With each obituary I write, I set myself this challenge: uncover the woman or women hidden in the story. I mean, other than the woman who gave birth to the (almost always male) subject about whose accomplishments I am asked to write.
Some days I’m more ambitious. I not only want to find the woman but I also want to use her name in the story somewhere. Or, if I’m really keen and hopeful, I discover a way to use the word ‘feminist’ in the obituary. Once in a while I’ve even used ‘lesbian,’ or–less excitedly–‘companion.’
It makes the task more engaging. I consider myself to be an excavator of herstory.
I don’t mean to sound flippant. It truly is important for me to identify, write, and publish the lives of notable Canadian women. Behind every man etc. etc. Well, I’d rather put her out in front. And sometimes I do.
This morning I filed an obituary on Dr. Stanley Mercer, an Ottawa pediatric surgeon who was key in establishing the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). I led the article with a woman’s story. Diane Hendley was the mother of a premature infant named Jordan, born 27 years ago. Dr. Mercer saved her son’s life and I certainly emphasized this, but I also made sure this woman had a voice. Next: I gave an inch or so to the cadre of nurses who soothed, stroked, and tended the baby. The women who fed him pacifiers.
While working on this obituary I also made a discovery. Although Dr. Mercer was instrumental in establishing the hospital, it was actually a group of women–mothers with critically ill children–who starting the campaign rolling and were the first ones to knock on the doors of patrons and politicians.
Back in 1963, these women (led by Mrs. O’Hagan) presented Ottawa’s newly elected mayor, Don Reid, with a cheque for $1200. This money became the start of a children’s hospital fund. The women raised the money through fashion shows, bazaars, bingos and coffee klatches.
Coffee Klatches? Not really sure what they were, I googled the term and came up with this ironic and delicious tidbit: Ronald Reagan’s 1961 “coffee klatch” record against socialized medicine.
Operation Coffee Cup was a campaign conducted by the American Medical Association during the late 1950s and early 1960s in opposition to the Democrat’s plans to extend Social Security to include Medicare. As part of the plan, doctors’ wives organized coffee klatches in an attempt to convince acquaintances to write letters to Congress opposing the program. The operation received support from Ronald Regan and this recording was played at these coffee meetings.
Thanks to Canadian women in Ottawa for taking a different approach. They are also responsible, like Dr. Mercer, for saving lives.