I just finished looking through some of the Mary Holt Woolfolk Carlton Papers at Virginia Commonwealth University where I made one of my most favorite discoveries of all time. But first, who the hell is Holt?
Holt was a friend and comrade of Zelda’s and together they stormed that bastion of Virginia conservatism, our local chapter of the fourth estate. The local newspaper, the staunchly conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch, is not much different today than it was in Zelda and Holt’s heyday. While today you can read the RTD’s attack on Katherine Waddell and the Women’s Strike Force, in the 1970’s you could look forward to such gems as sex-segregated job ads and disparaging remarks about the Women’s Bank. In fact, the frequency with which these two allies and friends mention their frustration with the media in their letters makes me wonder if I shouldn’t turn my research in that direction.
Anyway, back to Holt. She was from a “Virginia family” (as a transplant, I learned that this is code for “rich, white and, at some point probably not distant, landed) and married a supportive lawyer. She is a trained social worker with a master’s degree and something of an expert on human sexuality who corresponded with Dr. William Masters, among others. She is quite poised and very intelligent, just the sort of person you’d want to have working for you, if you were the boss. This makes my new favorite discovery all the sweeter.
In one of many folders of correspondence in the collection I found two letters, both written to people who had interviewed Holt for jobs in the past. In the letters, which almost seem like therapy exercises, she writes of her frustration and feelings of helplessness when these two men made sexist remarks to her during job interviews. Her letters are both diplomatic and eloquent and she ends both with a hope that the recipient has changed his mind about women in the intervening years. One man does indeed write back to tell her that he has changed his mind.
I am simply blown away by Holt’s courage and, well, balls. These feelings must have weighed on her through the years and informed much of her activism, particularly when it came to “desexigrating” the Help Wanted ads. One of the letters is much more difficult to read than the other. This expressive letter was written to a man who told her that “women are just office furniture”. That Holt could write to him, clearly state her feelings at the time and then end by effectively positioning him to easily claim reform is not only brilliant but shows both an amazing maturity and a sound rationality. If I had received such a letter, I would be kicking myself for not having hired such a daring and brilliant mind.
Holt Carleton (as she is known) is still alive and I can’t wait to talk with her.