A Room of One’s Own

Thinking about women and stories led me to revisit Virginia Woolf’s book, ‘A Room of One’s Own’. This book is derived from lectures she gave at Cambridge women’s colleges, Girton and Newnham, in 1928 on the topic of ‘Women and Fiction’.  It has been an influential work in feminist studies with a central theme that women need a room in which to write. The room is both literal and figurative. Woolf maintains that women of the past had neither the space, time – nor financial means to acquire either – in order to pursue writing.

“Intellectual freedom depends upon material things. Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom. And women have always been poor…”

– Virginia Woolf

Woolf begins by comparing the women’s college to the men’s, the decadence and luxury afforded to the men’s college, including the size of their libraries – finding the women’s college lacking. She doesn’t do this in a malicious way, or in any way that’s rude to either college. She doesn’t push to attack the men for having so much, nor shame the women for having so little. 

What she does focus on, is the lack of opportunity. While discussing famous women authors of the 18th century, Austen and Brontë, she notes how one of them wrote on small scraps of paper, constantly hiding her scribbling away because what was a woman doing, writing? 

If women, perhaps, did write… well then what was the point? Certainly anything they wrote about wasn’t as important as what men wrote about. War and sports outweigh fashion and drawing rooms, regardless of how steeped either are in observations of human nature.

And yet, creativity and persistence will find a way.  On Jane Austen, Woolf remarked “here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That’s how Shakespeare wrote.” 

Another one of Woolf’s observations struck me as interesting. A flaw she found in some of the earlier women writers was that they didn’t write in their own voice. That whether their work implied they were protesting that they were as good as any man, or if it were self-deprecating in saying they were ‘only a woman’, she concludes that one had “altered her values in deference to the opinions of others.” 

How many women still do a version of this today in the work place?  How magnified is this for women of color? How many women modulate their voice in order to be heard, in order to not be vilified?

Woolf herself comes from an upper-middle class British family, so tends to focus on the same. She does talk of a woman named Mrs. Aphra Behn, who made a living writing in the 17th century. Mrs. Behn was not of the upper-middle class, but a woman who made a living writing out of necessity to support herself. A feat as it wasn’t a common practice for women to be educated, particularly those not in the upper class. “She had to work on equal terms with men. She made, by working very hard, enough to live on. The importance of that fact outweighs anything that she actually wrote.” By being paid, she showed that women could make a living by writing.

“Money dignifies what is made frivolous if unpaid for.”  

– Virginia Woolf

But is it just about a room? Space to write? “Women never have half an hour… that they may call their own”, a quote Woolf attributes to Florence Nightingale, resonates today. Not just with me, but with other women juggling life demands during these pandemic days. Sonia Feertchak suggests that “digital space has replaced the physical one” and that working from home has most of us dividing up not only our space, but our time. 1

I think the demands on our time isn’t necessarily a women-specific issue today. In addition to work and family we have dozens more mundane tasks to deal with every day that are soul-sucking time-wasters – planning meals, exercising, calling the cable company, preparing for holidays, laundry, running errands – the minutiae becomes an avalanche, crowding out space even for those of us who do have a room of our own.  Keeping the room and remaining solvent is another matter.

In chapter five, Woolf starts with a brighter outlook. She considers the library of her day and all the books written by women that she didn’t find in the libraries of the past. 

How far have we come in the past 90+ years? I am thankful to see more and more women authors in the ranks of the top sellers, but it doesn’t seem like a level playing field yet. And what about all the voices who still don’t have a room of their own?

You can read ‘A Room of One’s Own’ free at Project Gutenberg. https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks02/0200791h.html

  1. www.philonomist.com

‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, Flight Nurses, and French Luxury Liners

The first Army Nurse I knew about was Major Margaret ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan from the TV show M*A*S*H which aired from 1972-1983. For those of us old enough to be around then, the series finale was an ‘Event’ – the likes of which is rare in televised entertainment today.  Forget about streaming services, most households didn’t have a VCR and recording a show wasn’t yet a common thing. You watched it when it aired or you missed out. 

I watched the series finale with both my parents and it involved lots of popcorn and kleenx – those who experienced the event know what I’m talking about. I can’t recall us doing anything like that together before or since.  (We have done many things together over the years, sitting in front of the TV just isn’t one of them as we don’t share that interest.)

Anyway, Margaret Houlihan. That was my introduction to what an Army nurse was like. I’m still a little smitten with her, in that way I’m smitten with competence and the balancing act women do to be seen as equals while maintaining their ‘feminine’ habits and hobbies.  She was allowed to be both lusty and capable and, as in the video above, she was fierce!

Loretta Swit, the actor who portrayed Margaret Houlihan, remarked in a 2004 interview about what made her character so enduring that “she made a very strong statement, not only for the profession, but for women in the military.” 1

Aunt Melissa (aka. Lt. H.M. Clark or Helen Melissa Clark) wasn’t a nurse in a mobile unit like the one portrayed in the show. She was an air evacuation nurse, carrying wounded from one place to another.

Before World War II, the U.S. military didn’t evacuate wounded soldiers using aircraft. But advances in flight made it possible to treat wounded away from the front lines with trained medical personnel and fully equipped hospitals – leading to an increased survival rate.  The key was to get those wounded soldiers airlifted.

After a pilot program (forgive the pun) in 1942, the U.S. established formal training for medical air evacuation at Bowman Field in Kentucky in 1943. 2

Aunt Melissa was part of the eighth class to go through the program and graduated on January 21, 1944. From there, she was transferred to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey to await deployment. 

Her detachment sailed from New York on March 13, 1944 on the SS Île de France.  They arrived in Scotland on March 22.

The Île de France was a civilian ship – an extravagent Art Deco luxury liner – that had managed to leave France before the outbreak of war.

Lest we all think that my Aunt Melissa travelled in luxury during the war, I should note that the Île de France was retrofitted in 1941 as a troopship which “entailed removing her peacetime decor and painting the ship all gray, as well as installing berths for 9,706 soldiers, new kitchen facilities, a complete overhaul of her machinery, and the scrapping and replacement of her entire plumbing system.” 3 An account of the crossing noted that there wasn’t a convoy attached, so the ship zig-zagged across the Atlantic deploying occasional depth charges to avoid mines. It certainly doesn’t sound like a luxury cruise. 4

inscription from Aunt Melissa’s WWII scrapbook

Several years after the war, just before she was to be scrapped – the Île de France became a movie star.  Or, at least, that’s how I’m choosing to interpret her ending.  She featured in the 1960 disaster file, ‘The Last Voyage’ where she was filmed as she sunk.

  1. televisionacademy.com (2004 interview with Loretta Swit)
  2. legendsofflightnurses.org (The Story of Air Evacuation)
  3. www.scharch.org (Ile De France)
  4. https://archive.org (The Story of Air Evacuation, 1942-1989 by World War II Flight Nurses Association — History of the 816th MAES pgs. 85-86)

Army Nurse and Social Reformer

The Army Nurse Corp wasn’t founded until 1901, but women have tended the sick and wounded in various capacities since the Revolutionary War. During the Civil War, Dorothea Dix was appointed as the Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army. I was initially drawn to her story as she was first a teacher, like my Aunt Melissa who trained as a teacher before she became a nurse. However, Dorothea Dix’s teacher and nurse stories are subplots to her main focus of advocating on behalf of the mentally ill, the disabled, and the imprisoned. 

Dorothea Dix wasn’t formally trained as a nurse. Her experience lay more in advocating for the mentally ill.  In fact, her stint in the war seems to have been one of her least successful endeavors. She was at odds with other administrators and doctors alike.  

Edith Horton, author of ‘A Group of Famous Women’ said “Many of the surgeons and nurses disliked her. They said she was severe, that she would not listen to any advice nor take any suggestions. The real cause of her unpopularity, however, was that she demanded of all about her entire unselfishness and strict devotion to work. Very severe was she with careless nurses or rough surgeons.” 

Sidenote: Edith Horton’s work was originally published in 1914. Reading the foreword and introduction of her work, I can see her intent was to instill a certain ideal of morality and fortitude. Considering her intended audience, I’m taking her opinion of Dorothea Dix with a grain of salt.

Born in Maine, Dorothea moved in with her grandmother at a young age. Accounts seem to differ on why she didn’t remain with her father – one source suggested alcoholism while another talked of him having a fixation on writing and publishing religious tracts. Whatever the cause, living with her grandmother doesn’t sound like it was much of a picnic. Stern and demanding, her grandmother seems to have molded Dorothea into a formidable force of nature.

As a young woman, Dorothea began tutoring children. She expanded this to founding a school and writing a book ‘Conversations on Common Things’.  At one point, she arranged to teach Sunday school to twenty women incarcerated in Cambridge. This seems to be the catalyst to her championing improved conditions for the mentally ill. When this shift in her life happened, she was thirty-nine years old.

Her ability to effect change and bring attention to the horrid conditions during a time when women couldn’t vote shows she’s a political savvy activist. Whether due to the actual horrible conditions she brought to light, the force of her personality, or a combination of both, she convinced the state legislature to improve conditions.

When Henry B. Stanton went before the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1837 to demand that the state urge Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia, he had no qualms about his right to speak.” I AM A MAN: and I address myself to MEN,” he declared. But Dorothea Dix, appealing in writing to the same legislative body six years later on behalf of the insane poor, meekly apologized for her intrusion.


After that first success in Massachusetts, she spent years working to establish more humane conditions for those in mental asylums. She had several successes in New Jersey, North Carolina, and Illinois.  

One of the first hospitals she helped establish in 1848 was the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum (aka. New Jersey State Hospital). She died there in 1887. It is still in operation today – Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

Additional material:

Lt. Clark Serves in Combat Zone

Aunt Melissa was born November 10, 1912. Among her possessions I have found several newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters – many dating to her time during the war.

The photo below, published in The National Geographic Magazine, is an official U.S. Army Air Force photograph taken on June 6, 1944. Aunt Melissa is the one in the middle front row. Another photo from the same day1 shows two of the nurses also pictured below (Lt. Suella Bernard and Lt. Marijean Brown) who Aunt Melissa had mentioned in her letters home. 

Not in Flander's but in France's Fields, These Poppies Grew - amid Land Mines
The poppies are still fresh upon arrival in England, so short was the flight across the Channel. They were gathered from the mine-planted fields near an emergency airstrip on the Cherbourg Peninsula. These 9th Air Force flight nurses, among the first to land on the beachhead, brought back battle casualties in C-47's.
Unknown newspaper clipping, June 1944
Is With Invasion Troops In France
Lieut. Helen Melissa Clark, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Clark of Cornwall, was one of the five American nurses who first flew into the zone of operations and formed part of an evacuation unit which landed on an improvised air strip on Cherbourg peninsula. They sent back three plane loads of wounded, the first flown from France. 
After spending an hour and a half on French soil with shells bursting nearby, they returned to Britain carrying bouquets of red poppies they picked on the battlefields. 
Seven wounded prisoners, one a Japanese in German uniform, were among those flown back. 
The airstrip used by the C-47 skytrains was 3,600 by 200 feet - constructed by the Ninth Air Force engineering command which arrived at the beachhead the day after the invasion began. 
Mustangs circled overhead to ward off enemy aircraft when the nurses, doctors and six enlisted medical technicians landed amid the bursts of artillery. 
The nurses were 2nd Lts. Marijean Brown, Columbus, Ohio; Suella Bernard, Waynesville, Ohio; Eleanor A. Geovanelle, Hershey, Pa.; Mary E. Young, St. Petersburg, Fla.; and Helen Melissa Clark, Cornwall, Conn. 
The flight surgeon was Capt. Thomas L. Phillips, Jr., Kuttawa, Ky. 
Lieut. Clark went overseas in April, 1943. She met her brother, Capt. Ernest Dwight Clark, whom she hadn’t seen in 26 months, in England in May. The last letter her parents received from her was on May 17. Another sister, Miss Sarah Barbara Clark, was graduated as a nurse cadet May 23 from the Portsmouth, Va., hospital.  
Lt. Clark, an air nurse, was graduated from the air evacuation school, Bowman Field, Ky. She is a graduate of Litchfield high school, class of 1930 and Danbury Teachers College. Formerly a teacher, she changed to nursing and trained at Union Memorial hospital, Baltimore, Md. 

The image above is an article clipping found in my grandmother’s things, most likely from a local paper in Litchfield, CT.   The article mentions a letter her parents received on May 17th – I can’t be sure which one it’s referring to, as receipt date doesn’t equal postmark date, but knowing my family’s penchant for saving things, I am assuming it’s included in the ones I have. 

Letters from Lt. Helen Melissa Clark home to her parents, 1944

Most of the letters are written in what I assume is an effort to put a mother’s mind at ease. Descriptions of every day activities, flowers in bloom, attempts to ship gifts and the speed of mail are all things that crop up frequently. Rarely does she speak of her work or her flights, except in late June to assure her family that she’s safe and in no danger.

  1. airforcemedicine.af.mil

Stories and Songcraft

Music and stories are two of my ecclectic hobbies. Because they can often share the same mental space, I freely admit that I still make mix-tapes and build stories around songs in my head.  It’s since migrated to playlists on Spotify, but as it’s something I’ve done since I can remember, I doubt I’ll quit any time soon.  It’s led to some interesting video editing hobbies and introduced me to some good friends. 

While I don’t come from a traditionally musical sort of family, music has always been a part of my life. My mother was fond of John Denver (to put it mildly) and other folk artists like Joan Baez – so that musical style was very influential to me. I was encouraged to learn to play both the piano and guitar and although I was never very proficient at either, the study gave me an appreciation for music.

I am a fan of many musical genres, but have a special fondness for the what is today called ‘Americana’1. Overall it’s a combination of folk and rock that feels soulful to me in ways that modern country doesn’t. 

Every now and then I come across a song that resonates in a way that is hard to articulate. That’s what happened in 2008 when I first heard ‘The Story’ performed by Brandi Carlile.  As both her music has grown and as I’ve grown, my favorite Brandi Carlile song has shifted with time, but ‘The Story’ holds a place in my heart for being the first. This site is loosely named after a phrase from the song. 

Yes, I chose the web site name from a phrase in a song.  

I spent some time considering the choice, worrying that it would seem cliche or cringe-worthy.  And then I spent some time unpacking why I internalized this concept that musical inspiration was hokey (that’s possibly another post entirely).  

It wasn’t until this past month when I listened to her audiobook, Broken Horses, that I realized ‘The Story’ was actually written by bandmate Phil Hanseroth2. While Brandi Carlile may not have written the lyrics for ‘The Story’, her voice is the one to tell it. And no one is an island, etc. etc. 

One industry insider 3 put it like this: “Brandi, Tim and Phil have the natural ability to put into words the emotions we all feel, but find difficult to articulate. Their writing and Brandi’s music and voice are intimate and raw. Their talents will stand the test of time…”

I agree.

In addition to heartfelt and cathartic music, Brandi Carlile has used her voice to raise awareness for humanitarian efforts, like War Child International and actively works to elevate women in the music industry. 

She’s also a fan (and a friend) of Dolly Parton, and listening to them sing together just makes my heart glad.

  1. rollingstone.com (I acknowledge that, like other areas of the entertainment industry, the genre has had issues with diversity and representation)
  2. secondhandsongs.com (Phil Hanseroth)
  3. variety.com (Troy Tomlinson, chairman and CEO of UMPG Nashville)


    Like most stories about women, mine is greatly inspired by my mother. Born in Virginia, she was raised in rural Massachusetts and lived in several states across the midwest before settling in Baltimore, Maryland. Among other things, she has been a teacher, a margarita drinker, a job coach, and a song writer. Years ago, she wrote a poem for me called ‘Legacy’ and it still evokes emotion for me – each time I read it I feel loved.

    Mom teaching me to garden in Ashland, Nebraska. 1976
    For my daughter, Colleen
    You come from a long line of strong women,
    I know sometimes you feel overwhelmed in this living
    And the frantic pace of the world around you.
    There are times, I think, you want to hide yourself away
    And curse the talents you were given.
    Please, take time to reflect on the women who came before you:
    Melissa, the nurse who landed on the beach at Normandy
    And “carried away cargoes of pain”;
    Bertha, who gave up comforts and security
    To follow the man she loved into the mountains
    Harriet, who led a distinguished life of public service
    And still visited schoolchildren at the age of 100;
    Ellen, who went south to teach children of freed slaves
    And then went on to become a doctor in a frontier town;
    Mary, who carried her husband’s body in a buckboard
    For more than 300 miles so he would have a proper burial;
    Betsy, who died in an epidemic
    After taking care of all the sick members of her family.
    The list could go on…
    Oh, my daughter,
    While we carry our fathers’ names
    We carry our mothers’ hearts
    And their strong sense of fairness and determination.
    Even more, we are living proof that their love endured.
    A love sometimes brought forth
    From great sacrifices and sorrows.
    You come from a long line of strong women.
    Do not turn your back on them,
    For their stories cry out to be remembered and honored.
    You are their gift to this time and place.
    Let yourself be nurtured by their spirit 
    And go forth every day, knowing that you too
    Were born to be strong.
    Barbara T. Swanson
    May, 2000

    Aunt Melissa

    The internet is full of memes about the ‘cool aunt’ and the ‘crazy aunt’, but what if it were the same person? To this day I am both a little intimidated and a little in awe of my Aunt Melissa.

    Aunt Melissa is my grandmother’s older sister. When I was a child, she lived with her mother on the old farm in Cornwall. When we went back east to visit Mom’s family, we’d often take a day trip there for lunch. Aunt Melissa’s lunches were memorable. Some dishes I recall are tomato aspic and sugar-free pie – she’d often try to experiment and wasn’t always successful. I remember my mom being horrified once when I spit something back onto my plate. I think I was 5 or 6 years old.

    My great-grandmother would slip my father money and tell him to stop at the hamburger joint (aka. McDonald’s) when we left. 

    She’d have the wonderful stories as we’d walk around the place, telling me tales about my grandmother. They’d grown up on that farm and the entire family lived there through the Depression. Neighbors worked the land by the time I was around, but some the old outbuildings were mostly still there. I remember once we buried Greek worry beads under running water at the fresh water spring, although I don’t remember why. 

    Her brother died in WW2. She didn’t talk about the war much. 

    Aunt Melissa and Uncle Ernest, April 1918

    She died April 12, 1991. We lost my grandfather that spring, too.  It was a sad time for all of us – especially my grandmother.

    After Aunt Melissa died, I was given some of her household items. I would be moving out on my own soon and it seemed that no one else in the family needed a hand mixer or a baking pan. I still have that hand mixer – it’s a Westinghouse and is older than I am.  I’m tempted to utter the phrase “they built things to last back then” which is how I know that I’m related to…well, everyone I’m related to… but especially Aunt Melissa. 

    Thirty years later, my family still talks about her. We tell the same stories over and over again – the one about her shooting a raccoon, the one about her cooking, the one about her service in WWII.   

    Aunt Melissa, “in service” was written on the back, location unknown

    This past year, I’ve had more family memorabilia make its way to me – including letters and records Aunt Melissa kept from her time during the war. Some I had seen before, some I had not. This is the initial spark that inspired this project I’m doing here. Her story was nearly lost.  

    Aunt Melissa, late 1950’s/early 1960’s

    She didn’t marry. She didn’t have children of her own. Too long we have been mislead in thinking those where the keys to women being remembered when they’re gone. How many obituaries still note women in relation to others – “a loving wife” or “a caring mother” – instead of a life review based on their own accomplishments. Compare how men’s lives are remembered and you’ll see what I’m talking about. With or without a spouse or children, Aunt Melissa’s life was important. 

    I am well aware that this resonates with me as I have also chosen not to marry, not to have children. And I will repeat that – because this is important to point out – I chose. I do not regret my choice. Did Aunt Melissa choose? It’s hard to tell. Some family members think she had a sweetheart in the war.  Maybe in all the letters, I’ll find some clues. Maybe it’ll remain a mystery. Maybe it wasn’t the point of her life.   

    Me standing behind Aunt Melissa on my grandmother’s porch, June 1984

    Welcome to linesacrossmyface

    Have you ever had an idea for a project sort of snowball on you?  The kind of project that starts out as replacing a fixture in a bathroom and ends up with a complete remodel.

    How does it get from simple to complex? What do you do when you’ve already carved a hole out of the wall for a different set of upgrades all together? How do you wrestle your new space and all your ideas into something manageable? It can feel as overwhelming as herding cats.

    That’s the sort of story behind this blog. 

    Herding cats in Grandma’s backyard, summer 1978

    The very first idea for the project was simple. I was going to gather up material about a female relative who served in WWII, digitize it – take pictures of old newspaper articles, transcribe letters, etc. – and share with other family members.  The rest is a series of ‘then’s’. 

    • Then there was more material available than expected, enough to fill a book (which felt overwhelming).
    • Then I ran across a poem written by my mother and stories of other women were brought up.
    • Then I thought of all the stories about women who aren’t related to me that could be told – women who inspire, who forge new paths, who lead quiet lives of courage. 
    • Then there’s all the fictional stories about women that help shape how our society thinks of women.
    • Then, then, then…

    So here I am, hoping this blog becomes the manageable.  

    My goal is to start with a variety of posts that cover the broad themes I touched on above. The common thread will be that they are about women. So often our narratives are framed by the patriarchal nature of our society, and I’m thankful that has begun to change.  Does the internet need another blog about women’s stories?  I’m not sure about the internet, but I wanted a space to share. 

    Looking to the future, my goal for this blog is to continue to share stories about women I find interesting. And, if this space resonates with others, perhaps it could become a place for others to share as well. 

    For more on the genesis of this project, please see the tag blog inspirations