Once you become a widow, you are a member of a very exclusive club that makes you privy to a wealth of incredible stories that describe for better or for worse, life at its very fullest. The depth and breadth of our lives has been irrevocably expanded and we are hungry for life in a way that surpasses our previous capacity for love, joy and sorrow. As the Chinese proverb states “Out of the hottest fire comes the strongest steel.” We have been through hell and come back from the edge of the abyss. Like all great explorers we have stories to tell. And thus The (all ages) Awesome Young Widows Club is born. For this, the inaugural episode of the Awesome Young Widow’s Club, I have chosen to feature my Great Grandmother Madeline Barker.
Madeline Barker was my mother’s, father’s mother. She always had, for a certain air of mystery. From deep within the closets of my grandparent’s middle class English style Tudor near the bluffs of Scarborough Ontario, came beautiful silk dresses. Colorful, light, filmy, – from entirely another time and utterly incongruent with the practical depression era sensibility that stayed with my grandparents throughout their entire lives. These dresses demonstrated a bravado, about which I had always been curious. After become a widow myself her story became even more intriguing.
Madeline’s son, my Grandfather Barker, kept suitcases filled with records of our family history. The family story is dramatic, vast and historically relevant but for today, I will focus on my Great Grandmother Barker, (born Madeline Stone). Her battle to claim her financial independence and assert her parental rights in the wake of her husband’s untimely death is both an inspiration and a reminder of the awesomeness of widows.
Madeline’s late husband, my Great Grandfather Barker was a country doctor in Ontario, Canada who died in 1919 while treating patients toward the end of the Spanish flu epidemic. Although he had taken out some life insurance, he did not have a will. A full eleven years after his death there was a flurry of highly charged correspondence when Madeline was caught having an affair with a married doctor. I will share pertinent sections of these letters but first, in order to understand how truly ballsy Madeline was I need to fill in a little historical info about the legal rights of widows in the early 1900’s and give a little back story on the players in this story.
To understand more about the legal rights of widows at the turn of the 20th century, my good friend John McInnes, Counsel for the Crown in Toronto Canada, referred to Louise M Mimnagh’s paper in the Dalhousie Journal of Legal Studies, Volume 23 from 2014. It is titled A History of Preferential Share in Ontario: Intestacy Legislation and Conceptions of the Deserving or Undeserving Widow. In the early 1900’s legal rights of widows were flimsy at best. They and their surviving children were granted little protection. Ms Mimnagh’s paper deals with many fascinating facets of the law and I encourage you to go to my website for a link to her paper, but for the purpose of this podcast, I will focus on the laws that specifically affected my Great Grandmother. If you have watched Downton Abbey you are well aware that in the early 1900’s when a woman married, her estate became what in is legally classified as a wait for it, ‘feme covert,’ which sounds kind of cool and spy like but what it really means is that the woman’s legal existence is suspended during the marriage. Everything that was hers becomes legally his. This was true in Ontario, Canada as well. Upon a husband’s death a woman’s legal status returns. She is allowed to purchase land and inherits her husband’s estate via a will. The rather awesome legal title of ‘feme sole’ is gained.
So what if, as in my great grandfather’s case, there is no will? It gets very complicated. The Dower Act of 1297 states that my grandmother, given her specific situation, (no will, and she’d already birthed a boy child,) was to receive one third of her husband’s personal estate. The remaining two thirds belonged to her son, my grandfather. Okay. Excellent, right? Well there were conditions under that statute which states that if a widow were to commit adultery, she could be disqualified from her dower. For the record there was no such condition if a widower were adulterous. Yes, okay affairs are complex propositions that are most often a very bad idea even today but back then…for a woman (because the double standard was glaringly unjust) it was a moral crime for which patriarchal laws were written that could potentially leave a widow destitute and her children may even be removed from her care.
To understand the power of the explosion that occurred when Madeline’s affair with a married man was uncovered, I need to fill you in on who her in-laws were. My Great Great Grandfather, Madeline’s father in law, father to her dead husband, was a prestigious Methodist minister. Rev. William Robert Barker presided over the first Methodist Church of Toronto and was close associates with John Carroll the well-known chronicler of early Methodism in Canada. One of Reverend Barker’s sons was Reverend Percival H Barker of the Point Breeze Presbyterian Church in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. When Percival came to town to preach it made the papers. The following appeared in a Toronto newspaper prior to a scheduled appearance. Percival “had at one time been the religious Editor of the New York Tribune. Today he is one of the best-known clergymen in the Untied states, and for the past three years his sermons have been broadcast regularly from the pulpit of his church in Pittsburg by the Westing House Company through their powerful station KDKA. He also has the distinction of being the first preacher to have his sermons received by radio in Great Britain…” His accolades continue on for another paragraph.
Let’s turn back to my great grandmother. After her husband’s death, she lived with her in-laws, the Barker’s in their generously sized home in High Park, Toronto. It is customary for the widow to return to her own family post-death but her mother had died when she was quite young and her father was often at sea. At some point in the late 20’s (the dates are a little mushy here and there are bundles of letters and documents still to go through,) Madeline finally received some of her dower and purchased a summer cottage in the bucolic town of Beaverton just north of Toronto. It is here that she met the married doctor with whom she fell madly in love and began having a secret affair. It was at some point around December of 1929 that the Reverend Percival Barker took it upon himself to open a private letter of Madeline’s that arrived at the house in High Park. …and all heck broke loose.
On January 1st, of 1930 Madeline writes the Barker family lawyer, Mr. Briggs. She is distraught and worried. She asks him, “What I would like to know is – does my life belong to myself or does it belong to Dr. Barker and the family in general to mould as they please. Is there any law which is going to compel me to be harassed by threats to have my child taken out of my hands and sell my summer cottage just because my ideas or some things I might do, do not agree with their ideas of right and wrong?”
Next, three days later on January 4th, she writes to Mr. Briggs. “…I…wish to reply to the effect that I do not intend to sign any papers in connection with appointing a co-guardian for Harold and I do not intend to be further harassed or threatened by any member of the family. If Dr. Barker (Percy) insists upon this appointment, then I shall demand of him, ‘what legal right he has to open my letters, breaking the seal, reading them and showing them to other people. Or what right he has to order me to sell my summer cottage.”
To Mr. Briggs on Jan 7th 1930:
“…I am greatly disturbed myself over the whole affair because it is absolutely unkind and unnecessary, and I will not submit without a struggle because there is no one in the world who has Harold’s interests at heart more than I and it’s utterly absurd and contemptible for the family to think that they have to protect his interests against me.”
On January 18th 1930 written on letterhead of the Point Breeze Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Percival responds and what is being asked of Madeline becomes clear. She is asked to give their lawyer, Mr. Briggs “a memo” of all her “assets and then by agreement turn over to Mr. Briggs” or her own attorney, Mr. Munroe “as joint holders as assets representing two-thirds of the estate so that the principal that Harold is entitled to will be known to be tied up subject always to repayments and re-investments.” She is encouraged to accept this advice by Percival, as Madeline’s “true friend.”
Then it gets fun. He continues, “Your recent letter to me is conclusive proof that you are still madly in love with Dr. ______ .” In most of the letters the doctor’s name is either covered in white out or painstakingly cut out leaving a small hole in the paper. “It stirs my blood to have you say that Dr. ______ reminds you so much of my brother, Harold. Harold was a moral man who always respected the sanctity, the integrity of the moral home, while Dr. _______ is a moral leper who has been a traitor to a brother physician who is dead and cannot defend his child. Compared with such a moral leper as Dr. _______ a common murderer is a respectable citizen to walk the streets.” He goes on and in doing so threatens Madeline and Dr.________ with humiliating public exposure if she does not agree to “the above plan” that would secure a guardian for Harold and see that his share of the Estate is safeguarded.” He then hopes she is in good health and assures her he has no personal animosity toward her but that he is safe guarding “little Harold.”
It seems that Madeline does not comply because on March 25th, over two months later, Percival informs Madeline via letter, “It is only fair that I should inform you that I have written your father and Walter (Madeline’s brother) about your affair with Dr. ________.” He accuses her of “deceit, hypocrisy and treachery.” He rails, “I have failed in my efforts to save you from a degraded womanhood…” He then goes on how patient and charitable the family has been and re-asserts his “solemn duty to his dead brother.”
Now here is the heart of the reason for inducting my Great Grandmother into the (all ages) Awesome Young Widow’s Club. Her unabashed, response to Percival won my heart. The letter is three long type written pages that contain all kinds of awesome but I will focus on specific highlights that while reading for the first time had me cheering her on.
Before I read, think for a moment of her circumstances. Think how brave she is to push back against those who were attempting to disempower her.
Here we go:
In response to Percival’s letter on March 25th Madeline writes;
“You say you have failed in your efforts to save me from degraded woman-hood. What a laugh. Let me tell you right here…that you have done absolutely nothing to save me from degraded woman hood if it were possible for me to be that, but on the contrary, you have done everything within your power to degrade me. Your ideas of honor seem along lines of sex matters only. All other questions of honor appear to be down at the bottom of the scale. It is a wonder to me the church doesn’t crumble to pieces when you step your foot into it.”
She then makes a list of remarks that Percival has made to her and informs him that she is sending a copy of this letter to his sisters, Gertrude and Gladys. (A little petty…yes but also, kind of fantastic.)
Here are a few highlights. Madeline states that Perceval told her that his sister Gertrude is “treacherous” and that he “was ashamed to be seen out with her she looked such a sight.” would go “crazy living in this home with mother’s and Gladys’s narrow minded ways.” Also, using her keen gift of sarcasm she states, “And no doubt you found in Miss Heins a soul mate which accounted for your travels around the country with her and why you put your arm around her and kissed her one evening at my summer cottage when she came down from the hotel.” Oh dear.
She goes on to write, “Your religion is just a money-making scheme to you it is not Christianity so look to yourself you slanderer and persecutor because you need to ask forgiveness for your sins.” And perhaps my very, very, very favorite part is the following. Madeline writes, “To begin with I would suggest the following prayer. ‘Oh lord, grant to me so to love Thee with all my heart, with all my mind and with all my soul, and my neighbor for Thy ask that the grace of charity, sympathy and brotherly love may dwell in me and all envy tyranny, harshness, and ill will may die in me: and fill my heart with feelings of love, kindness and compassion that by constantly rejoicing in the happiness and good success of others, by sympathizing with them in their sorrows, understanding them in their problems and temptations and putting away all harsh judgments and envious thoughts that may follow Thee who art Thyself the true and perfect love. Amen.’ ”
In closing, Madeline forgives him for his “wickedness” to her but states that she will never trust him. She finishes by informing him that the affairs of his family are “not her business, neither is mine yours or theirs.”
The outcome of all of this? Well, I’m still sorting through all the family letters. I will say that I believe that by demanding to be respected and refusing to cower to those who held more power than her, she was one of the small voices that shouted loudly thus paving the way for not only widows but for all women in the area of parental rights.
The (all ages) Awesome Young Widows Club is open and searching for members. Are you yourself a widow with a remarkable story to tell, or is there a widow you know who has used her new-found strength and experience to make the world a better place. Positive change is an incredible way to honor the life of the loved one we have lost and who knows, it might even inspire someone else to use their ‘strongest steel’ to make a difference in the lives of others.