Ellie Hall Keasler Baer
Every June, for as long as I can remember, I have started this month thinking about my grandmother.
Granny was born in Mint Hill, NC, on June 1, 1888. When she was 16 years old, Ellie went to work for Ivey’s Department Store in Charlotte. She was smart as a whip, learned quickly and loved her job in retail sales. Soon, she was promoted to the position of buyer for the Notions Department at Ivey's. Twice a year, she rode the overnight train to New York City with the other buyers to select and purchase the goods for her department.
Granny loved working at Ivey's, and worked there until 1912, when Gus Keasler, a handsome South Carolina college football hero, came to Charlotte for his job. He swept her off her feet. After a proper courtship, they were married in 1913 and moved to Georgia for his new job as manager of a cotton oil manufacturing plant. Their first and only child, my mother, was born a year later.
Sadly, Gus, at 32, died suddenly when my mother was 18 months old. Ellie was heartbroken. Shrouded in black she grieved hard for eight years. Then she went back to work and to socializing. She met and married Jack Baer who had moved to Charlotte from Baltimore. It was a loving marriage that lasted the rest of their lives.
Granny was a fun-loving woman with dancing eyes and she was a very loving grandmother. She was a key figure in my life.
I look back now and regret that I did not ask Granny about what it was like to live through those early years when the U.S. faced WWI and women struggled to “get the vote.” Was she a feminist? She never said so but looking at her history, I have to think she was—in spirit if not by label.
She went to work as a young woman, loved working at Ivey’s and relished the annual exciting trips to New York City. She liked having the money she earned and the independence that came with it, although she did contribute to her widowed mother's care.
Later, after Gus died, she was a single mother working to support herself and her young daughter, like today’s single heads of household. She knew what it was like for a woman to have to take care of herself. She succeeded in a career in retail sales, moving from Ivey's Department Store to the position of lingerie buyer for the exclusive Montaldo’s Department Store. She loved to “work” and came back from retirement when they called and asked her to set up the Women’s Lingerie Department for the brand-new and high-end Ed Mellon’s Department Store.
“Always have your own money, Ellouise.” I accepted the wisdom of that advice without asking “why,” which might have opened the door to stories about “why” she was so clearly firm on that score. I can imagine Granny wearing white and purple and carrying a banner on parade for suffrage. But I am not sure she did. I wish I had asked her if she had marched for THE VOTE. I know she had strong opinions about what was right and wrong in the world and that she always voted.
Most importantly for me, I know she believed that women should have a voice in the world and that they could BE whatever they wanted to be. “You’re smart. You can do that.” She taught me to believe in myself. Maybe that’s all I really need to know—and I certainly love and thank her for encouraging me.
I hope she would have approved of my involvement for equal rights for women during the 1970s.
Thinking of Granny and the questions I wish I had asked her is a good thing for me to do as I begin rehearsals for Pushing Boundaries, my personal story of the 1970s women's movement for the DC Capital Fringe next month.
One of the things I enjoy most when I tell this story are the stories women rush up to tell me about their experiences of not being treated fairly—that they have not told anyone...but me.
Do you have women’s stories to tell about the Vote, the 1970s or even today?