Saturday, November 10, 2007

Profiles of Amazing Women: Minnie Lee Weakley


Minnie Lee Weakley has always been able to manage her own destiny - as well as the destinies of everyone who happened to be nearby. She was born on a small Georgia farm, one of 11 children. By all accounts, her Seminole father was a vain and difficult man who treated his sons rather badly and his daughters rather worse. Minnie Lee, like her brothers and sisters, worked the farm from the time she could walk, but when asked if she minded the hard work, she explains that the only part she remembers resenting as a child was de-worming the tobacco leaves. After the leaves were harvested, she and her sisters picked worms off the surfaces of the drying tobacco with arsenic-coated fingers. She tells me that the "...worms were five inches long and fatter than a man’s thumb. But they died when we threw them to the floor with our poisoned fingers." She explains that, to kill the worms, the children would coat their fingers in arsenic - killing the worms as they were pulled from the leaves. Of course, even as a child she realized that what was bad for the worms could not be good for the children, but it was not the arsenic that eventually prompted her to leave. It was the okra. “Okra is another cash crop,” she explains to me since I know nothing of either crops or cash. “And when I got older I had to help with the harvest. But those okra plants sting your skin wherever you touch them.” At age fifteen, Minnie Lee was fed up with stinging plants, arsenic fingers, and a father who ignored her insistence that the children see more benefits from their labor; she left the farm for good. She wasn’t a runaway, exactly, since she told her parents that she was leaving. When they asked where she would go, she says she responded “I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out on the way.”

She eventually found her way to the city of Augusta, where she became a Rosie Riveter. The United States had recently entered World War II, and women were taking the factory jobs traditionally held by men, making tanks and ammunition. “Those were some of the best days of my life,” she laughs. “The other girls and I lived together in a big dorm, and we ran things the way we wanted.” She explains that there were, in fact, very strict rules about how the women living in the dorms should behave, but she and her friends enjoyed finding ways of breaking them all. “Oh, we loved pulling pranks on our bosses,” she laughs. “Lights-out was supposed to be at 9:00 each night, but we sneaked out as often as we liked. And we never sneaked back in without pulling a prank – and we never got caught!”

After the war, there was a massive media campaign to bring women back into the home and to convince women like Minnie Lee, young and newly married, that working to help support the family was unfeminine. Of course, Minnie Lee did not see staying at home as a viable option; she had the ability to earn money and money was what her family most needed. There have always been at least two feminisms – one for wealthy women and one for working women. Although Minnie Lee’s fair skin and dark hair might have made her look a bit like Mary Tylor Moore, women’s rights weren’t something for which she consciously campaigned; yet neither was she content to let her family suffer a decrease in income so that she could conform to the highly promoted image of the good (stay-at-home) wife and mother. Minnie Lee continued to work factory jobs, and she continued to demand respect from her now mainly male coworkers. She meant for her children to have good educational opportunities, and they did.

Minnie Lee does not see her life as having been anything extraordinary. She reminds me that many women of her generation left their childhood homes, came to the cities, worked in factories during the war, and stayed in the workplace afterward. When she talks of leaving her father’s farm to make a different life elsewhere, she simply says, “I was not a country girl, even though I was born there. I felt at home when I came to the city.” Yet, although she might not realize it herself, her decisions have consistently been brave ones by which she empowered herself, and, by extension, all of us.

Thanks, Nana!

12 comments:

Casmall said...

I used to work with the same kind of worm that your Nana talks about. They're bright green and can get really big. Probably Manduca Sexta.

Mächtige Maus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mächtige Maus said...

Let me try phrasing the comment that I just had to delete more accurately because it sounded a bit muddled.

Excellent post!

I think that Nana absolutely qualifies as the appropriate first entry in your soon to be "Fabulous Women" series!

La Pobre Habladora said...

Thanks, but it should be OUR "Fabulous Women Series," since you are next on my list of interviewees. I hope you're feeling gabby.

Also, the world wants to know more about that friend of yours who spends 6 months a year in Antarctica, so I want to convince you to conduct some interviews as well...

And I'm open to other suggestions too.

Anonymous said...

I love it!

~Bec

La Pobre Habladora said...

Bec! I'm glad you approve! Besides being my Nana, she is the sort of person I'd love to write a book about. But can be a bit difficult to get Nana to open up about her own life sometimes. She's often more interested in telling me just how many babies I should be having ;)

Anonymous said...

Beautiful characterization of a wonderful woman.

-Chelle

Anonymous said...

Wow! Beautifully done. Truly a tribute to a great and well-lived life. pc

Anonymous said...

So how many babies are you going to have? :)

La Pobre Habladora said...

Nana???

Anonymous said...

You know, you don't have to be married to have babies...

La Pobre Habladora said...

Yup - that's my Nana... a true independent thinker who knows what she wants. And right now she wants more great grandchildren.