WICHITA, Kan. - In between the rush of grading finals and the chaos of the holidays, my Aunt Martha passed away. She was 91 and lived her entire life in Wapello County, Iowa. I told Martha's Story briefly before a subcommittee of the Kansas Legislature many years ago when legislators were debating yet again more restrictions to burden women in their right to seek a legal abortion. The legislators were unmoved by Martha's Story.
I did not know Martha's story until I was about to graduate from high school. What I always believed was that Martha never found anyone to marry. When my grandfather died, the farm was sold and with my grandmother, moved to the city. She spent her life cleaning the big Antebellum looking houses on the north side of town in Ottumwa, Iowa where the wealthy residents lived. At the end of the day she would take the bus back to the south side of town and go home to a tiny house she shared with her widowed mother. As an 'Old Maid', Martha naturally had a duty to care for her mother. It seemed a good arrangement for a woman who at least would have some companionship instead of living alone. At least, that is how I viewed her life as a young adult and knowing nothing of her history.
Of course, I did not want to duplicate Martha's life. I felt sorry for her. She worked hard and there was an undercurrent that Martha was in a kind of limbo status in the family. She constantly had to ask others for assistance like a child since she had very little resources but many duties. As her niece, I clearly understood she did not command a great deal of respect due to her spinsterhood status, or so I thought.