In my last years as a single woman, I lived in a smallish, conservative Western Colorado town, where I made friends with the fiercest liberal feminist I’ve ever known. She drove a sports car, wrote an unflinching weekly newspaper column, and loved basketball.
Her name was Henrietta Hay. She was 83 years old. I was 26. And she was one of my best friends.
Her personal hero is Hillary Clinton. She’s been compared often to the late Molly Ivins and Mother Jones. All of the usual words were applied to Henrietta. Firebrand. Pioneer. Trailblazer. And, famously, “bitch.” She wrote a whole column once about reclaiming that word and turning it from an insult to a badge of honor.
She was only 80 then, I think. Last month, she celebrated her 99th birthday.
I’m sad to say that I lost touch with Henri after I left Colorado and got married. I still remember the day we sat down to one of our many lunches at Gladstone’s restaurant in Grand Junction and I told her I was engaged. I was, naturally, thrilled with my news, but Henri was cautiously congratulatory. She’d been divorced in the 1950s, with children, when it was especially rare, especially in small towns. I could tell what she was thinking as she studied my face across the table: is this really what you want?
As it turned out, yes. But thanks to women like Henrietta in my life, I never had a conventional image of what marriage would be like. I never considered myself as anything less than an equal partner in it, and I made sure to say yes to someone who treated me that way.
Henrietta blew the doors off of anyone’s perception of what an old woman should be like – well, any woman. And I don’t think it matters if you’re a hardcore conservative. You’ve got to respect someone with her kind of confidence to speak her mind, even when she was in the minority. She felt she had been treated as a second-class citizen for most of her youth. She was done with acting like it was right.
In 1930, she graduated from the University of Colorado with an economics degree, but without a varsity letter, despite her athletic achievements in tennis, field hockey, softball and basketball. They just didn’t give letters to women. She finally got her big yellow “C” in 2002 (see it here at the bottom of the page).
Henri eventually became a librarian, and then, at the age of 75, she was offered the weekly column slot at the Daily Sentinel newspaper in Grand Junction. She was giddy about it. “Finally, at the age of 75, I did the one thing I had always wanted to do,” she told the paper 20 years later.
In 2004, she wrote a piece for High Country News about turning 90, and about why she became a feminist, and an activist one at that. “I fought for economic self-sufficiency for women, believing that if women have a strong economic base to operate from, all else is possible.
“The work has given me energy and drive I never knew I had. When I became a feminist it was all the way. That included having fun. Otherwise, why would I fly a plane at age 59 or start riding a motorcycle around town?”
Women of my generation don’t think twice about doing those things, and it’s because women Henrietta’s age did them first. Consider that, when she was born, women could not yet vote. When I met her, I was a newspaper reporter, at a time when journalism could still be a boys’ club. I had to fight for respect from the cops I covered, who liked to try and keep me in my place my talking about my boobs. (Didn’t work.) It was the 1990s, and I was also getting more and more interested in this new Internet thing. I knew it was going to change everything about my job (boy, did it ever), and I wanted to be in on the ground floor. But back then, people still thought of the Internet as “a computer thing,” and computers weren’t a “girl thing.” I think it’s clear I didn’t pay attention to that, either.
I think every young woman should have a Henrietta in her life – a woman who has broken trail, personally or globally, who can inspire and mentor you in those untethered years when you’re looking for the next place to plant your feet. My 20s were a rocky time, and I was prone to impulsive choices, thinking that I was empowered because I was on my own. And then when those choices made me unhappy, I couldn’t understand why. That was usually my cue to email Henri: “Coffee?” We would scoot together around a little coffeehouse table and talk about local news, national politics, and personal history. And I would feel my feet touching down to earth again.
Who has been the Henrietta in your life? Tell us in the comments.
Co-Editor, Kansas Women Bloggers