Susan Cox: Looking at the old days with gratitude

I read a wide variety of books, but one of my favorite genres is historical fiction. Recently I’ve been enjoying several series that take place in the early 1900s. Noticing the contrast between life now and 100 years ago has made me grateful — in particular, the way women are treated in these books has helped me see how far our society has come. As I share a few things I’ve come to appreciate, I challenge you to consider the opportunities you enjoy.

Several of the female characters feel pressure from their families to get married. These women value their independence and being able to support themselves. They don’t want to have to give up their jobs or other interests if they get married, which is what would have been expected of them. This reminds me of my maternal grandparents. They eloped in 1931 and kept their marriage a secret until my grandma finished her nursing classes nine months later. Otherwise, my grandma would not have been allowed to complete her studies. I’m grateful getting married doesn’t prevent me from working or taking classes and that society is more accepting of single women.

Women have many more job opportunities now too. In one story the main character becomes the first female sheriff’s deputy in her state; in another a woman becomes her county’s first female treasurer. I’m thankful for all the women who have been the first in so many jobs, opening the way and inspiring other women to hold those and other jobs.

In all these books the women generally wear dresses. Wearing pants was not the norm and was often viewed as unladylike and not appropriate in public. I like to wear dresses, but I’m glad I’m not expected to wear them every day and I can’t imagine trying to chase a criminal in a long skirt as one of the characters must.

Depending on the time period of the book, only some households have telephones and most communication is written. In one series most of the telephones are party lines enabling neighbors and the switchboard operators to listen to your conversations. Additionally, making a long distance call involves multiple connections that don’t always go through. I’m grateful I can easily make private phone calls both locally and long distance and that I don’t have to rely solely on letters or telegrams to communicate with others.

Transportation methods have also changed dramatically over the past 100 years. In the earliest of these books, set in 1915, some people have cars and others still use horses and wagons/buggies. Mixing the two on the roads often presents challenges. In the other books, set in the 1920s and ’30s, more people have cars, but many people walk. In all these books, the characters use trains to go longer distances. I appreciate the freedom and flexibility having my own car gives me, and I’m glad I don’t have to worry about horse-drawn vehicles when I’m driving. However, more public transportation options could be nice.

One thing I noticed in these books that hasn’t really changed is how friends, family, and communities work together to help each other. One series takes place during the Great Depression and the local gardening club plants a large vegetable garden so they can share their produce with the community. I am thankful for my friends and family and the support they give me. I’m also glad our community works together to make Columbus a better place. For example, several years ago when drug addiction problems began to grow, leaders developed the Alliance for Substance Abuse Progress (ASAP) to coordinate resources for prevention, treatment, and recovery and make them more readily available. Now, Columbus ASAP officials are helping neighboring Jackson and Jennings counties to develop their own programs.

Thanksgiving is approaching and I’m looking forward to curling up with a slice of pumpkin pie, another historical fiction novel, and a healthy dose of gratitude for modern life. I encourage you to do the same.

Susan Cox is one of The Republic’s community columnists, and all opinions expressed are those of the writer. She is an avid reader, an outdoor enthusiast, a mother, a grandmother, and an adjunct instructor of English at IUPUC. She can be reached at [email protected]