Today’s epidemic of COVID vaccine hesitancy and resistance among mothers would be something totally baffling to my own mid-century mother.
“Hesitant about what?” I imagine her asking incredulously? “Saving their child’s life? Resistant to saving neighbors? Who ever heard of such a thing? Meshuggenehs.”
Pandemic parenting today is very different than when I was a child.
Seventy years ago, mothers were the backbone of the fight to get a vaccine for a frightening virus sweeping across the country infecting thousands of children each year.
Until the coronavirus, no disease struck the same terror as polio.
As the front line defender of her family’s health, my own mother Betty was active in the war against polio, becoming a foot soldier in the Mothers March For Polio in the early 1950s.
A long-forgotten movement but one that had a major impact on the development of the polio vaccine was the March of Dime’s Mothers March for Polio.
For two hours each January 30th ( the birthday of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) hundreds of thousands of women formed the largest charitable army the country had ever known going door to door, raising millions of dollars used in polio research for a vaccine.
The Miracle Polio Vaccine
For kids of my generation, the polio vaccine was a game-changer.
In fact, I would take for granted one of the most remarkable developments in modern history.
The polio vaccine.
Approved in April 1955, a mere two weeks after I was born the polio vaccine was nothing short of a modern wonder.
For the first half of the century, polio was the most notorious and feared disease. And for good reason. Polio hit without warning. There was no way of telling who would get it and who would be spared.
Like clockwork every summer, newspapers, with headlines screaming “Polio panic,” would appear with frightening photos of jammed-packed polio wards and deserted beaches. The images of little children enclosed in an iron lung would haunt frightened parents. Unable to breathe due to the virus paralyzing muscle groups in the chest, the iron lung, a tank respirator, maintained respiration and was a lifesaver.
For nearly a decade into the buoyant postwar era, infantile paralysis remained a frightening disease to haunt our lives.
Flush with the triumphant victory of winning a war on two sides of the globe, we were still fighting a major battle right here in our own country, and in a way unfamiliar to Americans.
We were losing.
At a time when our confidence in American know-how and scientific expertise was at an all-time high, polio seemed to mock our can-do optimism. The triumph over any enemy was an American birthright, so with that same can-do spirit, the troops were rallied with their resonating war cry: “Polio can be conquered.”
It would become all-out war.
And Betty Edelstein didn’t hesitate enlisting in the battle against polio.
All Out War
Stored away in dusty cardboard boxes in my basement is the yellowing paper trail of her devotion to this cause.
Along with battle-scarred scraps of paper, March of Dimes pamphlets, and brittle newspaper clippings disintegrating in my hands, were my mother’s old composition notebooks. Scribbled in waterman’s ink, the pages were filled with information, contacts, and talking points for the Mothers March for Polio. The box contained a story she didn’t share much in later years, but it is one worth acknowledging.
The Mothers March For Polio began in 1950 in Phoenix as a door-to-door campaign and it was so successful it became a nationwide movement the next year.
The March of Dimes spread the concept around the country through films with a definite war theme. Following a military model, the narrator instructed each group to rank the mother volunteers as captains, lieutenants’ sergeants, and corporals and assign specific duties.
The big guns of entertainment were enlisted to drum up support for the March helping to spread the word on radio and TV spots. From leading man Henry Fonda urging women to volunteer and “dial TEmpleton8- 8700 right away and you’ll be helping some youngster tomorrow” to dreamy crooner Perry Como assuring women “it took just two minutes to send a postcard to sign up.”
Comedian Eddie Cantor who coined the name March of Dimes in 1938 as a nod to the famous newsreels “The March of Time,” was back imploring women to volunteer.
Hello, mother’s. This is Eddie Cantor a family man, a guy who loves his children as you do yours. I’ve devoted many many valuable hours to the fight against polio it’s a fight against a ruthless disease which has twisted the little lives of thousands of youngsters, your neighbor’s children your own, even mine could be next.
The greater New York March of Dimes is organizing a mother’s march on polio and certainly you mothers should help stamp out this disease. Thousands of you are needed in this mother’s march.
We were all in this together.
By January 1952 Mom had even more reason to get involved in the campaign. Pregnant with my older brother, she would soon be a mother herself with a baby born just in time for summer polio season.
My normally reserved mother apparently became very animated talking to others about this cause using any opportunity to enlist a new recruit. “…such a worthy cause for you and your own children and your neighbor’s children and you couldn’t spend a more worthy two hours in the fight against polio.”
Whether standing online at Bohaks supermarket, waiting on the subway platform, or getting her hair cut and curled at the beauty parlor, no opportunity was wasted to recruit volunteers.
“. . If you were asked to give just two hours of your time in return for a guarantee that your children will never come down with polio you wouldn’t hesitate. I’m sure of course no one can give you that guarantee but just two hours can help pay for research to protect tomorrow’s children against infant child paralysis.
Utilizing her well-rehearsed spiel diligently recorded in her notes, she would convince dozens and dozens of New York City housewives to join up.
“For this just two hours maybe the most important one hundred twenty minutes you ever spent that’s all that is asked of you to participate in the mother’s march on polio.
Along with the millions of other concerned mothers across the country, Mom was on a mission.
The week before the January march a few dozen local women met in my parent’s small Woodside, Queens apartment to map out the strategy. It was the final week of recruiting for that year. Each woman was assigned to a specific block to canvas.
It was the first time Mom was hosting so many people in the cramped quarters and she had the jitters. After doing a quick run of the Bissel carpet sweeper through the house, she pulled out the extra Samsonite metal folding chairs from the closet, counting to make sure there were enough for the swollen bellied girls to rest their swollen ankles on.
In those days it seemed there were always bound to be several women in the group who were “in the family way.”
Mom gently removed the black-out cake from the green and brown Ebingers box that was sitting on the counter, saving the red and white striped string to put in her junk drawer. She was grateful to her Aunt Irene for bringing it with her from Brooklyn on her visit the day before.
Once the women were finished exchanging hints on such vital information as which was the best diaper service, the most reliable milkman, the ladies got on the topic of the march.
As First Lieutenant Mom had an important dispatch from the front lines. After filling the coffee cups, she sliced a piece of cake for each gal, carefully licking the chocolate frosting from the knife, she explained.
That afternoon at the Laurent Restaurant on East 56th Street, fifty-three young mothers in wheelchairs, all recent victims of polio, met to discuss enlisting proxies to do their fundraising marching on the evening of January 30. A 22-year-old woman from Brooklyn suggested that each one form “a pyramid club” by recruiting 5 volunteers each of whom would recruit 5 more.
My mother volunteered to march for one of those young stricken mothers that year, going block by block, house to house ringing doorbells for solicitations. It would be an unfamiliar neighborhood but for a very familiar cause.
We were all in this together.
On a chilly January 30th close to 200,000 women marched. From 7-9 people were urged to leave their porch lights on to show the volunteers they were welcome. Every volunteer carried the familiar March of Dimes Collection can decorate with the heartbreaking pictures of little girls with steel braces. These cans were ubiquitous in post-war America, appearing on every store counter from candy stores to libraries to corner grocers.
Their singular goal- to get a Vaccine.
These female marchers who were once an indelible image of postwar America served as a model for later marches held by mothers against nuclear testing and saving the environment.
These are lessons in vaccine advocacy, not hesitancy.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.