One of the members of the Canyon Singers, Nan McEntire, shares her impressions of the experience of singing in the Women of Courage Concerts
On March 17th and 18th Women of Courage, the musical creation of Patty Willis and Mary Lou Prince, came to life in Salt Lake City. Although there was no admission fee, donations were plentiful, and half of the amount collected at the door went to Women of the World. As one of the singers in the choir, I realized that Women of the World was the best possible organization to have benefitted from these performances.
Each song in Women of Courage celebrates a woman who persisted or resisted or took bold steps forward, despite overwhelming obstacles.
Recy Taylor was attacked and violated by a group of white men in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1944. They warned her afterwards that if she told anyone about what had happened, they would kill her. She chose to speak out nonetheless, calling persistently for justice: “I want justice, like that river that rolls across this land.”
In 1958, Eleanor Roosevelt, then seventy-four years old, drove with another woman through rural Tennessee to lead a workshop in support of the Civil Rights Movement, despite the fact that the KKK had put a $25,000 bounty on her head. The story of this incident is captured in the song “Eleanor’s Midnight Ride.”
In April of 1942 artist Mine Okubo found herself a victim of an executive order that forced thousands of Japanese Americans to “relocation camps” in desolate parts of the American west. She was sent to Topaz in central Utah, where she longed for the home she had been torn from. “Who will be our neighbor in a world at war?” she asks in the song.
“Helen’s Dance,” celebrates the life of Helen Keller. Drawing from a story of Helen Keller’s desire to experience how it would feel to move onto a dance floor, Patty composed lyrics that reflect Helen Keller’s love of life and her tireless determination: “I will join this dance with my hands and heart; I will join this dance!”
In Buenos Aires, Azucena Villaflor and thirteen other mothers met in the Plaza de Mayo in April 1977 to protest the abduction of children at the hands of Argentina’s military dictatorship. She herself was abducted several months later and never heard from again. The song “Desaparecidos” honors her and all those who refused to be silent.
Patty Bartlett Sessions
Another song, “Midwife’s Lullaby,” is Patty Willis’ tribute to her great-great-great-grandmother, Patty Bartlett Sessions, who worked tirelessly as a midwife, delivering nearly 4,000 babies during her long career: “Breathe, my child, your babe is coming; I am standing by.”
A woman named Etty Hillesum met her death at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz in 1943. As Patty Willis discovered in the writings that survived, Etty was a woman of tremendous courage. Rather than try to escape Amsterdam, she stayed to help minister to Jews who were waiting to be transported to camps in Poland. The song that Patty and Lou created to honor Etty, “Life Flows a Stream Unbroken,” speaks of the human capacity to love: “Beyond all suffering is love that holds us, transcending our fears.”
Another account that Patty Willis brought to life came from a Transylvanian Unitarian minister, Sandor Kovacs. He told this family story of how, during World War I, his great grandmother and her two daughters were hiding in a barn. They could hear German soldiers approaching. One of the daughters, a baby, began to cry uncontrollably. It became apparent that the only way to stop the crying was to smother the baby. When the older daughter, Anna Lemhenyi, saw what was happening, she grabbed her little sister and ran into the woods. Both of them survived. This dramatic story is told in the song “Sister in My Arms.”
In her native Pakistan, the young Malala Yousafzai witnessed the increasing suppression of women at the hands of the Taliban. She campaigned tirelessly for the right of women to have an education. In 2012 she was shot in the head by a gunman while she was returning from school. She survived and continued to speak out for women’s rights. For her remarkable work she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, the youngest person ever to have such an honor.
Harriet Tubman, the “Moses of her people,” was known for risking her life to bring people out of the slave states during the American Civil War, pressing them northward even as they struggled and nearly collapsed from exhaustion. In the song “Come with Me, My People,” Harriet Tubman urges them towards freedom: “Your shackles will loosen; your chains will fall away.”
Similarly, the refugee women who are featured in the Women of the World stories and podcasts demonstrate tremendous strength and optimism as they have forged a new life for themselves in the United States.
Baidaa, an Iraqi refugee, chose to wear hijab when she was twenty-two years old, despite the fact that she had friends who were harassed for wearing it in America. “The people I work with will come up to me and tell me how beautiful I look in my hijab,” she says. “But I have a friend who works as a cashier who had a customer say ‘I don’t want to go to you because you wear hijab. I will wait for another cashier.’”
Cosette, from Burundi, arrived in Alexandria, Virginia, with French as her only language. She learned English from watching movies. She now works as a supervisor in a warehouse here in Salt Lake City and she is studying to be a nurse. Her advice to women in Burundi? “I would tell the women in my country to listen to their hearts and maybe try something new,” she says.
Saida Dahor, a sixteen-year-old Somalian who spent the first three years of her life in a Kenyan refugee camp, recently inspired thousands of participants at the February 4th March for Refugees at the Utah State Capitol, sharing a poem that she had written about her homeland. “So many people wish for an education; with no limitation; but they live in a nation; where little boys learn about war before they learn their ABC’s; while their families are dying of disease,” she has written. “They hear loud explosions again and again, when all these kids want is a paper and a pen.”
Women of Courage
In Salt Lake City and throughout the world, women are taking courageous steps to celebrate education, to resist violence, and to honor religious freedom. The refugee women among us today continue the impressive work of their predecessors. By immersing myself in the songs and the stories of the Women of Courage, I was inspired. Each woman’s story is told in song, and their words—and melodies–accompany me as I carry out the actions of ordinary life.