It is the great opportunity of my life.
Written from Moscow, May 13, 1918
The woman whose voice you hear in this collection of letters, Clara Isobel Taylor, was known as “Teke” to her family. She sent the letters—more than seventy—between 1917 and 1919 from Russia, where she was posted as a “secretary” for the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Many of these letters were signed with her full name in order to identify the writer to the censors who inevitably read her words before the “dearest ones at home” had their chance to do so.
Clara was my great-grandaunt—that is, my maternal grandmother’s father’s sister. Sadly, I do not have any direct memories of this white-haired, bespectacled, strong-looking woman. She died in 1968, when I was five years old. I do have a snapshot from October 1964 showing Teke, tall and thin, standing behind my two siblings and me outside. Although we are posing for the picture, we are all smiles and seem to be having fun. I don’t remember ever seeing Teke again, but she continued to be a presence in my life through stories, photographs, and a few personal items. As it happened, I wore one of her white dresses from the 1920s at my high school graduation.
Clara Taylor was both representative of her era and what feminists would consider a trailblazer. The youngest of seven, she was born in 1884 and raised in the central Illinois town of Taylorville. Her father, James Muirison Taylor, was both a farmer and a lawyer. The family lived in town, but visited the farm weekly to do chores and relieve the resident caretakers. Clara and her six siblings were always encouraged to discuss current world problems at the dinner table. From an early age, she understood the importance of education and the thrill of acquiring knowledge, and because James was especially keen that his daughters receive the best education affordable, all of the Taylor children attended college.As her affectionate letters show, Clara had a strong relationship with her family. Her brothers and their wives—Sam (who had died in 1914) and Winnie, George and Trenna, Leslie and Elizabeth, and John and Cora (my great-grandparents)—are all either referred to or directly addressed in the letters. Her sisters were Mary and Genieve (“Sis” and “Geney”). The “children” are my grandmother, Margaret Francis (or MF); her brother, Muirison; and their cousin, Sam. She also wrote specifically to her dear father, James; her remarks in his birthday letter refer to the fact that he lost his right arm fighting in the American Civil War. The clan’s mother, Adelia, had died in 1905.
Clara graduated from the University of Wisconsin (Madison) in 1910, receiving a degree in economics. There she studied sociology with Edward A. Ross, and economics with John R. Common, both of whom were influential academics at the time. Her skills and talents were recognized and encouraged, and her intellect stimulated, by both her academic classes and the social aspects of college. In 1909, Clara was asked to take charge of fundraising for the university’s YWCA chapter. She took on the challenge, but she refused to sell popcorn at football games, which was the traditional fundraiser. Instead, Clara organized a concert series so successful that it raised enough money for the chapter to hire its own secretary. Her work at the university drew the attention of the Madison YWCA. Upon graduation, she was hired as the chapter’s executive secretary, a position akin to director. During this posting, she learned to manage people, projects, and facilities.
Clara organized an employment agency and instituted educational programs for working girls and women. She was especially concerned about women in the tobacco factories that then surrounded Madison. After two years, Clara moved on to Minneapolis, where she worked with the YWCA National Board as an industrial specialist. Because her point of view was influenced by the social work of Jane Addams, Clara advocated for better working conditions in factories, including better lighting, ventilation, and safety measures.
By the spring of 1917, Clara found herself reassessing her life and work. She felt that the YW programs in the small midwestern towns she had visited in the course of her career were thriving, so she submitted her resignation to the National Board of the YWCA and prepared to go East to start graduate studies at Columbia University. However, she then received a telegram from the YW’s National Board offering her an assignment in Russia.
How could she say no?