Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the old boys down on the courthouse benches probably shook their heads and said, “That Frank Arrowsmith, he best get control of that wife of his, that Ethel.”
Frank tried, but he couldn’t, not in the way that Ethel insisted on being free. And if those old boys knew Ethel, they would have told Frank to practice two words: “Yes, dear.” She was a woman on a mission, and no man was going to stand in her way.
Ethel Arrowsmith, now three days shy of her 100th birthday — and Frank’s widow of 26 years — still finds life as wondrous as a cat in an aviary. She now lives in a retirement home in Vista, but she didn’t leave behind her fire. When she’s on a roll, her words smoke when they land. She’s in retirement living, but not of it.
“The saddest thing in the world for me is to be over in that retirement home. It’s sad. There are people there who have no family at all. One woman has a niece, and that’s all. She had no children. Her husband’s dead. No one else in the world. You see, there’s a lot of sadness in a place like that.
“I said one day, ‘Those people are so old.’ And my son said, ‘Mother!’ Well, I don’t feel old. I don’t act old. I don’t look like I’m 100 years old.”
Ethel feels fit, just as she thinks fit. “I’m not senile. Still walking every day. I have high blood pressure, but it’s under control. I told the doctor, ‘I never had high blood pressure till I talked to you.’”
She adds: “When my own mother was 40, she was old. She felt old. Women were old young, from hard work and child-bearing. My mother only had four, but she was one of 12. My father was one of 12. So, my grandmothers were old early. They acted old, but yet they weren’t. They were only in their 50s.”
What you see in Ethel is not late-onset feistiness. She’s always been that way. And when the subject turns to women’s rights, her spirit would put fight into a wet chicken.
She comes dressed for battle with her vest adorned with stickers for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was a constitutional-change campaign guaranteeing women equal legal rights. That effort went toes-up three decades ago.
Ethel enters a discussion like a bulldog denied his breakfast. Her talk is fast and clear, without the meandering that we are quick to forgive the very old for sliding into. When Ethel wants to make darned sure you got her point, the walker next to her chair is raised and brought down with an exclamation-mark thud.
She has grim memories of the Great Depression, which hit farmers early. “I lived through it. My parents were farmers, and we burned our corn because we couldn’t afford coal. We were always on the borderline. When we lost our farm and moved to town, my mother knew she had to work, because there was no work for my father.”
In a half-century of marriage, Ethel had a son and daughter, now both in their 70s. She has four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She lived in Springfield, Ill., working for years as a secretary until moving to California at age 43.
When Frank, her sign-painter husband, said he was moving the family to Chicago, she said, “No, you’re not. We’re moving to California.”
Though a traditionalist, Frank knew when to slowly back out of the room when crusader Ethel told him what was what when it came to her political activities.
Frank died at 73 in 1987, after she nursed him for two years following a stroke. I hope he was told before he died that his understanding of Ethel’s determination was not weakness. It was strength.
Ethel became a political activist in high school in the late ’20s when she campaigned for the United States to join the League of Nations. However, the age-old struggle of women to gain equal rights is what energized her — and also frosted her.
Through the years, she was active in the League of Women Voters, Business and Professional Women, and United Methodist Women. “I’m a lay Methodist preacher myself. I used to do a lot of preaching. Church is important to me.”
She graduated from community college at age 50, and that same year she accompanied her son on a three-month cruise of the “University of the Seven Seas,” working as a secretary. When Frank mildly protested, she said, “I’ve dreamed of this my whole life. If you try to stop me, I’ll divorce you.”
Her ire at inequality reaches back most of the 100 years of her own life. “You want to hear my talk?” she asks with a commanding walker thud. “What state of mind is it that says women couldn’t do much of anything, because women weren’t supposed to be intelligent? They were supposed to stay home and make babies.”
It’s a curiosity how a girl raised on a Midwestern sharecropper’s farm became a lifelong crusader for public issues that would make many people shrug.
“I don’t really know because I never thought about it. I’ve always just done it.”
Her biggest challenge, one that lost, was the Equal Rights Amendment campaign that ended in 1982 when the 10-year time limit for enough states to ratify the amendment expired. The battle was energized by the women’s movement that was then morphing into full form out of its early stage.
The more strident activism of that campaign did not go over well at home. “I marched, I walked, I talked everywhere that people would listen. My in-laws were furious, because I was a disgrace to the family. My husband was furious because he believed I was going to be put in jail. But I wasn’t doing those things; I wasn’t burning my bra.”
When the amendment went down to defeat, she says, “I went to church and cried.”
She has spent a lifetime with books — and hasn’t put them down yet. She’s currently reading a biography of a very early feminist and her heroine, Abigail Adams, and her husband, President John Adams. She’s also reading about the Koran because she thinks all religious people need broader understanding.
To meet Ethel is to get into a political discussion, which can turn into a debate as quickly as a candidate’s smile. But if she thought you were easing up on “an old lady,” you might get that walker around your ears.
Ethel, with all the progress women have made, are you aware that many younger women no longer see the need for feminism?
“They don’t know! That’s what angers me (thud, thud). Women don’t know what they’re going to lose if they don’t get busy — running for office, working, thinking, voting. They want to sit home and make babies. Hah!”
But Ethel, more women than men are now in college. There’s a growing feeling that young boys are being left behind.
“Well, young boys had better wake up. What angers me, you see women on commercials today, and they’re not doing things I think are important. And my 40-year-old granddaughter just says, ‘Oh, Grandma!’ when I start talking Equal Rights Amendment or equal pay for equal work. I told her one time: ‘You benefit from those things because I worked for those things. I talked for it. I wrote for it (thud).’ ”
Do some people think time has passed you by, that you’re fighting battles already won?
“Oh, I’m sure they do think, like, ‘Oh, Grandma!’ We’re all stuck in the time we’re born. That’s the way we are. We can’t get out of it. I can’t get out of what I’ve known, what I’ve done. It’s there. It’s part of me.”
What’s the best thing in your life, other than your family?
“Well, just living. I go down every morning and say, ‘Everybody happy?’ I say that to every single person, and if someone’s not, I hug them and get them happy again.”
Knowing that the interview is drawing down and her listener is about to leave, the old lay preacher sermonizes her closing thoughts: “Life is good. It’s so exciting I can hardly stand it. I know lots of people are having a hard time, but there are still great things out there for them. We live in a magical world. My God! We live in a magical world.
“I’m having too much fun to die. I mean it. I’ll be 100 in a few days, and I’m still Ethel.”
And for that, madam, we thank you.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]