Weary of the litany of yet another clownish politician invoking the Founding Fathers of the country without acknowledging Founding Mothers, I wrote down the following list of exceptional women who should be given no less credit for the formation of the soul and character of the nation.
The list parts from two premises: 1) following Mark Twain, the belief that political institutions are only a small part of the life of a country; and 2) that unless you are the goddess Athena, sprung motherless from Zeus’ brow, all human beings and activities can trace their origins back not only to fathers, but also mothers.
Borges once said that all lists immediately compel the memory of names and things that are left out of the list. He implied that the true purpose of lists is precisely to highlight the names of people and things that have been left out. In that spirit, and with no conviction of being complete or exclusive, the following personal minimal list is offered:
1. Changing Woman
In Navajo mythology, she is one of the Holy People. She was the mother of the Twin Warriors, Monster Slayer and Born-of-Water, who cleared the land of Monsters so that the People could thrive in the Fifth World to which they had emerged.
2. Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651-1695)
The first great poet and playwright of the Americas, whose writings are to be considered next to the plays of Calderón de la Barca and the poetry of Góngora. Sor Juana lived in the Kingdom of New Spain, and found herself besieged by her own Catholic Church, which was threatened by her stature and popularity.
3. Rebecca Nurse (1621-1692)
In 1692, while Sor Juana was opposing her Church, Rebecca Nurse was confronting the Puritan witch hunt in Massachusetts. Had she lied and admitted to witchcraft, her life would have been spared. But affirming her Christian faith in the face of howling accusations, she declared simply: “I am as innocent as the child unborn.” A true Christian martyr, she was hanged at Gallows Hill.
4. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
There are two towering American poets in English in the 19th century: Dickinson and Whitman. If Whitman’s poetry is like the wind on blades of prairie grass, Dickinson’s poems, according to Thomas Merton, are like getting “hugged by an angel.” I cannot say that Merton exaggerated.
5. Georgia O´Keeffe (1887-1986)
To decipher the mystic forces in the desert, one must but look at the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe after she moved west. Her house in the town of Abiquiu in Northern New Mexico, where she lived her last years, is a temple that still blesses the land of Penitentes and descendants of Don Juan de Oñate.
6. Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)
The finest and boldest of American playwrights. Spiritual Mother to exiled American artists in Paris in the 1920s and 30s, what is said of the plays of Don Ramón del Valle-Inclán can also be said of the plays and operas of Gertrude Stein: the theater has not yet caught up with them.
7. Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)
Finally, a personal favorite. Dramatic poet and screenwriter, Hansberry chronicled the struggles to climb up from poverty of an African-American Chicago family in A Raisin in the Sun. In Walter’s foibles and ambition, I see my own father’s determination to rise from abject poverty; in Lena’s effort to keep her family together, I see my own mother’s life story.
That’s as it should be.