World War II served as a social blender bringing together people from towns and communities into urban life. The mid to late 30’s for most people was a recovery from the depression. Communities, oriented around churches and ethnic communities were the source of support for young people who were beginning their lives fresh out of high school. The growing concern for what was happening in Europe with Germany was a problem for England predominantly but it was a growing concern that our country would be at war again.
For the Irish Catholic community of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings,-most had made their way from Ireland and found jobs and homes. Those who had the jobs and homes most often had a series of relatives who stayed with my family. We had cousin Alan who smoked his pipe, read the paper, and was a fixture in the big brown chair always in my grandmother’s living room. When we visited the cousins, they had Aunt Mary who never married, who helped her mother in the kitchen and went to Boston to get the produce for the family dinner. A couple of generations shared the homes as they brought family members over from Ireland. My grandfather first moved in with his sister in Chicago fresh from Ireland when he was 16, then came to Lynn to live with his brother John who worked for General Electric.
Grammy and my mother’s mother Kathleen came over on the same boat from Galway Bay where they knew each other, and they ended up working together at the Hitchcock House. Grammy married Hugh Clancy and they settled in Lynn, Massachusetts where he worked for General Electric which was kind of the IBM of it’s time.
Many people worked for GE, and it was the center of life in Lynn, Massachusetts, where people got a foothold into good jobs, and it was right before World War II when young men were being drafted into service. GE gave a statewide exam to all graduating high school students, and recruited those with the highest test scores. My mother, Margaret took the exam and scored so well, she was offered a training internship job. There were less than 4% working women before World War II, so General Electric was breaking a trend in hiring my mother and the other girl among the boys right out of high school. Trouble was, Margaret lived in Worchester, and General Electric was in Lynn. A plan came about between the two women who came from Ireland together, Margaret’s mother Kathleen and Grammy. The two families-Clancy’s and Flynn’s came up with a plan to have Margaret stay with my grandmother Sarah and Hugh Clancy and their children Joe and Mary during the week so she could go to work for General Electric. Margaret could return home to Worchester and the Flynn home for the weekends.
Margaret, 19, with her flaming red hair, impish personality and now, with the recognition working for GE presented, was in a brand new situation for a girl. Girls didn’t leave their homes till they were married, and though she had a boyfriend, Bill-they had not started with the priests for the six months canon required to enter into the sacrament of marriage.
There was immediate strong reaction from my dad, Sarah’s son Joe, 19 and daughter Mary, 16 and it was not favorable. “She acts all high and mighty,” Mary said to her mother in a loud whisper in the kitchen. Joe teased Margaret in such a way as to have her feel like he really disliked her. Still she came on to Lynn and Grammy’s house and went home on weekends to Worchester to be with her own family, and see her friends.
MORE TO COME: World War II enters everyone’s lives.
Everyone walked to work or took the trolley and soon Margaret found her route to her job and began her work there. The day began early for Hugh Clancy who also worked at GE and before dawn, he and Margaret walked together to the trolley blocks away to get to work. The tasks presented for her she managed well, but coming home after work was something she came to dread. She was always glad when Friday came because she would be on her way to Worchester returning Sunday night. She dreaded coming home after work whenever Joe was there, but as long as Grammy was there he toned it down considerably. Margaret found ways to stay at work as long as she could on Tuesday after work because Grammy would be away on Tuesday early evening at mass every week. Margaret came home on a Wednesday night and went to her room hearing the familiar sounds in the kitchen that Grammy made when she made dinner for the family. Radio on, pot boiling. Often Grammy would have dinner late so that when Grampy got home from GE by way of the pub, dinner was waiting.
When there was a knock on her door, Margaret opened the door wide expecting Grammy, but suddenly confronted Joe. His comment to her had her feel the sense of dread that had been there since her first night in the house, but she tried to brush it off expecting that to have him go away. Instead he pushed himself in and closed the door behind him. The small bed and dresser in the small room was where she landed from his shove. Because the room was chilly, she hadn’t even taken her coat off from coming in. Joe pushed aside her coat as she felt his weight on her body. The urge to scream was there which she resisted, instead she said in a loud voice for him to get up and get out of her room. She spoke in a manner that Sarah would surely hear from the kitchen. Surprised that Joe was not moved by her shout, she looked at his angry eyes. Then she knew. She knew that Grammy was not in the house after all, that Grampy was not in the house and not even Mary home from high school. With one hand now over her mouth, Joe fiercely pulled at her underwear and pressed roughly her arms down as she pushed at him. She had fought with her brothers growing up, she knew what it was like to fight with her fists and arms, but it was the punch across the jaw that stunned her and had her feel the cold chill of the situation she was in. She began to cry. This did nothing but make him madder and he pressed him self into her as she sobbed. He left the room then without saying anything just leaving her as she cried. She later heard Grammy come in with Hugh, explaining to him that she had been called away to her sister’s who they took to the hospital. The smell of the pots now scorching on the stove had both Grammy and Hugh upset, and they made nothing of Margaret not coming out of her room that night.
Margaret got up the next morning, got to her job and hoped the bad dream would be just that. She spoke to no one of it but was now openly afraid to be alone in the house. Even with her family or her boyfriend Bill, she mentioned nothing about the incident. In confession Saturday night with her sisters, she gave an act of contrition and spoke of what happened to the priest. She and her sisters every Saturday night came together for confession with the priests. His dark profile in the confessional booth gave no indication of a response. He spoke to her about the “occasion of sin” – how she might have avoided the incident. Gave her three Hail Mary’s and one Our Father as penance and slammed the confession door shut as he opened the one on the other side to the next confessor.
When weeks later, she was sure she had missed her period, she resisted knowing that that incident had anything to do with that. She went to her mother who took her to the doctor, and then the family came down hard on her. The thinking of the day was that girls needed to be above doubt, above circumstances that could lead to pregnancy, and so she was condemned from the first knowledge the family had of this pregnancy.
The Flynn family then went to the Clancy family and Hugh Clancy gave a beating to his son Joe. His fists were of frequent use in the bars and at home to deal with conflict in the Irish community. Joe had prior to this time had only one beating more severe from his father, and that was when he began to hang out with Pilino, his Italian friend: Italians and Irish did not hang out was the message of that beating. This beating was about the need for my father to marry my mother. They were both taken to the priests with tear stained swollen faces and married because my mother was pregnant with me. That was 1940.
My parents spent one weekend together after the marriage, and my mother left and went home with her parents after Joe beat her. She had lost her job, lost her boyfriend but had her family to rely on through her pregnancy and birth. After I was born, she went to work and got her own place, and I stayed with the neighbor next door when she was at work. One day when I was 3 1/2, Joe came to where I was and took me to my grandmother’s. I had never seen him before. He had the court’s approval because my mother had a man living with her, the court considered a woman living with a man and not married as an “unfit mother.” It made the newspapers in Lynn.
My father had come to get a divorce, having gone AWOL from the Navy and in 7 days, had found out where Margaret lived. There had been no contact with Margaret since the weekend after their marriage, nor between the Clancy and Flynn families. Joe had married a woman from South Carolina, also in the Navy, both stationed in Virginia. They were expecting a baby. He needed to get a divorce from Margaret or face being discovered as a bigamist so he had come home to take care of that. That had been the source of the urgency and desperate measures in going AWOL. So in 1944, he took me from the neighbor’s house, and in 1946, I joined his new wife and baby in South Carolina where Dad was a student at Clemson College through his VA loan.
I never saw my mother again, and when as an adult I ventured into learning what happened to her, her sister said she never recovered from the loss of that part of her life, and died in 1958.
The story of Margaret and Joe during World War II was not uncommon. There are many variations on this story all indicating that women then in Massachusetts and in areas in this country as well as in many places in the world today are victims to sexual violence and punished for their sexuality. Powerless to determine their own fate and a victim to their sexual roles. The rules of society that adhere to the conviction of women in many places in the world where bride burning, stoning and abuse are the extreme, but they occur and are sanctioned by societies today. The lives of women due to social constraints that limit their choices are just a short while ago of 49 years with the availability of birth control.
Most alarm goes to the fact that today, members of congress are supporting state legislate to reduce the power of women to choose. 40 states in our country today are currently attempting to limit, diminish or outlaw Roe VS Wade, and even the use of birth control.
We are making headway with legal consequence to support women here in this country, recently sexual abuse of women in the military has been recognized, but that can’t be said for many, many other countries. What the story of Margaret and Joe contributes is that there are many violent and non violent stories of people who experience limited and constrained by social rules and expectation prior to 1964 and Roe VS Wade. What we see, and why this story seems relevant to the progress of women is the distance we have come in the past few decades, the groundwork that has developed in fairly recent times that must be maintained.
All the characters in this story experienced little choice and all did what they considered to make the right response the situations they encountered. The advance to equality and status of dignity afforded to all women, all people is our challenge, worth advancing on many levels here and throughout the world.