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Poet seeks inspiration of Hoover, ancestor
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · July 29, 2009


America’s women’s suffrage movement started, in earnest, in the 1820s, almost 100 years before the 19th amendment gave them the right to vote.
Many women carried the movement forward from one generation to the next, including Matilda Fletcher, a lecturer who even toured with Susan B. Anthony.

Fletcher, who lived from 1843 to 1909, is the great-great-great-grandmother on her father’s side of Laura Madeline Wiseman, a poet and teacher who is the first of two Artists-In-Residence at the Hebert Hoover National Historic Site this summer.

Pursuing her doctorate degree, the 31-year-old was encouraged by a professor to apply for the residency and immerse herself in the late 1800s scenery that surrounds Hoover’s birthplace. She is looking for insight into how both Fletcher and Hoover may have thought.

The two historical figures may have never met, but Wiseman finds herself imagining what may have happened if they had some contact or connection in the years where their lives overlapped. Hoover was born in 1874, so Fletcher would have been closer to the age of Hoover’s mother, Hulda.

Hulda Hoover, who also took up the cause of women’s suffrage, was a recorded minister at the Quaker Meetinghouse, and Wiseman wondered, for example, what Hulda Hoover might have shared at church if she had just heard or read about one of Fletcher’s lectures.

“What would have motivated Hulda to begin speaking in the Quaker house?” the Ames native asked. “What would motivate a woman to speak in church? It seems very daring.”

Fletcher began lecturing in 1869, at age 29, five years before Herbert Hoover’s birth. She was born in the area of Council Bluffs, which was “rough” — fewer laws, “more wild, not as civilized as the eastern United States,” Wiseman said.

One of Fletcher’s speeches was given near a silver mine in Colorado. One listener was so impressed with Fletcher’s talk that he named the mine after her. Wiseman, learning that Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer, imagined that Hoover was working at that mine at the time of Fletcher’s speech.

Both of those imaginary scenarios, though not far-fetched, prompted the University of Nebraska-Lincoln doctoral student to put her creative pen to paper.

Wiseman also teaches at UN-L and has a class that focuses on women poets. When she took time for an interview last week, she had begun a poem on the Statue of Isis and another on the different reactions and behaviors of visitors approaching the Hoover gravesite.

Wiseman said she was surprised at how “strong” Hoover’s wife, Lou Henry, was, especially when she learned she sometimes carried a gun while traveling.

“She was a pretty cool cat,” Wiseman said.

The poet said she has also learned how widely the true story of Hoover’s presidency differs from the “cultural narrative” of him being a “bad president.”

“He walked into a bad situation,” she said. “Anybody who (was president during the Great Depression) would have not been seen favorably.”

•••

Hulda Hoover Considers the Friends Meetinghouse

By Laura Madeline Wiseman



“Argumentative, clear, and steady toned, she was well sustained to the end, convincing ... of the evil of intemperance.” — “Temperance,” Chicago Daily Tribune, August 7, 1879



“Although intemperance does not come in our little village in the demon form it does in some other quarters, yet we are touched by it, and some of our mothers have to ask ‘where is my boy tonight.’” — Hulda Hoover



On the woman’s side Hulda folds her hands at the knee.

Silence in the house but for a mother who whispers

to a child bound for the crying room. Outdoors



boots scuffle on the boardwalk, a hammer mends

a fence, and a bell tolls for another way to worship.

She sees the trees move like beasts shaking off water.



Last night Jesse again read of women lecturers

who spoke at the Temperance Jubilee in Indiana.

She doesn’t know what they’re about, but she wants to.



A Matilda Fletcher of Iowa spoke before a heart chart

twelve feet square on the will of moral character

while children held banners with mottos on Purity.



Hulda waits in the optical illusion of the meetinghouse.

It’s a building for prayer like all the others in town

with pews, suspended lamps, windows, and doors,



but for a sliding partition which divides the space

in an imperfect copy of the original. Like a mirror

she glances into the other version of herself. A man



in trousers, jacket, a mustache and a severe jaw line,

like her own. None in the Society of Friends may leave

the place for their sex to enter the side of the other.



As she stares at this man who doesn’t know her

but for the quiet shared by all those in the meeting,

she sees this division between the sexes is an illusion.



She opens her hands, those around her stir. The Quakers

have always shown her this other version of self.

As she inhales, she knows now she has something to say.




The quotation by Hulda Hoover is from West Branch Local Record, published from 1877-1889, news stories of the Hoover and Minthorns, as quoted in Hulda’s World: A Chronicle of Hulda Minthorn Hoover 1848-1884 (Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, Inc., 1989) 90.

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