary to that family trait is that secrets so carefully protected must at some point be shared, passed on, in homage to their power. Not shared carelessly, but not lost forever. If never spoken, they might never have existed, which for some might seem a good thing—but how can unspeakable pain be denied completely? For some reason, my grandmother chose me to carry the secret forward.
A SENSELESS FAMILY TRAGEDY
I can’t forget the story. On the hot afternoon of June 25, 1927—a Saturday—my grandmother’s cousin William Payton Justice was out cultivating corn in a distant field with his older brother, John Junior. Their father, John Justice Sr., had driven to the grain elevator four miles away for some machinery repairs. The day was stifling hot and humid, with no shade and no relief from the sun, so the two boys had just gone to the house to get a drink, returning to the cornfield together. The 13-year-old boy—I suppose they called him Billy—was a row ahead of his brother when he paused, shaded his eyes as he looked at the vast blue sky, and announced he was going to back to the house.
There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness.
At the house, Billy went to the well and drank “a considerable amount water.” Going into the house, he grabbed a handful of shotgun shells. When his older sister Mary Evelyn asked him why, Billy just grinned. Then he got his gun, but there was nothing so unusual about that; neighbors often saw Billy shooting birds on the farm. This time, though, Billy shot his family.
First he killed his 45-year-old mother, Minnie Elda Oglesby Justice, as she sat mending clothes in a rocking chair on a screened-in porch. Shot in the back, Minnie crumpled forward onto the floor. The local coroner said Billy’s mother died “in the line of duty for her family,” noting that he removed a thimble from her finger. Then the boy shot his 8-year-old sister, Emogene, at close range over the right eye. The position of her body suggested Emogene was trying to escape her brother. Billy’s older sister, 16-year-old Mary Evelyn, was bending over the icebox on the back porch, and her younger brother’s assault was so rapid and unexpected that she didn’t have time to straighten herself or react. Billy’s shot glanced off her spine, causing her to limp the rest of her life.
Then Billy shot himself in the gut. An area physician speculated that drinking the cold water might have had some damaging effect on the boy’s brain, given the day’s smoldering heat. The newspaper headline refers to Billy “running amok” (although the editor spelled it “amuck”) and more than once the reporter opines that the boy must have suffered from temporary insanity. Three dead, a senseless family massacre that today would be reported in newspapers all over the country.
One odd detail caught the attention of the newspaper’s editor, a Mr. N.W. Huston. “It is said that during his recent illness, the boy was annoyed by a woodpecker on the house,” Huston wrote. “He picked up the shotgun with which he committed the tragedy this afternoon and killed the bird.”
I have no idea why my grandmother chose to share this story with me, her eldest granddaughter, and I have no idea why she chose that particular day. My Grandmother White was not a talkative person, nor was she a gossip. She was always proper in both dress and behavior, cognizant of her illustrious Southern forebears. I don’t remember her ever joking, or laughing uncontrollably, or “letting go” in any way.
I think we both knew I was a lot like her, bookish and quiet. My grandfather died before I was born, and when I asked Grandmother White why she never remarried, she admitted, “I couldn’t imagine crawling into bed with another man.” She cautioned me to maintain my professional skills because “men die or they run away,” and when I graduated from college with a degree in journalism, she told me she was proud of me because when she was young, women could only aspire to be nurses or teachers. She was a second-grade teacher for some 30 years after my grandfather died, even though she hadn’t worked while he was alive.
I try to imagine the shame that would have choked the extended family—including my grandmother, her siblings and her parents—a shame so heavy that only hidden memories remained, with no words to pierce the shadows. Even today, my husband cautioned me that perhaps I shouldn’t be telling people this horrific story—and we don’t live in a rural county where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they are not close relatives. I wonder sometimes if those ghosts have left their sign upon me.
THE SCENE: RURAL KANSAS
I try to imagine Cherokee County, Kansas, in the late 1920s, before Wall Street crashed and the Great Depression engulfed the country. I know from experience that the June heat is searing and the humidity is oppressive. The local newspaper also speculated young Billy “went crazy from the sun,” a diagnosis that makes some sense if you’re familiar with the region. Billy also suffered from measles just a few weeks before, the newspaper explained, but his brother described him as “jovial” on the day of the murders.
Although the Justices were all farmers, Cherokee County occupies the western edge of the Ozarks plateau, and the rolling land is rich with minerals like zinc and lead and also with coal. Mining was important to the economy, and the small town nearest to the Justice farm—West Mineral—is so-named because of the nearby coal mines where miners stripped coal from shallow veins. In the 1920s, the area produced a third of all the nation’s bituminous coal, which fired the kilns that processed the zinc and lead mined in the region.
He learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
Iron foundries, cement plants, tile and pottery manufacturers, glass pane factories, lead and zinc sheet mills, and brick plants transformed southeast Kansas into the most industrialized part of a state known for its agricultural prowess. The dirty, dangerous jobs required workers, and so the immigrants came. Census records note that one of the Justices’ neighbors was born in Italy.
But the Justices, all of them, were without exception farmers. My great-grandfather, Joseph Curtis Justice, was the son of one of three brothers who migrated west to Kansas with their families in the 1880s. John Wesley Justice, Billy’s father, was my great-grandfather’s older brother. They came from Illinois, but from the part of that Yankee state that is totally Southern, located across the Ohio River from Kentucky. The area is called Little Egypt because the major city is Cairo, pronounced “Kay-ro.”
LIFE ON THE FARM
I know exactly what young Billy’s life on the farm was like because of my Uncle Joe’s recollections about his grandparents. My great-grandfather, Joe Justice, was John Justice Jr.’s younger brother by four years. I can see my great-grandparents in my mind’s eye, and I know that they—Joe Justice and his wife Laura—must have been very similar to John Justice Sr. and his wife Minnie. They were country people, deeply rooted in their place and deeply connected to their people.
Joe Justice was about 5-foot-10, lean and hard, and I expect his brother was the same. He had sandy hair, chewed plug tobacco and smoked a pipe. He sat in a rocker by the window to watch people go by on the road outside, so my Grandma Justice put paper under the rocker along with a bucket full of sand for her husband to spit in. For her part, my great-grandmother Laura Justice was small and lean and wore long dresses. Her hair, which she wore in a knot on the back of her head, nearly touched the floor when unbound. Might Minnie Elda have been cut from the same template?
The Justices, all of them, worked from daylight until dusk, keeping so busy they almost ran from chore to chore. Laura Justice got up first and started a wood fire in the big steel stove equipped with water storage on each side so they had hot water. I’m sure Billy’s mother, Minnie Elda, did the same. My Grandpa Justice replenished the water every night as well as filling the wood bin, and I expect John Sr. also did the same. Their wives would make biscuits every morning to accompany fried eggs, gravy, ham or bacon, and coffee. On my great-grandparents’ farm, they milked as many as 10 cows each morning; Laura always milked two, while my Joe and Houston, the only child left at home by the time Uncle Joe made his debut, milked the rest.
When that chore was done, they carried the milk to the cellar where they collected cream in a cream can to sell in town. Milk they intended to use was hung in the cool depths of the well, while the rest was fed to the hogs. The family raised chickens, too, and grew vegetables. Profit from selling the little bit of leftover eggs and cream to the general store was used to buy flour, sugar, coffee, and cornflakes. They enjoyed ice only on Saturdays, and only if they were making ice cream. Somehow, I know Billy’s family lived the same kind of life.
And both Justice families, like all their neighbors, still farmed with mules, smart but balky animals. When old Joe Justice went to the barn and got their harnesses out, the mules knew they were going to have to work. They didn’t like that, so my great-grandfather would take a mule’s ear in his mouth and bite down until the stubborn beast stood still and let him finish getting them harnessed.
When Houston graduated from high school, he told his parents he absolutely would not stay on the farm unless they bought a tractor. He said he wouldn’t walk behind the mules ever again, because the obstinate beasts are famous for passing clouds of gas that engulf anyone unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity. Houston’s stubbornness turned out to be a good thing, because the farm never had a money crop until they bought a tractor and planted wheat.
At the time Billy was working in the field with his older brother, though, they were still dealing with balky, smelly mules. Billy’s life wasn’t easy, no question, but why would he turn on his mother and sisters?
A TAINT OF INEFFABLE SADNESS
Joe Justice was a good man and well-respected, but my Grandmother White described him as a man who was very serious and not given to smiling or enjoying himself. My grandmother was much the same, and that has made me wonder about the dark stain of depression that runs through my family and might have touched young Billy, the boy who killed his family. Yet they were a “happy, contented family of farm people,” neighbors told the newspaper.
Volumes have been written about children who kill, and more particularly children who kill their families. Of course I didn’t know Billy’s family, but I know his cousins and their stories. There is no obvious pathology, no secret violence or alcoholism, no dark shadow of insanity. Just a sticky hot day, perhaps a taint of ineffable sadness, and the aftermath of illness. As I have pondered this story, that illness has caught my attention.
Most children today never experience the discomfort, high temperature and spreading red rash of measles, but in Billy’s day almost every child succumbed. As childhood illnesses that were so common they were expected, diseases like measles and chicken pox don’t sound very scary at all. Even today, however, medical books note the existence of a rare disease of the central nervous system called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), which generally develops years after a person has measles, even though the person seems to have returned to good health. Adolescent or younger boys are most vulnerable to the progressive brain inflammation, which in its earliest stage causes personality changes, mood swings, or depression.
When I dug a little deeper, I learned that in the late 1800s, infection was accepted as one of the causes of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Emil Kraepelin—the German physician who is considered the founder of modern psychiatry—described rare cases of insanity following such once-common diseases as chicken pox, scarlet fever and measles, with the aforementioned brain inflammation the suspected cause. By Billy’s time thinking had swung around to the belief that insanity was caused only by experiences or by genetics, and only recently is infection once again being considered as a cause.
PERHAPS SILENCE WAS A KINDNESS
I have pored over what records I can find, trying to reconstruct that place and that time in my mind. I imagine Billy’s father and older brother returning to the house to find a bloodbath on a hot June afternoon. From census records, it looks entirely possible the shattered family continued to live in the rural farmhouse, located on a dirt road in the county’s northwest corner. Billy’s father lived just six more years, dying in 1933. His older brother Junior and his surviving sister Evelyn lived out the rest of their lives in the area; Junior was buried in the county seat of Columbus some 40 years later.
I have wondered how a secret of this magnitude could be kept for so many years. My father never knew until I told him, although my Uncle Joe heard some of the story from his uncle Houston, an inveterate gossip. Far more puzzling, Billy’s older brother Junior—the one left alive in the field when his mother and sister were slaughtered, the one who discovered the bodies when he heard gunshots—went on to raise a family. That family was completely unaware of the tragedy.
As best I can determine, Junior’s two sons grew up in southeast Kansas, in close proximity to the murder site, attending high school in nearby West Mineral. Yet no one ever breathed a word of the family shame. At the time of the crime, some 30,000 people resided in the county, but just a handful of them—a few hundred—lived in the rural townships where my family members lived. Perhaps the murders were just a quickly forgotten curiosity, or perhaps in a rural neighborhood where many people were related to one another, silence was kindness. Perhaps the silence was like a scab covering an open wound, allowing healing to occur.
Mary Evelyn and her brother Junior apparently grew apart. She had no children herself, and Junior’s sons did not know they had an aunt named Evelyn until one of them—another John Justice—got bit by the genealogy bug. Seeking information about his father’s family, he ventured into a public genealogy forum and learned of the tragedy via an email from a distant cousin. Even then, in 2001—more than 70 years after the murders—the subject was deemed too difficult to share with a family member on a public message board.
In fact, to the best of my recollection, my grandmother and I never again spoke of the family’s heartbreak after I folded up that yellowed newspaper and returned it to her for safekeeping. I have wondered if the story is really mine to tell, or if by telling the story I will be causing pain to some descendant who doesn’t yet know his or her family’s bloody history. Yet, when Grandmother White shared that newspaper clipping with me, she knew I was becoming a teller of stories. She knew I would tell.