On To Victory: Alene Moris

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You could be forgiven if, seeing Alene Moris for the first time, especially at something like the Icelandic National League annual conference, if you dismissed her as another little old lady who spent her life making ponokokur. We’re all entitled to mistakes. Even doozies like this one.

Alene Moris was the hit of the conference. The title to her talk, “Women in Iceland are Unusual and Happy” seemed motherly. Wrong again.

Alene Moris had the crowd so revved up by the end of her talk that I thought the audience was going to jump out of their seats and march through Seattle in support of women’s rights. What a speaker!

The theme of the conference was “There’s No Place Like Heima (home)”. Could have been a maudlin look back at earlier times. It looked back all right but it was anything but maudlin.

When she said that she babysat Tommy Douglas’s children when she was young, Canadian listeners knew this wasn’t going to be a mom in the kitchen making apple pie speech. The reference, I expect, went over the heads of the American part of the audience.

“Home”, she started off saying, is loaded with mixed emotions. And, going back to the settlement of Iceland, she didn’t rah rah those Viking men but rather looked at the fact that the majority of women were Irish/Scots slaves. She pointed out they were taken by force from their families and communities, must have been incredibly lonely, had no choice about having sex, and were pregnant and had to raise children without the normal family and community support. Their masters, maybe husbands, went away for long periods of time and the women had to survive and see that their children survived.

Throughout her speech, she compared women’s situation in Iceland, historically, and I the present, with the situation of women in the United States.

In Iceland there is a much better safety net and when you say safety net, you’re talking about women. It’s women and children who dis-proportionality need a safety net. Women often earn minimum wage. There has been an orchestrated attack on women’s freedom and rights. A major problem is that women in the USA don’t stick together. In Iceland a one day strike brought widespread support. IN the 1975 million women march, only one woman out of 150 came out.

Two years ago, Iceland was chosen as the best place for women. In the USA there is a large pay difference. There is widespread domestic violence. IN 12 years, 12,000 women were killed by male partners.
In Iceland women seldom respond with anger but with a pragmatic insistence that there be justice for everyone.

A striking image she presented was that women don’t want half of a bad pie. They want a pie that is worth sharing.

She praised Iceland’s response to the kreppa and said that the USA needs to find the courage to do the same.

According to her, women need to be in positions of power because they value independent thinking instead of group thinking. They want to treat all people well. Most women think in terms of a circle and community.

She inspired many with her speech and there was much more to it than I can include. Her mother was born and raised in Mountain, ND. Her father was a Norwegian from Minnesota. Alene majored in music and married a Lutheran minister. Now of these things, outside of long conversations with Tommy Douglas about universal health care, would seem to be the makings of someone dedicated to social justice.

She and her husband went to Borneo in 1965-69. She sent for three books and reading them created an epiphany for her. She learned that all the war decisions about Vietnam had been made by men. There was no woman there to ask why do we need to win? Why are we in Asia?

It’s not, she says, that women are more virtuous than men. It is just that they see things differently. Think back to those first comments about Vikings and the women they kidnapped to take to Iceland. Their view of what was happening had to be radically different.

She said something that for me was profound. She heard it at the Women As A Resource For A Changing World. The speaker said “Power comes to those who know and know they know.” She then gave a historical list of all those who those who know and know they know. Except, of course, that doesn’t mean they are right. But they do get to impose their will on the rest of society.

Toward the end, she said “Icelandic women show up.” American women, don’t.

Her speech was so packed with information that even though I took notes as quickly as possible, I could only get down a small part of what she shared with the audience. Anyone who wants to hear her whole speech, and I would hope that every woman who hears about it, will log in and listen, can go to the Icelandic National League website. If her speech is not already up, it will be, soon.

The Women in My Life

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They were always there. They were there before I was born. They were there after I was born. They were part of my world as much as the sun, the moon and the stars.

My mother was seventeen when I was born. She wrapped me up warmly and took me to watch the King and Queen ride down Portage Avenue. I don’t remember it. I expect I was asleep. I know I was there because a few years ago as she was sorting out her belongings before going to Betel, she showed me a newspaper and the front page story was about the King and Queen’s visit. She said, “You were there with me.”

We stayed at my grandparent’s house for a few days.  My grandmother was small boned, always busy, always looking out for my best interests. I expect that started the first time she saw me. I’m sure she held her hands to her cheeks and in her thick lrish accent said, “What a beautiful baby.” I’m sure she was afraid because both her sons had died when they were small children. Died of birth defects that today would have been prevented with diet and what is now minor medical treatment.

My grandmother, brave soul that she was, packed up her belongings in Ireland and, by herself, took a ship to Canada to marry my Irish grandfather. How brave she was. How typical of all the women who risked everything for a better life. Irish, Icelandic, English, Scottish, Welsh, Ukrainian, Swedish, Norwegian, German, an endless list of women who risked facing the unknown for a better life for the children they had or hoped to have.

She loved me as only a grandmother can love. With no reservations. She helped me learn to read, knitted clothes, sewed, kept me at her place on holidays and took me to places only the city could provide, art galleries and museums, places like Assiniboine Park, later, found me a summer job, let me stay with her when I went to university.

In Gimli, when my mother took me there to join my father, there was my step grandmother, Catherine. Widowed and left with four children, a house but no money, she was resourceful, uncomplaining, grew a garden, found part time work, cooked for restaurants, took in boarders, and loved us all. She raised, under the most difficult circumstances, a family that did well in life, didn’t just survive but prospered. And under the umbrella she created, there was room for many others and one of those was me.

My mother. What can one say about a girl who became a mother in 1939? World War II had just begun. Life was fractured. Soon there would be shortages. She was an inventive cook and baker, creating dainties from white bread dipped in chocolate and rolled in shredded coconut. This city girl plucked and cleaned ducks. She managed my father and me and my brother when he came along four years after me. Like her mother, she knitted and sewed and quilted. Quilting frames sat over the dining room table for weeks as she and her friends and relatives gathered to make each other quilts.

How many meals did she make? How many clothes did she wash? How many dishes? We should calculate it and then pile them all up in one place so we can say, “My mother did this?”

However, she did more. When my father asked her to take care of the credit union’s books, she agreed to do for two weeks. Twenty years later, she retired. Her story astounds me still. She had grade ten. She had no training in bookkeeping. She had to learn everything on the job. At first, she went to annual general meetings, she was the only woman there. There are things I often tell people such as, she never hired a man. There were opportunities for men. Hardly any for women. She believed in women helping women.

There was no prouder day in her life when a young professional woman came up to her and said, “Rae, you inspired me.”

 

There were, though, other women, if not so intimately in my life, still in my experience and my mind. Think small town Manitoba between 1940 and 1970. Travel is still difficult. There is little money. Prejudices and rigidity prevail. Yet, there are women like Lara Tergesen. My mother told me that Tergesen’s store, now so famous, would have ceased to exist if Lara hadn’t doggedly gone to keep the store open in hard times. Or Gwen Geirholm who ran Geirholm’s Hardware Store while her husband travelled about putting in tin ware and furnaces and myriad other tasks that needed to be done. Or my great aunt, Violet Einarson, becoming a real estate agent when real estate agents were men. It was known that God had ordained men to be real estate agents. Violet wasn’t all that impressed by ordinations. She had her own real estate business and insurance business.

I think that my experience in Gimli, watching these strong, independent, determined women was why, when I was offered a teaching position at a private women’s college in the United States, I had no hesitation in accepting the position. It seemed quite natural that I should work to help young women get ahead.

There were others. However, these were the ones in my firmament, the ones whose path I saw. They often lived with tragedy and grim determination. They made do. They made a life for their families. There are thousands, tens of thousands of women who were like them. They never got any medals. Medals are a men’s thing given by men to men. They are often deserved. But they ignore the women who made those triumphs possible.

On International Women’s Day, and on other days, often at night when all is quiet, I think about these women and others, and say thanks. Thanks. Thanks. Not just for me personally but for me and for the friends I grew up with and for the community.

Thanks.