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A New Kind of Woman

Winona L. Landis

…I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
    —Anne Sexton, “Her Kind,” 1960

Change was not an easy thing to enact in St. Mary’s County, and the women’s movement is no exception. Jane Sypher, former president of the College of Southern Maryland, remembers that most people assumed the fight for gender equality was something happening “with those crazies up the road [in DC].” The bridge between local and national had not yet been completed. However, this is the story of one St. Mary’s woman who lived life on her own terms—a shining example of female independence that was becoming so prevalent in the 1960s.

Hilda Mowery, a native of New York City by way of Ivrea, Italy, was a woman who played by her own rules from the very beginning.  After working for the U.S. Navy in Alaska, she moved to St. Mary’s County in 1953 with her children and a husband who was 10 years her junior.  She thought there was nothing odd about the age difference between herself and her husband. “Nobody else seemed to think so, either.  Of course, I never told my age.”

Not long after arriving in the area, Hilda separated from her philandering husband.  She filed for divorce after formulating an unorthodox plan to provide for herself and her children.  Hilda was determined to run a bar and nightclub in Valley Lee.  “I thought, well, he might just not approve of my running a bar and having the children there, so I better get me a divorce and get custody of the children before I do any of this.”  As strange as it seems, offering her children a loving and nurturing environment was Hilda’s whole motivation for opening a bar and nightclub.  She thought, “Well, that’s a good way to make a living where I could raise my children.  Don’t need a babysitter.  I could be there when they come home from school.  I could be there when they go to school.”

Thus, the Pink Elephant bar and nightclub was born.  Hilda, who had worked behind the bar at another establishment before striking out on her own, learned everything by watching and doing.  Despite numerous pitfalls and mistakes, she maintained her sense of humor and was never deterred:

I’ll never forget, this girl wanted a sloe gin fizz.  And I thought, how the hell do you make a sloe gin fizz?  So I got some sloe gin, and I don’t know what I put in it, and she said, ‘This tastes terrible!’  I said, ‘I know it does, let me have it, here’s a Budweiser, they come out right all the time.’

Hilda, all four feet eleven inches of her, was also the only security for the Pink Elephant.  “I was my own bouncer.  I did pretty good at it, too.”  The bar-goers took Hilda seriously and showed her a great deal of respect.  But what earned Hilda the greatest amount of respect—as well as criticism—was her penchant for taking in pregnant young women who had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.  Her unwavering willingness to help these women may have stemmed from her own experience.

I lost my first child … And I think if the doctor hadn’t gone for his coffee break, I’d have had my baby.  But it was breech … That was the most … my hair, my red hair turned gray.  I had so much gray in it you wouldn’t believe it.  When I came out of there, I didn’t know myself.  That was the most devastating thing I ever went through in my life, losing my baby.

Hilda had an arrangement with the girls she took under her wing.  While they worked for her, she gave them a place to stay in the upstairs level of the Pink Elephant until they either had their babies or found another permanent residence.  As different situations arose, Sheriff Bill Sanners and Judge Dodd would say, “Well, you can’t take the girls to jail.  Take them over to Hilda’s and she’ll find a place for them. She’ll put them up, she’ll find a job for them.” So then there’d be pregnant girls around, and everybody said, “Humph, Hilda’s running a whorehouse!”

That’s the kind of backlash Hilda endured.  People made assumptions about the character of the young women employed by Hilda, based solely on their past decisions.  She recalls, “Somebody would come in and say, ‘Well, where are all the girls?  Where are the dancing girls?’  So I would say, ‘Stick around and buy some drinks, they’ll be here.’”

Surprisingly, most of Hilda’s detractors were women.  Hilda believed they were simply jealous and gossipy, “thinking, ‘huh, what’s a girl doing running a bar by herself without a husband?’  You know, and that used to tear me up … They would accuse their husbands of coming up, you know, sleeping with me.  If I was sleeping with everybody I was accused of, I’d still be in bed!”

In hindsight, Hilda was able to laugh at the absurdity of the criticisms made against her, but at the time it hurt.

At first, I was crying myself to sleep at night, thinking that people would say these things about me.  After a while, I just took it in my stride.  I knew what I was doing, and I knew that it wasn’t true, but if they really wanted to know they could come out and look.

Perhaps what most frustrated Hilda Mowery was how strict she found herself acting with the girls in her care.  “I don’t care what you do, just don’t do it here!” she’d say.  “Nobody goes up that stairs.  Nobody that doesn’t belong here. That’s your room for sleeping for yourself, that’s it.”  While she did so much for her girls, including paying for the births of their children, she never overstepped what she considered to be her bounds:

I just took care of the situation that was at hand, you know.  I did the best I could with them.  I used to say, you know, before they’d go off some place, I’d say, ‘Look, get the fellows to respect you.  If you are going to go with them, have them get a hotel, don’t go laying around in cars.’ Stuff like that.  But as far as birth control and stuff, I didn’t.  Most of them were pretty straight.  They really didn’t mess around that I knew of, you know.  They were pretty straight.  They had already gotten in trouble, and after that, well, like I say, some of them got married, and some of them had their babies.  I had some nice girls.

Hilda never asked for anything in return from her girls except for honesty and hard work.

The Pink Elephant burned down in 1968.  Afterward, though, Hilda continued to make a name for herself.  She started a chimney sweep business in the ‘70s that’s still in operation today.  She could be seen riding around in the sweeper’s truck with a top hat perched on her head as she peeked over the dashboard and talked merrily to her customers.  She was always simply herself, despite whatever negative feedback she received.

Hilda died in 2010. It is clear that she made quite an impact on this isolated rural area, especially in the lives of many wayward young women.  She was an independent, unconventional soul, a single woman who balanced the multiple roles of mother, businesswoman, philanthropist, and earth-shaker over four decades ago.  Hilda flouted the traditional role of Southern Maryland women, and blazed her own path.

All quotes from Hilda Mowery were taken from an oral history interview conducted on March 5 and March 13, 1986.

    The SlackWater Center

    St. Mary’s College of Maryland, 1998-2013

    Header image courtesy of The Calvert Marine Museum