The breezes of Macomb County usually journeyed from the west, blowing past and moving quickly onward, for the county was just en route, not a final destination. On this particular night, the wind gusted inexplicably from the east, rushing over fields of bluestem grasses, which bent their seed heads like so many royal subjects. A queen on progress, the currents then traveled above farmhouses barely visible behind the tasseled corn, and swept down the deeply shaded streets of Emporia, where they finally reached the great tent, inflating the canvas walls with a transforming breath from the wider world.
The farm wives had staked out choice spots under the brown canvas; an area clear of poles but not far from the open flaps where they might feel the strong breeze that relieved the oppressiveness of the muggy August evening. The ladies occupied themselves with their knitting needles or watched the crew assembling music stands. Some fretted about sons, already drafted for the European trouble and awaiting assignment to cantonments scattered across the country. They pushed back thoughts of the steaming canning vats they faced when the weeklong Chautauqua assembly of 1917 concluded. All they would have to get through another dreary winter were the memories of the soprano’s gown of billowing chiffon; the lecturer’s edifying words; the orchestras and quartets.
The strings of bare bulbs that swagged the pitched roof were suddenly switched on. The scattered greetings of “Howdy-do” and “Evening” grew steadily as the crowd gathered, burdened with seat cushions, palmetto fans, and white handkerchiefs. Leafing through the souvenir program, they scrutinized the head-and-shoulders photograph of the evening’s speaker, a handsome woman wearing a rope of pearls. She was described as a well-known author, advocate for wholesome living, and suffragist. What exactly was this lecture—“Barriers to the Betterment of Women”—about? Some expected a call for more female colleges, others for voting rights.
Then Marian Elliot Adams, a tall and striking woman in her early thirties, swept onto the stage. She wore a rippling striped silk caftan and red Moroccan sandals. With dark eyes and dramatically curved brows, her appearance hinted at the exotic. In ringing tones, she announced, “I am here tonight to discuss the restrictive nature of women’s undergarments.”
Hundreds of heads snapped back. The murmurs of the crowd, the creaking of the wooden chairs, stopped abruptly. Even the bunting festooning the stage hung motionless, as if it had the breath knocked out of it.
Marian’s gaze swept across the pinched faces, assessing the souls spread before her, and she concluded that they were the same people she’d been lecturing to for the past three months. There was the gaunt-cheeked elder with his chin propped on a cane; the matron with the bolster-shaped bosom; the banker type in a sack coat; the slouching clerk with dingy cuffs. Just like last night and the night before that, stretching back eighty-three straight nights—these strangers she knew so well.