Thanksgiving is a time when, amid the flurry of holiday shopping, we Americans still remember the Pilgrims. The most common Thanksgiving image is of Englishmen in knee-length pants and big hats alongside Native men with feathers in their hair. The image of the women present is either blank or confused. There were not many there.
Only four of the 20 married women on the Mayflower survived the first winter. All five young, unmarried females, age 13 to 20, survived. Probably at least that many Wampanoag women were at the harvest feast. The Pilgrim men mentioned the Native men, but said little about any women from either side.
As I researched the life of both English and Wampanoag women for my novels set in that time, I noted stark differences between my own life and those of women from both cultures in that era. A reader asked me: “Would you like to live back then?” My quick answer was, “For a year or so. The indigenous women were living through the end of life as they knew it. It was an exciting but difficult time for the immigrant women. They left their homes to seek freedom from a tyrant king and they found it.”
The inquirer was surprised. “But they had all those insects, and no hot water or electricity.”
I responded that I’ve done a lot of camping, so I could put up with insects and boiling water over a fire. I did not try to educate him on the necessity of insects to preserve the earth. The basics — shelter, food and clean water — were usually available for women in North America. It was the lack of basic rights, early marriage, death from pregnancy and childbirth that would be difficult if I could time travel.
However, a spotlight on women today shows that many live in a world similar, or worse.
• Food: The Pilgrims were starving when they arrived and through the first winter half their people died. The Wampanoag women collected fruits and grew the vegetables — corn, beans and squash. The men hunted and fished. When the two peoples joined in a treaty of mutual protection, the Wampanoag shared farming and hunting methods. Single and widowed women were included in households headed by a man.
Today, hunger is a source of death and disease across the globe, and in America. Our separation from the land today results in food scarcity. Families with low wealth do not grow and preserve their own food.
• Early marriage: Throughout history, women gave birth as teenagers, and today females are fertile early in their teens. Elizabeth Tilley Howland, the historical young woman described as “Elisabeth” in my book, married at age 15 to a man twice her age.
Today, we celebrate a lower teen birthrate. However, 250 million women throughout the world were married before age 15. In the state of Virginia, which passed a law this year requiring people to be 18 to marry, more than 200 children under age 15 were married between 2004 and 2013.
• Death from pregnancy and childbirth was common in England. One woman died in childbirth aboard the Mayflower. The Wampanoag died from so many diseases brought by European traders from 1500 to 1620 that is difficult to estimate how many women’s deaths were related to pregnancy and childbirth. The improved diet is cited as possible reason why the death rate among the Pilgrim women the first five years was far below their sisters’ in England.
Today, too many women still die from preventable causes related to pregnancy. In Africa alone, 800 women die every day from causes related to pregnancy.
• Literacy: 17th century European women were only taught to read if they were gentry. The Pilgrims believed girls should learn to read, so their rate was higher. Elizabeth Howland left a few books in her 1686 will, which she signed with a mark. Writing involved scarce resources — ink and paper — and was difficult to learn. The Wampanoag women recited the oral history and told stories through weaving and pottery art.
Today, literacy is still not possible for women across the world. In India, 82 percent of men but only 65 percent of women can read. Only 12.6 percent of Afghanistan’s women over age 15 are literate.
• Voting/decisionmaking: Pilgrim women could only hope to influence the men. The Wampanoag society is matriarchal/ matrilineal. A grandmothers’ council makes decisions.
My grandmother was 40 and my mother seven when women got the vote in America. In 1980, I was the first woman to be elected from my district to the state Legislature and was mentored by experienced female colleagues. Today the percentage continues to increase and there are women heads of state all over the world. In some countries, however, only the head of the household — who is male — can vote. There are too many societies where girls are property and the men of the family arrange marriage for young girls.
The question is not would I want to live in Massachusetts, or Minnesota of 1620, but would I want to live today in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Honduras, or the pockets of poverty in U.S. urban and rural areas, including the Rust Belt.
It is a challenging time today, with much that needs to change for my sisters and daughters throughout the world. Along with saving our earth, we and our newly elected president must find solutions to bring all people together — male, female, transgender, all ethnicities and cultures — to provide the basic necessities and human rights.
Kathleen Vellenga, of St. Paul, is a former DFL legislator and author of “Strangers in Our Midst” and “In the Midst of Bounty.”