Go to any woman-focused website or influencer’s social media platform and you’ll be bombarded with features praising the achievements of exceptional trailblazers and giving a hearty “Yaaaaas, Queen!” to the #girlbosses of today. (I hate that hashtag, by the way.) Those women deserve every bit of shine, but we’re long overdue to honor the women who truly make the world go round. They do the kind of work that never leads to a 40 under 40 listing or a prized keynote speaker role at a prestigious conference. Many of them don’t have traditional jobs at all.
With the Covid-19 pandemic stripping down economies to only “essential” businesses, we’re starting to wake up to the reality of who really runs shit, and it ain’t the Instagram darlings. The grocery store clerks, laundry workers, cleaning staff, and the like are the so-called low-skilled people barely staying afloat on reduced or minimum wages. Yet, they are the real heroes here and many of them are women of color.
These otherwise invisible working-class poor are quickly becoming visible due to the pandemic, but I’ve been enamored of the everyday woman for quite some time. One in particular is in my family.
I “met” my great-great-grandmother Sarah Stewart via her Civil War veteran husband’s pension file in the National Archives. I sought out the records to learn more about him, but 100 pages into the research I found myself completely enamored with his wife instead.
Sarah, born a free Black child around 1858 in Terre Haute, Indiana, married a man 25 years her senior. They eventually settled in Sterling, Kansas where she gave birth to 12 children. (Not all of them survived to adulthood.) She also helped with the four kids her husband had with his deceased first wife. Sarah’s occupation, per the United States Census records in the late 1800s, was listed as “keeping house.” I imagine maintaining a household with such a large brood was no easy feat.
Sarah became a washerwoman to make ends meet and began the process…