Womxn’s History Month Special Issue Poetry Runner-Up: “The Washing Society”

The Washerwomen’s strike is assuming vast proportions and despite the apparent independence of the white people, is causing quite an inconvenience among our citizens….There are some families in Atlanta who have been unable to have any washing done for more than two weeks.
            —Atlanta Constitution, 26 July 1881

1.

Of course we could wash our own clothes.

But our mothers never taught us to make soap or starch.

We have never had to haul water

or lift heavy irons from the hearth where they warmed.

We have not learned how to iron sleeves

with their tucks and seams.

Just yesterday the neighbors had their washing

returned to them wringing wet.

What were they to do with wet laundry?

It pains us to see our husbands leave for the city

with dirty cuffs and crumpled shirtfronts,

see our children play in yesterday’s skirts and short pants.

But really, what can we do?

We don’t vote in city council.

And if we did?

2.

Of course that is not a real voice.

All that remains from the strike are newspaper articles

and the Washing Society’s letter to the mayor:

…we will have full control of the city’s washing at our own prices,

as the city has control of our husbands’ work at their prices.

 

While the women washed, they must have

murmured to themselves, trying out phrases,

settling on the clearest words, the ones that spoke truth.

3.

Sarah Hill was a maid and a cook in someone else’s house

until she married, and then she took in washing. Years later

she told someone with questions and a notebook,

I could clean my hearth good and nice

and set my irons in front of the fire and iron all day….

I cooked and ironed at the same time. The interviewer

gave her a different name.

The poem wants to try on her voice,

saying I did this work; and of course I have done this work

though not as Sarah did. I have washed my family’s clothes,

not another’s. My water is not hauled from wells. A machine

wrings out the soap and water and dirt, my iron

plugs into an outlet. The poem wants to speak in her voice,

saying I marched, I refused, and of course I have, but

when the risk was heat or cold or rain, nothing

more than discomfort.

Look at this figure set in a glass case

at the museum: Sister Tuesday, carved from wood

with an ordinary pocketknife. She is ironing a shirt,

fifty years after the Washing Society strike.

Does the artist speak for Sister Tuesday and her aching arms—

her mouth slightly open as if she sang while she ironed,

or told a story to someone else in the room, someone

whose only job was to listen? Maybe about her grandmother

and the Washing Society, or how her mother pointed the iron

into a cuff like this. Or does the sculptor, a man whose handwork

was displayed with the Harlem Renaissance, see her

from outside—a woman whose handwork was worn

on her employer’s back? I have not allowed the poem

to speak for Sarah and her sisters.

4.

And, of course, the irons were every bit as heavy after the strike

and the well didn’t move any closer to the house.

There is no record of the council’s final vote, but in any case

the women still had to cook while they ironed

or there would have been no dinner. But those words,

full control, must have added salt to their cornbread,

must have lightened their steps as they carried

the starched and pressed shirts to those who paid them

for the privilege of wearing clean clothes. As for me,

I can be the one who listens to a woman

tell her grandmother’s story while she irons; I can hear

Sarah hum to herself as she carries the clean shirts.

 

Image Credit: “Washer Woman” by anonymous licensed under Public Domain from the National Archives at College Park and obtained from Wikimedia Commons.

About the author

Susanna Lang’s newest collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was published in 2017 by Terrapin Books. Two chapbooks are forthcoming in 2020, Self-Portraits (Blue Lyra Press) and Dear Girls (dancing girl press). Other collections include Tracing the Lines (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2013) and Even Now (Backwaters Press, 2008), as well as Words in Stone, a translation of Yves Bonnefoy's poetry (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976). A two-time Hambidge Fellow and recipient of the Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Bethesda Writer's Center, she has published original poems and translations from the French, in such journals as Little Star, The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, december, The Slowdown and American Life in Poetry. She lives and teaches in Chicago.

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