Gay and Gray is a monthly column at Time Goes By written by Jan Adams (bio) in which she thinks out loud for us on issues of aging lesbians and gay men. Jan also writes on many topics at her own blog, Happening-Here, and you will find her past Gay and Gray columns here.]
While chasing an elusive great blue heron around a small lake in Golden Gate Park, I came across a long granite bench. Close up, I could (barely) read the inscription on the seat.
A Public School Teacher in San Francisco
For Almost Fifty Years
A Founder in Salvaging Old Age
On the base at the rear, barely visible above the grass, there was more lettering:
"Guide the Child"
"Salvage the Old"
Who were these women? What's this "salvaging the old" stuff? What is this long stone bench doing in an obscure corner of the park?
These questions sent me to Google. Here's what I could discover of these two women's story.
Though enjoying pride of place on the stone bench, Fidelia Jewett has left little online record. I found an unsourced reference claiming she was born in Vermont, another to her serving as a teacher in San Francisco as early as 1870, and a few newspaper mentions.
The most interesting described an attempt by teachers at the city's Girls' High School to win what we'd call "equal pay for equal work."
”The Daily Alta California, San Francisco, Sept. 14, 1886 - The Committee of the Board of Education on the Adjustment of Salaries met last evening to hear teachers of the Girls' High School on their application for an increase in salaries to a par with the salaries paid to teachers of the same grade in the Boys' High School...
“Mr. Swett said the work of teaching in the Girls' High Schools was somewhat different from the labor in the Boys' schools, but it was fully equivalent...He was of opinion that discrimination in the two high schools should not exist...
“Miss Fidelia Jewett, one of the petitioners, said that the textbooks used in the two high schools were nearly the same and there was very little difference in the work...
“The Chair thanked the ladies and gentlemen for their attendance and promised that the committee would take the petition under consideration.”
I could not find out whether the women got their raise.
Lillien Jane Martin was a more documented public figure. She was born in Olean, New York into a family that lost its money and gave up on educating a girl in favor of her brothers. So at 16, by then moved to Racine, Wisconsin, she began teaching, aiming to save enough for a college education.
She soon won a scholarship to Vassar College and then taught science in Indianapolis, breaking ground as a woman was considered unfit to teach physics. In 1889, she attended a teachers convention in San Francisco and landed a job as vice principal and head of the science department at the Girls High School.
There she met Miss Jewett. And here their story runs into the conundrum of all gay history.
If we think about it, we know that we can't simply read backwards the understanding of same sex relationships that gay people have forged over the last 50 years. We've invented our present self-definitions and they seem to fit our lives.
But people in the past who lived in ways that would now be described as "lesbian" or "gay" didn't - couldn't - think of themselves quite as we do even though homosexual sexuality and same-sex affection seem to be universal elements in human society.
So, with that caveat, I'll share an account I was able to find of the relationship between Miss Jewett and Miss Martin.
”... Jewett taught mathematics and botany without a college degree [in] the 1880s at a San Francisco girls' high school. [Lillien Jane Martin] and [Fidelia] Jewett had been intimate friends almost from the moment their paths crossed in San Francisco in 1889, and they remained friends until Jewett's death in 1933.
“In 1894, Martin resigned from the girls high school to earn a doctoral degree in psychology in Gottingen. Apparently Jewett joined her there the following year.
“Back in San Francisco, Jewett resumed her teaching at the same high school. When Martin returned to the United States in 1898, she was immediately offered a position teaching psychology at Stanford. But between the time she returned from Germany and her job began at Stanford, Martin had no source of income.
“Jewett gave Martin half her salary until Stanford paid Martin. Martin, an equally supportive friend, encouraged Jewett to earn a college degree.”
That's all we know about the connection between these two forceful, unmarried women but on the basis of it, I'm willing to appropriate them for lesbian history, knowing I may be indulging my imagination.
Martin taught psychology at Stanford where a woman professor in a science was still a figure of wonderment. In 1916 she was forced into retirement at age 65 and didn't like it one bit.
At first she felt "old, lost, and lonely and discouraged." Drawing on her own distress at being cast aside as she aged, she opened a private practice to help "salvage the old." In this context, she formulated a set of ideas about aging later published as a book that comes across today as both observant and a little brutal.
It helped me to remember she was describing a world without pensions or Social Security, where old people depended on the charity of relatives and needed to make themselves agreeable and helpful simply to survive.
She divided elders into types:
”Broadly speaking, one comes to see that old people fall into three groups. The first, and by far the largest·group is made up of individuals who have not only peculiarly disagreeable physical characteristics but even more unpleasant mental peculiarities. They have either the expression of forced resignation or the more alert one due to finding new reasons to substantiate their belief that the world is going to the dogs...
“The second group, far smaller than the first in number, is made up of those who rebel against the onset of old age and try to overthrow the traditional opinions on the subject, to substitute a self deception that will give the world the impression that they are post-adolescent...
“The third group of old people, and this is so small in numbers that one thinks of it in terms of individuals rather than as a group, is composed of those old people who are not body-worshippers but are putting their best efforts into living.
“Some of them are thanking God that they are rid of the emotional tyranny of youth and look upon the joy of old age as a compensation for the storm and stress of the life through they have lived.”
Martin's practice aimed at helping elders join the last group. She believed we all need to figure out what we love and work at this, even if others think our pre-occupations are trivial or foolish.
”Our newspapers have a great habit of interviewing happy septuagenarians and octogenarians and those of even more advanced years on their birthdays, endeavoring to learn by this means to what the individual attributes his long life.
“For years I have been carefully reading these interviews and if they are faithfully presented one sees that there is seldom anything of value to be gained from them. The reason for this is that the really happy old are too concentrated on their life work to be aware of what makes them happy. They are going from level to level of achievement in that which gives them joy, mastering life with enthusiasm, and so life seems good and zestful to them until the end...
“Generally considered, the individual with marked preferential interests is apt to be happy and successful all his life, while he who lacks a strong urge within himself will happen along the road of life, half alive in his mental activity, substituting physical excitement for intellectual growth, "getting by" in the business of living and killing time remorselessly.
“Is it any wonder that such a one evolves into the dissatisfied, grumbling, demanding, tyrannical old person from whom all who are able will flee? These are the ones who stand in dire need of help, help that will give them courage and faith to live the latter part of life more worthily than they have ever lived before.
I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the company of this somewhat puritanical old fury, but I'm glad to have recovered her explorations of aging. Martin followed her own advice in old age, learning to drive at the age of 76, visiting her New York State birthplace to considerable acclaim, and venturing on to Russia to investigate further "Salvaging the Old."
Oh yes, what about the stone bench?
Apparently the bench was originally a monument to Jewett in downtown San Francisco's posh Union Square where it was placed in 1933 for $2000. It was considered no longer in accord with the Square's decor in 1946 and moved to the park, presumably acquiring its inscription about Martin during that decade.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Nancy Leitz: Charlie Solves a Grave Problem