“Steamy Love Letters”: Re-Discovering the Poetry of Ina E. Gittings

Typed on what are now 100-year-old pages, a handful of poems discovered in an attic offer a glimpse of the inner life of Ina E. Gittings (1885-1966). Gittings’ archival presence covers several states in the American West and Midwest, given her status as a nationally-recognized physical educator with a decades-long career at three universities. These include University of Nebraska, University of Montana, and finally, 35 years at University of Arizona. But upon her death, family members gathered to empty her small home on Helen Street in Tucson and, as reported by a great-nephew, “threw out all the steamy love letters,” boxes spanning decades and going back to World War I. In 2014, one of Gittings’ nieces stated that, although her father—Ina’s much-younger brother—adored his sister, her mother did not, “because of her lifestyle,” clarifying, “she was a lesbian.” No records suggest Gittings ever used that term as a self-descriptor, even as the poems’ author termed herself “the gypsy lover” and “a woman in love” in poems directed to women. When downsizing in 2016, the same niece came across that small batch of poems with a round head fastener shoved through their collective body.

As we assess the historical record as part of the project that is The Revolution (Relaunch), it can be useful to acknowledge the role of shifting language in uncovering or rendering invisible a past that exposes the longer history of contemporary issues. Commonplace use of racist, sexist, and archaic terms fills newspapers, books, and archives; feminism was not used anywhere till the 1890s and rarely till decades later; gay and queer did not tend to imply what they do today; and lesbian suggested mental illness to such a degree one is hard-pressed to find even the most out woman embrace the term in the early-20th century. Yes, a woman could desire only women, intimately live with one for years, but not be a lesbian.

Ina E. Gittings lived a public life—and apparently not one of agony, self-loathing, or isolation. What, then, do we make of poems that were initialed and sometimes dated by the author, that occasionally contained tantalizing dedications such as “To W.” or “To H.”? One bold poem, which she dedicated “To W, & D.” in 1922 and was titled “The Unwelcome Wedding Guest” may offer clues (Figure 1).

Wilma M. Wood (L) and Ina E. Gitting (R), “PE Camp,” Crete, NE, May 1916. University of Nebraska Library (RG23-18-11), Box 1, Folder 9.

In 1914, Gittings homesteaded with Wilma Wood (the possible identity of the mysterious “W.”), who she met at University of Nebraska around 1908. They christened their combined lands, “Wilina,” intertwining their names and lives. A faded 1916 photo taken by a student documents their ongoing friendship and professional association (Figure 2). They remained in life-long contact, even after Wood married Richard Corder (could he be the “D.,” shorthand for Dick?) in 1922 or 1923.

Likely following the lead of writers of Gittings’ era such as Kate Chopin and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, she employs the metaphor of the locked cage that marriage often was. Although less appropriate today, her use of “gypsy” to describe those living outside the margins of acceptable society resonates with the implications of same-sex love and life-long devotion. Here, Gittings suggests she is the “gypsy lover” observing the wedding, whose deeper bond with “that proud, gay gypsy soul” trumps all others, with the “harvest” of their relationship vastly more valuable than anything the man at the alter could give.

That Gitings and Wood remained in close contact suggests that “‘Spite vows unnumbered, taken and given,” the fuller harvest may have indeed been hers.

Pamela Stewart is an editor/writer for TRR.

Cover Image/Figure. 1: Ina E. Gittings poem, early-20th century, in possession of Pamela Stewart. All rights reserved.