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Great Women in my Life

by Hazel Wolf


Lecture delivered to students and friends of Hazel Wolf High School on the opening day of school, September 7, 1999.

When I was invited to speak to you I was assured that you would be interested in some personal experiences and about people or incidents that affected my life. I am glad to see so many young women here because women are my favorite people, even though admitting that some of my best friends are men ­ not that I want my sister to marry any of them.

Seriously, I do think women are better people in general. It may be innate, or it may be that they are brought up to be caring and peaceful. In any event, it is largely women who have influenced me. I am not thinking of great women such as Florence Nightingale, or Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Borgia or Rachel Carson. I want to tell you of little great women in my little life who have influenced my thinking, believing this might have some relevance and would be helpful to you.

Because of having lived some 101 years, it seems reasonable that I should be able to say something that would help you solve most, if not all, of your personal problems. The trouble with this is that no doubt many of my own mistakes are still looming ahead of me, and I am still trying to repair the damage of those that lie behind me. So I have had to give up this approach and, instead, I will turn to these great women. After all something must have made it possible for me to have survived all these years with a feeling of security and with my sense of humor all in one piece.

Of course, some persons must have affected me adversely, but I hold them in the contempt they deserve by having forgotten what they did, or even who they were.

So, I'll get on with recalling some who really did influence me as a child and as a young woman. I will start at the beginning, with the day I was born, which was in March of 1898 in Victoria, B.C. during the reign of Queen Victoria. I think maybe Thomas Jefferson was president, but I didn't look it up. Those were the days of no automobiles, no electric lights, no dripdry clothes, no computers or e-mail, no sliced bread, no split atoms or split infinitives, and no one had ever heard of cholesterol or vitamins. And, of course, no fax machines, disposable diapers or ozone depletion, or warming global climate.

Maybe as Charles Dickens said, "It is the best of times and the worst of times." Morals were different, too. Shakespeare said in King Lear about women: "Her voice was low and sweet, an excellent thing in woman," which freely translated means: keep your big mouth shut. And Kipling said "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke." He couldn't get away with that now. In those days it was deemed correct for women to flutter their eyelashes and have very small feet, unless, of course, they were factory or field workers.

Well, to get back to the day of my birth. My mother was the first woman to influence me, of course. Because of the early death of my father, she was left with three children to support. She had little education and she worked hard in factories or wherever she could eke out a living. She was a great woman who found time and was never too tired to play games with us after dinner. I never knew until many years later that we were extremely poor. There was no TV to show me otherwise. I suppose I thought everybody had the same lifestyle as I had, since I never strayed far from my neighborhood. In any event, because of the loving care of my mother, I felt secure and loved.

Another woman influenced me in a substantial way. I have forgotten her name, nor do I remember what she looked like. We were picking blackberries together when a monster of a spider appeared on the bush. I drew back and said "Ugh, look at that ugly spider." She replied very reasonably: "Now, I wouldn't say that because among spiders he might be considered a most handsome fellow." I took another look from this perspective and felt an instant liking and feeling of respect for this beautiful creature which endures to this day, and has extended to all creatures, both great and small, including rats. Although they have stringy tails, unlike most rodents such as squirrels, they do have cute ears ­ haven't you noticed?

Then there was the problem of my personal beauty. I was about five yeas old, maybe six, when I wondered if I were pretty. All little girls get to the age when that begins to seem important. I didn't know then, as I do now, that we gather friendships on how we treat people and not on how we look.

Anyway, I settled that question early by way of a cousin, Lois. She was fifteen years older than I and I adored her. One day I asked her: "Am I pretty?" She looked at me appraisingly, then said approvingly: "Hazel, you look very, very intelligent." That settled it for me. I never wanted to be pretty, just wanted to look intelligent. That's a load off any little girl's mind, and it was off mine for life. And I know I still look intelligent, even if you don't think so, because my cousin, Lois, said I did some 95 years ago.

Such casual incidents often affect one's thinking for life.

I have wondered if I changed the thinking of my granddaughter, Ann, when she was about five years old. She grew up in family and neighborhood of boys. It was along about that time she began to see that she was not altogether accepted by this bunch of young machos. As I was tucking her in bed one night she said: "I am going to turn into a boy." Oh, oh, I thought, she has run into it. My reply went something like this: "Please, oh please, Ann, don't turn into a boy. We have nothing but stinky boys in this place; you are our only wonderful little girl. Won't you promise me not to turn into a boy?" She solemnly promised.

And she never did.

She may not remember the incident, nevertheless, it very well could have changed her feeling about her worth as a female.

Another woman who influenced my life was Mrs. McAllister. We didn't use first names much at that time. With very little education I started to earn a living at the age of sixteen in a law office after a six months' business course in shorthand and typewriting. Secretaries didn't have to have PhDs to work in law offices in those days. By the way, shorthand is an extinct art now.

I was paid $25.00 a month, out of which I paid my mother $15.00 for board and made a $5.00 monthly payment on a bicycle. The rest went for candy, I think. I didn't need to worry about clothes, since I already had a bathing suit. This suit had elbow-length sleeves, a high neck, long cotton stockings, cloth slippers and a knee-length skirt. Very modest and very depressing.

If I were asked what was the greatest change I have noticed since I was a child, I would definitely say "swimsuits".

Referring back to my first job and Mrs. McAllister, at the end of two years I still couldn't spell. I felt incompetent and insecure and had a pretty low opinion of myself.

At this critical time, along came Mrs. McAllister. She was a supervisor, a person of importance and highly respected by a large office staff. One day she stopped by my desk and said: "I have noticed how cleverly you insert paper into your typewriter ­ so swiftly and efficiently. You have the makings of a real great secretary. Just keep on building on your natural skill."

What kindly impulse prompted this woman to see my need? Having spoken, she went her way with probably no idea what her words had done for me. I then realized for the first time that I was, indeed, in a learning process, and armed with the "natural skill" I could, indeed, become a competent secretary.

One other person greatly influenced my general disposition. It was my little daughter, Nydia. Do you ever shout at children? That's very rude, you know. Well, whenever I did, Nydia would say very softly: "Don't hodder at me, Mother." My sense of humor always broke through my frustration, as I returned to normal. But the lesson has remained and I try not to "hodder" at people, no matter how they annoy me. I don't think I would even holler at Senator Slade Gorton if I met him.

But don't count on it!

Irene Urquart is another great woman who influenced my life because it was Irene who insisted that I join the Seattle Audubon Society. I really didn't want to join that bunch of birdwatchers, but to get her off my back, I joined. Well, here I am, 35 years later, still the Society's secretary.

The last of the great women is a little brown bird. I know it was female because it looked so intelligent. I met her on my first field trip with Audubon. We were in Lincoln Park. All eyes fixed on this tiny bird, making its way up a large fir, eating little things, invisible to me, as it went. On reaching the first lateral branch it flew down to the bottom of the next tree, and started up, still picking away. It suddenly occurred to me: "This little bird works hard for a living, just as I do."

When I was told it never went down the tree, but always up, I thought: "This little bird has its special lifestyle ­ always up the tree, never down." I realized that I, too, had a special lifestyle as a human. I got up in the morning, ate breakfast, went to work, ate lunch, back to work and home again. This was my lifestyle. I never went to work at midnight, always in the morning. I found myself relating to this bird, the little brown creeper, and felt responsible for its protection. One of the most important of the missions of Audubon was the protection of birds and their habitat. So I became active with this bunch of birdwatchers.

When I first joined Audubon there were only two chapters in Washington state: in Spokane and in Seattle. There are now 26 chapters with probably 20,000 members in Washington and over half a million nationally.

As of now I am involved in the environmental movement largely through my membership in Audubon.

Before I discuss the issues of this organization I want to answer a question that has often been asked, and that is: how am I able to go on, year after year, fighting the Establishment for pure water laws, sustainable forest management, to ward off the use of chemicals in our food and the like, without suffering from burnout.

I believe the reason is that I leave the city turmoil from time to time to take a field trip with friends to do some bird observation. With all the things to see and observe, there is no room for worries, either personal or otherwise. The mind gets a change of direction and a complete rest.

I return refreshed and ready to go out after a polluting corporation, or the Exxon Oil Company, or whatever. Concern with nature's or other person's problems outside of one's self is a healing process. It works a sure cure for burnout.

I believe the Compassionate Buddha figured that out some 2500 years ago.

Also, the early Greeks commented on this need for contact with Mother Earth in the legend of Anaeus, the son of a human father and Gaia, the earth goddess. Every time his foot touched his Mother Earth he grew stronger and became invincible. However, the muscular Hercules, learning his secret, defeated him by holding him up high, separating him from his mother. There is a lesson for us in this Greek legend.

We who live in cities lead stressful lives and need to refresh ourselves by touching our mother earth from time to time. It is a healing process.

Nevertheless, I wouldn't live any place else than in a city. Because that's where the action is.

Many persons believe that God is the creator and the owner of the world. Native Americans share this belief. In fact, they go further and say that the land cannot be sold. Most of us believe that humans have the responsibility of stewardship rather than to conquer nature.

Modern science has yielded many benefits, but the industrial revolution has also resulted in air, water and land pollution; in the mismanagement of forests; the extinction of many species, and, above all, in the destruction of biodiversity. Good stewardship mandates that the biodiversity of nature be preserved.

I would like to talk a little about how many in the current Congress are carrying out this mandate of stewardship toward the world. This is something we are all interested in as it is bound to affect our lives.

Senior citizens are faced with deteriorating health care, should this Congress achieve its goal of cutting taxes at the expense of social services. Labor, too, is becoming concerned, as are educators, environmentalists, and the defenders of civil rights. In the face of this opposition it is most unlikely that this Congress will succeed in its attempt to wipe out the last twenty years of environmental laws and the gains of the New Deal enacted in the 1930s.

The Great Depression brought hardship and sorrow. However, the people gave President Roosevelt a powerful mandate through the unprecedented turnout of voters, as well as a Congress to support his reform program. This established the industrial injuries insurance, social securities and other welfare law.

Labor, the sleeping giant, is slowly but surely waking up after a clean sweep was made of the top compromising, do-nothing leaders.

A very hopeful sign for the future was shown in the result of the November 1998 elections when many good candidates were elected and some of the obvious rascals were voted out of office. I feel sure Labor played a crucial role in this election.

President Clinton, with his veto pen, also helped defeat laws passed by the 105th Congress.

In summation it is clear that voter-turnout at the next September 14th primary elections and the November 2nd finals is the key to success in making life much easier for all of us.

These are some of the things that the great women in my life have taught me.

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