The Girl Who Believed in Good Government

DAR Good Citizen, 1963 (Detroit Free Press)

DAR Good Citizen, 1963 (Detroit Free Press)

On election night, I went to bed before 10 p.m. My breath was shallow. My belly tight. Reading didn’t help. I got up and took Ambien.

Damn this election and the fear-mongering headlines.

I awoke at 2 a.m. and considered going downstairs to check results. I resisted and fell back to sleep.

I looked at the clock at 4, at 5, and again at 6, but each time pulled the covers over my head. I didn’t want to know. How did I know I didn’t want to know? Ah, the wisdom of anxious intuition.

After reading the headlines at 7, I put on hiking boots. Willow’s tail wagged while I strapped her orange hunting season vest under her belly. She hovered near as we walked, probably sensing my shock.

DSC09187As I walked through the gloomy forest, I remembered 17 year-old me, the girl who entered the DAR of Michigan Good Citizen contest without a clue about the DAR and their politics. Daughters of the American Revolution? I didn’t know and didn’t ask.

It was an essay contest about the U.S. government, the balance of powers, the separation of church and state, the honorable Supreme Court, the House of Representatives before I knew the word gerrymander, the noble Senate. I probably praised the government’s integrity and reliability. I may have mentioned the Great Father President protecting us all.

Why didn’t I question my own environment? Why did kids with dark skin live in Detroit but not on my middle-income suburban street? Why in those high school government classes didn’t one teacher point out the imperfections of the idealized plan?

The head of the Dearborn, Michigan DAR chapter drove me to the state meeting in Lansing. I’d heard a few upsetting things about the DAR by then, but… I won first place. I was the beaming DAR Good Citizen of Michigan with an aqua sweater and matching skirt, perfectly teased and sprayed hair, and lovely curled eyelashes.

I looked great. I felt even better.

img196I was happy to be a winner and glad for the scholarship money. I loved having my photo in the Lansing State Journal and the Detroit Free Press. Did I ask why the Free Press used a photo of me cooking in their “Teen of the Week” article? Did I say, “What does a high school girl’s ability to cook have to do with this award?” It didn’t cross my mind.

Mom booked us a flight to Washington DC to the DAR National Convention for the national competition. We hoped I’d take home gold and a bigger scholarship. By then, my big brother had shared what he was learning about the DAR. Disturbing things.

In 1939 the DAR refused to let contralto Marian Anderson sing in Constitution Hall, the largest theater in DC, the place where we would go for the award’s ceremony. Anderson’s sin? The color of her skin. Eleanor Roosevelt and others withdrew from the DAR. Marian Anderson sang at a historic outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. 75,000 attended, an integrated crowd, and more heard it on the radio.

“I am in complete disagreement with the attitude taken in refusing Constitution Hall to a great artist … You had an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way and it seems to me that your organization has failed.” Eleanor Roosevelt (Wikipedia)

Marion Anderson at Lincoln Memorial, 1939 (wikipedia)

Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial, 1939 (wikipedia)

Marion Anderson audience in Washington, DC, 1939 (wikipedia)

Marian Anderson audience in Washington, DC, 1939 (wikipedia)









If I had fully understood, would I have refused the Michigan prize? Why didn’t I ask why we lived in one-race suburb? Why didn’t the kids sitting next to me at Supremes and Little Stevie Wonder concerts go to my school? If I had won the national prize, would I have accepted despite what I knew by then?

I didn’t win, so wasn’t forced to make a moral choice.

DSC03620-001The day after Trump was elected, I walked through a suddenly foreign world. I remembered the naive ignorance of the girl I used to be, the one who gave rose-tinted answers the DAR longed to hear, the one who didn’t question authority until she went to college.

I missed her bright-eyed innocence, even though the world she imagined never existed. Deep within, I hoped she’d be proved right someday.


When I googled the 2016 calendar at DAR Constitution Hall, I was happy to find “Legends of Southern Hip Hop” and “Stand With Standing Rock.” Dearborn now has a large Muslim and multi-racial population. A few things have improved since 1963. For articles about my political awakening in college, see Make Love Not War. For a moving tribute to Hillary Clinton, see this clip of Kate McKinnon singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.

  1. Dear Elaine,

    Thank you thank you thank you for writing this piece. I’m pretty much at a loss for words right now. I’m not even trying to pretend I’m any kind of writer. I’m so angry and lost and disgusted by the outcome of the election. Everyday the news seems to get worse.

    All that being said, I could relate to your younger self on how you didn’t question certain things while growing up. You did win an award and I’d like to think that they saw your writing talent. So congrats on that. Plus, you got an early taste of being in the public eye which helped you all these years later as an author.

    Thanks for enlightening me on how Marian Anderson was snubbed from performing at Constitution Hall. From the two photos you posted, I’d say she ended up with the bigger crowd on the National Mall. 😉

    I’m glad Willow and you took a walk through the woods. I’m sure she was an attentive listener because I can imagine how you talked out your shock to the forest.

    Thanks again, Elaine. You are a bacon of light in this scary darkness.


    • Thank you, Kathleen. If you read what happened to Marian Anderson and how some in our government scrambled to find a just solution, it will make your hair stand on end. The image of her in front of Lincoln and the huge audience. She opened something big in our culture. Some years later, Marian Anderson sang in Constitution Hall which was gracious and forgiving of her. She had a beautiful view of what humans could be and lived her ideals.

      The morning of the election, my chattery mind was silent until I remembered my hopeful naive self in 1963. Somehow, I want to hold on to those idealistic views. We can do better, although it’s hard to see how in the near future. Lots of prayers and hope.

  2. Lovely to learn how much DAR progressed through the years Elaine. It’s a sad thing to watch now how many things and rights that were fought for are now under the scrutiny of one who is misplaced in one of the highest powers of the world. Many have lost sleep since that Tuesday night, and still. 🙂

    • I don’t know the DAR’s politics now. It’s still mostly a white organization, but there are some black members. They seem to focus on searching for ancestors who were in the Revolutionary War. I can’t say what will happen to those hard-won rights, but it’s scary to imagine what the new government might do. Can you run a long election on hate, violence, racism, and misogyny and then say none of those words really mattered? Is our memory that short? I agree it’s a hard time to relax into sleep.

  3. Just so honest and revealing…I wonder how many of us possible or awarded.DAR women are out there.We have 2 grandfathets in the American Revolution but I was ashamed of what the Daughters had done.I did not know about the link till the 80’s.All things change and we have changed too.Have not had time to write…went to see Mom with Geoff today and tomorrow we take him to PTSD treatment…We have waited 10 and a half years for this.But you know I will be flapping my choppers one way or another soon.Part of me wants to walk away from these struggles but i know I can’ t.

    • Alicia, I agree that we can’t. For my first twelve years, I lived in a small town in Missouri. Like many places in the 1950s, there was an established separation of the races in schools, restaurants, and everywhere. The DAR was part of that culture. Moving to Michigan changed my views a little, but not much because some towns were clinging to segregation. Coming to Cornell was the big awakening–and there was plenty of racism on campus in 1963 and not many black students. Lots changed for many of us in the mid 1960s. I hope all goes well with your son.

  4. Elaine, I too received a DAR Good Citizen award, just a local recognition not statewide like yours. Though I longed to wear a twinset and have pouf-y hair and curled eyelashes like my classmates, I accepted my award with a Mennonite cap on my head.
    My pin was round, edged in navy enamel, and gold (so I thought) but it may have been base metal. Naive, innocent, and ignorant would describe me back then.

    From Small-town USA, I didn’t understand the political ramifications of the award. These were the Eisenhower years, and my family admired him. My Aunt and Grandma adored Marian Anderson with whom I felt a special connection because of the name. Her voice sounded glorious to me. I am ashamed at the DAR’s behavior toward her but proud of Eleanor Roosevelt’s public denunciation of it. In the end, she SANG!

    • Marian, you can be glad you only received a local award. Writing this was a confession of sorts, acknowledging how politically naive I once was. In some ways, I still am. I don’t remember where my pin went. It hasn’t turned it up in my sorting process so far. It’s quite possible I tossed it many years ago.

      How we loved Ike in the 1950s! He was the one I thought of when I talked about the Great Father President. My parents loved Roosevelt (especially Eleanor) and then Ike and then Truman. My mom must have known more than I did about the DAR, but she was probably blinded by scholarship money. I’ll never know why she didn’t talk to me about the history.

    • I won the same award and also accepted it while wearing a head covering. Uncanny.

      Keep loving that idealistic young woman you were, Elaine, as well as the mature advocate for justice you are now.

      • Shirley, welcome to the Honorable Club of Former DAR Contestants. You’re an automatic member. I’m learning how many women I admire shared youthful idealism with me–and this connection with the DAR. They were everywhere apparently! In some ways, the “winners” haven’t changed a bit. Sending you love.

  5. I guess this is what consciousness is like. Makes unconsciousness seem attractive. I’m glad my parents didn’t live to see it!

    • It’s a process, isn’t it? By 1967, my mom (after teaching air force dependents in Europe and Okinawa for four years) turned her politics upside down. She became an outspoken liberal against the Vietnam War and was much despised by air force personnel, so she came back to the US to teach. By 1967, my brother had spent a week in jail in CA with Joan Baez and others because of anti-war protests. My family moved from vague central to left with lots of questioning and doubt. Unconsciousness was easy for the girl, but it wasn’t my style as soon as I learned more about the world. It had to go. Oh yes, there was the awakening from reading and studying Carl Jung’s ideas beginning in 1967 (and continuing now.) I loved seeing the political mess from a wider view–but it felt more fixable then. It’s harder to find that optimism now.

  6. Thank you for a great piece, Elaine. My first awareness of the possibility that our government could be flawed came with my 9th grade civics class. Seeing America from a historical perspective, realizing our founders were just as human and flawed as anybody else, was disillusioning and a bit frightening. They were so brave and fought so hard for what they believed in, yet they disagreed on many points, and the Constitution could have been written in a number of other ways, with different priorities leading the way, etc. And some of the founders even owned slaves!! So much for my particular brand of idealism!

    But I take comfort in knowing how much we’ve grown and changed as a country since 1776….and in remembering that our growth, especially in the areas of justice and human rights, didn’t arrive without terrible divisiveness and a devastating civil war. I just hope and pray we’ve grown beyond that stage. Time will tell.

    • “Some of the founders even owned slaves.” I knew that as a kid, Jeanie, but the significance didn’t quite penetrate. I needed a cultural transformation to bring me along. I agree there is much to celebrate about the progress made in a few hundred years–a blink of an eye on a planetary scale. Patience required, but then I fear we’re running out of time. I’ll also celebrate the gains in personal consciousness and ethics from most people if we believe the popular vote. Yes, time will tell.

  7. I loved this, Elaine. Isn’t it wonderfully embarrassing and real, all the things we went through before we caught sight of the itchy inseams of people’s ways.
    I also love the photo at the bottom of the post. You can hardly see the forest but you can see Willow in her hunting vest.

    • Thanks, Robin. When I whine about how naive people are, I have to remember how naive I was, too.
      Orange vest season! It stands out even in fog and rain. Hunting season begins Saturday, so even though my land is posted, I won’t walk out there for a week. It’s time to visit all the terrific state parks around here–with my orange vested dog.

  8. Great post for these troubling times.

    • Thank you, Anne. Times are troubled for sure. Change can come fast as it did from 1963-70, but I fear we’re running out of time on environmental issues, climate change, and more. Reading the news is not comforting.

  9. I won the DAR AWard in HS. i think because my Dad taught there and the teachers voted. I was a “good” girl tho but several friends were “gooder” than I and achieved more academically.
    Of course was glad to win it and didnt question it.

    • Jackie, I’m laughing. We’re having a little convention of former DAR winners who haven’t thought much about that chapter of their life for a while. I know you well enough to know you deserved the award no matter what your dad’s position in the community.

  10. My parents were on opposite sides of the political spectrum so as children we were aware of the conflicts. In a way I’m glad that I was exposed to their arguments though they were mostly unpleasant. Although we lived in an apartheid system, people on both sides of the fence were politically active in this patently unfair system to bring it down.

    Everywhere, we have such a far way to go to bring about true justice and fairness where the colour of one’s skin is not brought into the equation.

    Thanks Elaine – Eleanor Roosevelt is an inspiration as is Marian Anderson – there are so many others – here there and everywhere –

    • These struggles go on and on, but the illusion in the US is that we were making progress. Illusion shattered at the moment. And still there were small victories for women and people of color in our elections. No one talked about politics when I was a kid. In the ’50s, it was all “I Like Ike.” My mom had a political awakening the same time as my brother and me, so my family stuck together in politics.

  11. I really enjoyed this post, Elaine.

    There are dark days ahead, but we’ll get through them together.

  12. Hugs from over the pond. Growing up as a Jewish girl, I never thought I was ‘different’ until a boy at primary school called me ‘a dirty Jew’ (age 7) . I remember being very shocked, and repeating the comment to my mother, with the addition that ‘I cant be dirty, I have a bath every night’. Skin colour is just that, skin. Nobody is ”white” anyway, we are all shades of white. I brought my daughter up not to notice skin colour, as I don’t. What is happeneing now, not just in your country, is very very worrying for those of us who lived through persecution on the grounds of race or religion. We must hang together.

    • Carol, until I was 12, I lived in a racial divided, segregated small town in Missouri. Now, I have many friends whose grandparents or parents barely survived the Holocaust. I’m sorry you had to face such nastiness as a child. Two of my closest friends are brown-skinned professional women. They are terrified by what’s unfolding. We will hang together and keep pushing for social justice and human rights. At the moment, many here are shocked and trying to figure out how to make a difference. I’ll go to the Women’s March in Washington the day after the inauguration, although I don’t have illusions that this will change much. Still, I will show up. Thanks so much for your comment and our conversation on twitter this morning. It’s nice to get to know a little about you.

  13. Thanks for sharing your story, Elaine. I think most people are different from their teenage selves.
    Perhaps winning that award helped you to become more aware and to speak out later? Maybe if it hadn’t come up, you would not even have questioned the DAR.

    Also, in your world in the 50s people didn’t question politics and liked Ike, but that was not true everywhere. My family was questioning politics and McCarthyism, and of course, there was the Civil Rights movement going on.

    • Merril, I agree that receiving the award and learning about the DAR’s history led to a slow awakening. I don’t blame myself for being naive. McCarthyism was vaguely there in my world and my parents were upset by it and also by racism, but they were most consumed by my father’s failing health and impending death. In segregated Missouri where we lived until I was 12, the grownups didn’t talk to me about politics. Although I knew more about what was happening in the world by high school, I didn’t question much either until the mid 1960s when I was in college. Thanks for telling me just a little about how your experienced that time.

  14. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s in my small Western PA town, there were no black families. I never questioned it; that was just the way it was. Until high school, I think the only time I saw a brown face was when we trekked to Pittsburgh once or twice each year. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way since then – but not far enough. There’s so much work to be done and this past year has certainly brought that to light for anyone who didn’t already know it. I’ve been in a funk since the election. I fear what is to come, but what choice do we have but to wake up each morning and keep putting one foot in front of the other? Never before has it been so important to speak out about the importance diversity, equality, and inclusiveness. I will never – ever – understand why people feel the need to place labels on those that don’t look, act, or love the way society says they “should.” Live and let live. Love is all that matters.

    • Yup, the post-election funk has me in its grips, too. Funk and anxiety. I agree we can only try to support each other and stand up for positive inclusive values. I’m still in a state of shock, but the day after the election, I spent the day volunteering at hospice–just to keep my head straight. It was a good plan. Thank you for all you do to help people and families who struggle with Alzheimer’s. I hope funding won’t be cut for everything that matters to human life. Persistence needed–and lots of showing up for those who can’t show up for themselves.

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