McElroy, Wendy, The Humanist
She once said of a speech I'd given, "The brain will absorb only what the bottom can endure." I'd been long-winded. These grandmotherly words came from a seventies-something woman, a humanist with the unlikely name of Queen Silver.
When she was eight years old, notable scientists like Luther Burbank called her the "Girl Wonder" and the "Girl Scientist" because of her lectures on Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. At fourteen, after she successfully defended her mother in criminal court, the Los Angeles Evening Express proclaimed her a "Modern Portia." To the legendary film producer Cecil B. DeMille, she became a role model for his movie The Godless Girl (1929). To me, Queen was simply my best friend.
There was nothing simple about her. Queen had attended her first political rally December 18, 1910, at six days old. There, her mother Grace had railed against laws restricting labor--especially women's labor. Nine years later, the Los Angeles Recorder announced an upcoming lecture by Queen herself, with the comment, "She has already traveled 50,000 miles in work on the stage and lecture platform." Hundreds, of people attended her speeches; hundreds more were turned away.
For two decades I was an audience of one at our weekly lunches. I would always ask, "Tell me a story." Sometimes Queen would recall standing on a soapbox--all eight years and three feet of her --as she lectured on science. Another time she confessed that the early notoriety had made her strangely shy; she was far more comfortable addressing crowds than talking to individuals one on one. Privately, she was afraid of people.
Queen's fear was rooted in her life as a radical in the 1920s and 1930s. Her experiences formed her stories. The Russian Revolution had rippled panic through the United States. Grace's bookstore--the first socialist bookstore in Los Angeles--was destroyed by a book-burning mob from the American Legion. The police stood by, watching. Then deputized members of the Legion began to attend Industrial Workers of the World meetings. At a given signal, they performed a "citizen's arrest" on the people seated on either side. Grace always pressed carfare and "a safe address" into Queen's hand before meetings. At the first sight of trouble, Queen was to flee and ask "anyone but a policeman" for directions.
Queen's message was no less clear for being unstated: don't trust authority. Never give anyone control over your life. And get back up on that soapbox.
I kept asking what it had been like to be a female in the 1920s and 1930s. Radios, Queen assured me, had allowed working girls to have sex lives. Men weren't permitted in the apartments single women rented but, with a program blaring, landladies couldn't tell if a male voice was real or just the radio.
Queen described how restaurants refused to serve her because she was "unescorted" and how public libraries tried to keep her, as a child, from reading "male" books--like books on science. Grace protested this so vigorously that the downtown public library in Los Angeles eventually permitted all children to read anything on the shelves. It remains one of the few libraries in the United States with that policy.
I thought I understood how hard won women's freedom had been. I understood nothing until I realized that drinking coffee in a restaurant had been one of the victories and was perhaps as important as the "larger" ones. After all, I drink coffee every day. How often does one vote?
Once, as a solstice gift, she brought me a copy of Queen Silver's Magazine, which she had published and edited as a teenager. Its eight-year run showcased her lectures and attracted subscribers worldwide. …