Jennie Stevenson always carried a pistol. “She kept it in her bosom, all the time,” cousins and uncles would say to me at my in-laws’ family reunions. Jennie was my husband’s great-aunt. “She and her husband ran a hush-hush, and she might be dancing, but she’d have that pistol in her dress. Just in case.”
A hush-hush was a speakeasy, and Jennie and her husband ran one in their home in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during the 1920s. Jennie was worried about robbery or fighting in their place. People knew Jennie, knew she’d protect herself and her house if she had to, but I never heard of her using the pistol there. She had used a gun before when she was younger, a teenage girl who’d fled a violent, abusive stepfather in Texas. The granddaughter of an enslaved woman, she had made her way to Oklahoma, and the legend was that she worked in a “place outside town, you know. One of those places.” There was a house in front, run by a white woman, for white customers; Jennie worked in the smaller house in back, for black customers. But one night, a white man forced his way into the back house and raped Jennie. She shot him in the head. She’d had a little pistol in her dress pocket.
During that same time, on the desolate prairies of eastern Colorado, my grandmother went to a dance at a one-room schoolhouse with three of her four sisters. She was nineteen, very small, with dark hair and big, dark eyes. The walls were lined with young men, but not a single one asked her to dance. She was forlorn until a young rancher named Robert Straight finally approached her. He was her sole suitor, and they were married shortly after.
My great-uncles and cousins, sitting in a small clapboard house in Nunn, Colorado, told me this story two years ago, glancing at me with some pity because I never knew my grandmother, who died long before I was born, whose life was short because of violence and poverty and hypertension. The story goes that when Robert Straight walked into that dance, he decided then and there that he wanted to marry Ruby. He’d gone around the schoolhouse and displayed his gun to every single man, telling them that if anyone asked her to dance, he’d shoot.
I keep thinking about those single weapons, hidden inside clothes, and how their presence changed two women’s lives. Jennie was a survivor of sexual violence — and she survived because she owned a gun. Ruby never knew about that hidden weapon and married a violent, abusive man who constantly threatened others with guns. She fled him again and again but always went back. She never shot a gun in her life.
I’ve raised three daughters whose heritage includes both Jennie and Ruby. I’ve taught them the history and weight of guns, never thinking that the world would be as random and lawless as the past. I’ve taught them to be wary and protective of themselves, their sisters, and their friends, and to take a long time to trust a man.
Even though their father took each daughter to the shooting range once and had them fire his shotgun at male targets, now they would never own guns or associate with people who do. Their lives are very different from ours: my husband and I met in junior high and grew up in a rough place during a rough time. But these rough times are far worse: we confess our fears to each other, as Americans living with the constant, soul-crushing worry of strangers with automatic weapons, or a disgruntled spouse, or student, or coworker, or neighbor with a rifle or handgun.