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Book Review: Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt

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Why were there no women geniuses, women great artists, women adventurers in the past? It’s a question often asked by obvious and not so obvious misogynists, and if you want an answer, beyond the obvious “what’s your problem?”, then Linda Lawrence Hunt’s Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America provides it: There were, but their stories have very often been lost.

Helga’s life is pretty well summed up by the term “the adventurous” even before the key event of this book. She had been born in Norway, seen her mother widowed and remarried, and at age 11 moved to Michigan, where she had to learn to use a new language in a new culture. Then at age 15, in circumstances we can no longer know, she was pregnant. This cannot not but have been a disaster for an unmarried girl in a quite conservative Scandinavian-American community. One month before she gave birth, the now 16-year-old married a 28-year-old non-English speaking Norwegian immigrant, most likely not the father of her child, and probably an arranged match to cover the family’s “shame”.

Within the year the couple moved to a pioneering homestead barren prairies in Minnesota-Dakota border, we she was to bear five children in short order, losing the first soon after birth. Fire, great storms, drought, and the dreadful winter of 1880-81 were continual threats, and the young family chose to move to the protection be safer and more stable developing city of Spokane Falls, but after a successful period there, they chose begin to move into the countryside taking up another homestead, with by now nine children at the age of 32 Helga had certainly seen life.

But by 1896, the family, with the rest of America, was in dire financial trouble. And this is where Helga’s story and the driving force of this book really start. In a desperate bid to save the farm, Helga and her daughter Clara accepted a $10,000 challenge to walk unaccompanied across America, some 3500 miles.

This was no hidden, quiet story. Newspapers all along the long and weary route, up to and including the New York Times, reported, at first with incredulity, but later with admiration, on their progress. And along the way they met president-elect Kinley, his defeated opponent, and a number of governors and mayors. Yet this is a story that was very, very nearly lost to history.

Helga had made extensive notes about it and prepared them for publication, yet, as Hunt explains: “personal, family, and cultural forces contributed to the almost total silencing of Helga’s stunning story…. the family united in their communal silence of this chapter the mother’s story. Even Helga’s grandchildren who lived in her home had never heard of her achievement…. Then her daughters burned her written manuscripts.”

The reasons were both individual and social. For the family, despite the women’s physical triumph, the promised $10,000 was not forthcoming, so the journey, in terms of its purpose, was a failure, and while Helga was away, the family was struck by diphtheria, which killed two children, and scarred the survivors and their father with a huge burden of grief and fear.

Socially, as Hunt explains: “she had flagrantly broken the most basic code of Victorian and Norwegian motherhood: mothers belong in the home…. The weight of the unspoken question, ‘would she have been able to save them?’ was unanswerable.”

This is not, however, a tragic story. There is not only Helga and Clara’s great physical feat, but also, as Hunt makes clear, Helga’s political and social development. She became an enthusiastic supporter of the Populist Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, an enthusiast for the suffragist cause, and an enthusiastic participant in public life.

A number of photos of her (and Clara) are presented in this book, and Hunt does a fine job of piercing together scattered evidence – the newspaper reports, contemporaries’ accounts of the places through which the women passed, and fragmentary family records. Nevertheless, there is a great hollow at the heart of this book, through no fault of Hunt’s; the voice, the explanations, the emotions of Helga (and Clara). That is, as is so often the case, the part of women’s history that cannot be reconstructed. But at least the story has now been recovered for history.

And along the way, Hunt uncovers some fascinating historical snippets. One of these is a brief boom in the 1870s in women’s endurance walking. The German Bertha von Hilern did exhibits of 100 mile walks around a track in 30 cities, and once walked 350 miles in six consecutive days and nights.” by 1879, more than 100 women were walking for money and hundreds of newspapers chronicled these endurance efforts.” Political controversy followed, however. Suffragists saw the walkers are symbols of women’s rights and strength, while temperance and religious leaders were horrified.

This is also very much a book that is a comfortable fit for the here and now, of economic depression, inequality, and desperation. Hunt quotes the Populist reformer Mary Elizabeth Lease: “Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, for the people, by the people, but a government of Wall Street, for Wall Street, and by Wall Street.” And Hunt notes: “the Republican Party… had a far richer campaign, which enabled them to print over 2 million brochures and pamphlets to promote McKinley. Major corporations contributed to assure that McKinlay and the gold standard won, including $500,000 from Standard Oil and JP Morgan alone. This exceeded the entire amount of the Democrat’s fund.”

Although there is much that we will never know about Helga, there’s not much doubt where she would stand on the controversies of today, and while she would no doubt be delighted by women’s progress since her time, I think she would still be saying we have a long way to go. I’m glad to have “met” her.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.