Elections: Lessons from a Great Great Grandmother
Most of my friends know I’m a genealogy “nut.” I can’t think of anything that’s much more fun than tracking down an elusive ancestor or finding a confirming document or digging up some long-hidden family “dirt.” As a case in point, when I asked my father-in-law some questions about his grandparents and great grandparents, he quickly lost patience with me. “What do you want to know about them for?” he demanded testily. “They were just a bunch of horse thieves and cattle rustlers!” Oh, my, if you think that didn’t get me started! It took a lot of digging, but thirty years later I turned it into a 500 page historical novel!
But every now and then, you run across a little gem, a little story that makes you laugh and cry at the same time. I found one of those today. I’ve known for a long time that I descend from a line of smart, opinionated, outspoken, stubborn women, who were almost always right, by the way. I just didn’t know how far back it went. Meet my great great grandmother. Her name is Julia Anna Pfaff. She was born near Barbourville, Kentucky, in 1839, to a family of German stock that had settled north-central North Carolina as missionaries. In 1857 she married William Wyatt Gibson, youngest son of a Valentine Gibson, whose ancestors of that surname first set foot on this continent in the 1600s at Jamestown. Shortly after their marriage, William moved his little family to northwestern Missouri where he farmed and she raised their eight children. To be honest, I hadn’t known much about Julia or her personal character until today, but what I learned, I recognized because I have seen it in my mother and my grandmother.
The “gem” is actually a news article that was published in 1995 in the DeKalb County [MO] Record Herald. Apparently the community was preparing to celebrate its Sesquicentennial and had set up a committee to plan the occasion. The article first announces an upcoming meeting and then explains that the author of the article had been asked if the Historical Society had information on the first woman voter in the county. In response, the author provided the following entry which she found in the DeKalb County Herald dated November 4, 1920. Here is the article as it must have appeared.
MRS. JULIA A. GIBSON CASTS HER FIRST VOTE AT 81 YEARS OLD
Mrs. Julia A. Gibson walked down Main Street Tuesday about 1:00 p.m. She had a firm step. In fact there did not seem to no[sic] any feebleness at all about the way she walked. And when she got to the middle of the south side of the square, she turned north and went up to the circuit court room to the place where the election was being held. And as she moved up the street there was not anything feeble, either, about her voice, as she let it be known that she was a Democrat and on her way to vote the Democratic ticket.
As the author of the 1995 article points out, Mrs. Gibson was probably not the first woman to vote that day in DeKalb County, since the episode is reported as occurring in the afternoon. And in the 1920 election between Harding and Cox, Mrs. Gibson’s candidate lost. But the author goes on to quote another article that appeared in the same issue of the Herald, which opined that “The women vote has about doubled the work of handling an election” and called for more polling places in the county to avoid the long lines for voting and having clerks counting into the wee hours. Well, yes! I wonder if the male election officials really hadn’t considered that women might actually avail themselves of their newly won right to vote. Go figure!
I think the reason this little episode speaks so strongly to me is because it brings home the fact that the right to vote, especially for those of the female persuasion, was won after a hard-fought and often bloody campaign that too many of us have either forgotten about or never learned about. My great great grandmother understood what a privilege was now offered her, even at the ripe old age of 81 and she did not hesitate to avail herself of it with all the aplomb she could muster. I don’t think she regretted voting even though her candidate lost.
I am also reminded that for men too the right to vote was won and has been maintained with “the lives and fortunes” of those who were willing to stand up for what they believed in, the right of all men to decide their own fate. The reality of the death and destruction suffered by the former colonists in the Revolutionary War has been muted in our own time, but it was nonetheless real. Thousands died over the six years of that war and many lost all they had.
I have talked to a number of people recently who are suggesting that they are going to just “sit this one out.” Looking forward to the election this November, they don’t like either candidate and so they think they just won’t vote. To be honest, I’m disappointed in the selection of candidates myself, but I have determined that I WILL vote. I refuse to give up what my Revolutionary patriots fought for, what my great great grandmother did with such obvious pride. I will vote, because to stay home is to deny what our patriots stood for and fought for. I will vote, because I want to live up to the example Julia Ann Pfaff Gibson lived out for me.