Twenty Years of Service to Women
by Stacey Jones
Celebrations sometimes produce tears. When Natasha Trethewey, the United States’ newest poet laureate, finished her keynote address at the Center for Women’s 20th anniversary celebration Friday evening, September 28, many were dabbing their eyes, including the speaker herself.
Included among the more than 100 celebrants were Ali P. Crown, founding director of the Center for Women, and Patti Owen-Smith, the Oxford College professor who was among those instrumental in the center’s creation. The Center for Women at Emory was founded in 1992, in the aftermath of the rape of two female students on Emory’s fraternity row. In the years since, one of the center’s main missions has been to build awareness around issues of rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence against women.
Trethewey framed her speech in acknowledgement of this history. “Of all the important work done here at the Center for Women to support the lives of women both in and outside of the university, I find myself drawn for deeply personal reasons to the work promoting awareness of domestic violence,” she said. The statistics are startling, noted Trethewey. They show that women who escape a violent partner are nearly 70 percent more likely to be killed by their abuser. “It’s almost like deciding to free yourself and escape is indeed a death sentence,” she said.
Trethewey’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was killed by her ex-husband on June 5, 1985. At the time of her death, Turnbough was director of personnel for DeKalb County Health Department. “My mother was an educated woman, someone with all the resources at her disposal to escape a violent marriage, and yet even she could not get away,” Trethewey said. The patriarchal nature of society at the time put abused women at risk and may have sealed Turnbough’s fate. “There were no ways for my mother to hide, and yet she did everything she could to hide.”
The poet read from a 13-page narrative, handwritten by her mother and found in her briefcase the morning of her murder. “You might not think such a voice is appropriate for a celebratory event, but I believe that to hear her in her own words is to celebrate the ongoing work of the people here at the center to make a difference in the lives of women,” Trethewey said before reading.
The calmly written, focused narrative foreshadowed her daughter’s gift for language:
“I always knew that I would get out of my marriage. It was one of these things that never should have happened. The reason it did was a combination of emotional blackmail and physical threats and intimidation. Since he always said that he wasn’t happy either, I assumed that we would back out gracefully when our son left for college. So on each of his birthdays, I counted off one more year. I got down to eight.”
With the undulating inflection she uses when reciting her poetry, Trethewey continued reading her mother’s words and noted, “It is perhaps in the wake of those things that I must have become a writer, believing in the power of a woman’s voice, the power to be heard, to have the kind of agency that might change things.”
In her Pulitzer Prize–winning book of poetry, Native Guard, Trethewey wrote a few poems about her mother’s life and death, some of which she read to the audience. “For me, it’s a joy to remember my mother and to celebrate with you, so that her life means something more than her death,” she said at the conclusion of her talk.
As she returned to her seat, overcome with emotion and struggling to compose herself, she finally smiled behind a tissue and said to Dona Yarbrough, the Director of the Center for Women, “It really is a celebration, right?”
In painting a vivid picture of the woman her mother was and the way in which she continues to love her and cherish her memory, Trethewey performed an act of celebration for her mother and for all the women like her whom the Center for Women has sought to serve, protect, and heal.
Stacey Jones serves on the Center for Women at Emory (CWE) Editorial Advisory Board and is a member of the CWE Advisory Council Awards Committee. She is associate director for editorial services in Emory Creative Group, a division of the Office of Communications and Marketing.