Saturday, May 12, 2012

Strong Women

Black Widow from The Avengers is an admirably strong woman
I’m not a big fan of superhero movies, but, I’ve got to admit, I loved that opening scene in The Avengers when Black Widow, tied down to a chair, manages to break free, take out every man in the room, and coolly walk away in her skin-tight, black jumpsuit. Immediately, she won my respect, and I was anxious to see the next scene packed with her superpowers on display. After all, she was the only female super hero in the movie, and I wanted to know if she would be strong enough to keep up with The Big Boys. 

Like good chocolate, strong women come packaged in assorted ways. On Mother’s Day particularly, we women consider our own mothers and wonder which of their strengths we carry forward. I’ve found it sometimes takes looking back a few generations to figure out who we really are and where we get our strengths.

Athelia Sears Tanner (my mother)
My mom's mother was a polygamist, the second wife of a man several years her senior who ruled the roost in typical English style. So, every night like clockwork, Grandma Sears faithfully and cheerfully served him a hot dinner on a freshly-pressed linen tablecloth. She was a strong woman. She had to be. After she had ten children, her husband and Aunt Aggie, the first wife who could never have children, were called to serve a three-year church mission in Samoa, leaving Grandma Sears and several daughters behind to manage the household. Fortunately, this grandma of mine could pull it off because she was not only strong but also extremely capable and, I think, secretly competitive. In those days, every Monday was “wash day,” and she would arise early to be the first in the neighborhood to hang her clean laundry on the line. Her energy and zest, though, did not seem to get in the way of her compassion. In addition to looking after her own children, she cared for all the widows she knew, faithfully baking homemade birthday cakes for them every year.

Athelia Viola Sears Call Irvine (my grandmother)
In spite of her heavy workload, Grandma Sears had a legendary sweet demeanor. Called “an angel” by those who knew her best, she sang from morning till night, encouraging her children to work out differences by hugging each other, and her family swears she never raised her own voice. As a mother and homemaker myself, I find such a pleasant disposition to be remarkable and almost unbelievable. In fact, such claims make it difficult to see much of myself in her.

Mary Theresa Thompson Call (my great grandmother)

Pamela Elizabeth Barlow Thompson (my great great grandmother)
Going back further are two more grandmas also full of kindness as well as fortitude and grit. Mary Theresa Thompson Call was exiled three times from her home in Mexico during the Revolution; however, in spite of the upheaval in her own life, she was always compassionate and never idle. With a keen sense of who was suffering, she would often slip from away from the dinner table to deliver a hot meal to a neighbor in need. Also an excellent seamstress, she would frequently sew through the night so the dead could be buried in proper funeral clothes within the 24-hour period allowed by law. Her mother, Pamela Elizabeth Thompson, was kidnapped by Indians at age six but, fortunately, rescued by her father, and later in life she gave birth to her ninth child just six weeks after her husband was killed. Neither grandmother was a stranger to tough times. These were strong women.

Elizabeth Haven Barlow (my 3rd great grandmother)
Reaching back just one more generation, though, is a woman I can really relate to. Just two summers ago I learned about Elizabeth Haven Barlow, my 3rd great grandmother. Talk about a strong woman! Described now in the 21st century, she may not sound very impressive, but in her time she was an independent thinker and a feisty feminist. Indeed, set in the context of the early 1800s, she emerges as a real fireball. Motherless at age nine, she sought comfort and learning in ancient books, old letters containing discussions about Puritanism, and the family Bible, which was her personal favorite. Thus armed early with a deep and keen understanding of Christian beliefs, she later boldly challenged her minister when he tried to convince her of false doctrine. On that very day, she left the church without compunction, taking her friends with her and never returning. This passion for truth stayed with her throughout her life. In fact, her intellectual curiosity motivated her to pursue a teaching degree from Amherst and Bradford Colleges at a time when most American women had very little education, thus “fulfilling one of her heart’s greatest desires,” as her daughter would later report. 

When I “met” Elizabeth, I realized at last whose blood was in my veins. I felt I met part of myself and that I finally fit in with this group of strong women. Like Elizabeth, I love a lively intellectual discussion and am not the retiring, quiet type. In fact, truth be told, I openly challenge opinions, speak my mind freely, and have been known to question authority. Other kinds of strengths—patience, kindness, and compassion—don’t come so easily to me.

We commonly revere soft, compliant, gentle women—the peacemakers and bread bakers—and raise eyebrows at outspoken, nonconforming women. Especially on Mother’s Day, it’s good to remember that all kinds of women can be strong. I come from a long line of them. 


  1. Thank you Sister Perry, that is the Mother's Day talk we need to hear in each ward.


  2. Wow, that picture of Mary Elizabeth Thompson looks like a cross between Craig and KaRynn! And is isn't any wonder that you come from a line of strong women. I'm reading a book called "A Mormon Mother" that is about a polygamist wife name Annie Clark Tanner. Any relation?

  3. @ Grammie: From what I understand, you're QUITE the mother and grandma.
    @ Wanda: For some reason, I've never even thought of looking for my CHILDREN in the faces of these women. Very interesting! Unfortunately, I'm not familiar with Annie Clark Tanner, but that doesn't necessarily mean I'm not related. I haven't been known to be the consummate family historian. I'm still untangling all the bits and pieces of family stories I heard through the years and trying to connect the right stories with the right people.

  4. Hi Janet--I just stumbled across your blog as I was searching the name Elizabeth Haven Barlow. I, too, am a descendant of Mary Theresa Thompson Call (her daughter, Ivis Pamela, is my great-grandmother). I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post--I came across several things I didn't know about Elizabeth, Pamela and Mary. I've always felt a connection with Mary, as we share the same birthday, and I loved listening to stories of her my grandmother would share. Thank you so much for this post. Reading it has made my day and made me thankful for the strong women who came before me.

  5. Hi Janet, I live the next town over to Holliston, MA where the Haven's lived. I have been following their history for a few years now and I am doing a lesson this Sunday and Elizabeth is the primary subject. Thanks for this post. I was on-line searching for pictures of these exact women and that's how I happened upon your blog. Happy also to see such a strong line of continuity after all of Elizabeth's hard work! I'm just wondering if you have ever been to beautiful town of Holliston?

  6. Hello there. I too am a cousin of yours. I come through Mary THeresa then Mildred Theresa to Mildred June, meridee theresa, and my name is Candice Theresa then my daughter Hadley theresa. :)