Fun with my ancestor

Violet at the Middle Atlantic regional women’s club convention in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo by Henri Belcher-Stack

Dear Great-grandma Mary,

I am so pleased with the new direction our collaboration is taking. This phase began with the talented Jami D, who sings in a Fleetwood Mac cover band and is conscious of the power of costume. She suggested I get a 1910s outfit to wear when I give presentations about my book, To March or to Marry, a historical novel about suffrage and women’s clubs.

I started looking for one of those long white dresses the suffs used to wear to marches. Nothing affordable was to be found, but in my closet I discovered a skirt and jacket that approximated the style of the suits of a century ago. Performer and hat-maker Mindy Fradkin, a.k.a. Princess Wow, trimmed a hat with fabric, netting, a pin, a bow, and a purple plume, and voilà, I could pass for either a suffragette or a clubwoman. I wore it to a women’s club convention where I was selling books, and the outfit was a hit–especially the hat.

Last week, I made plans to dress up for a Phoenicia Library Zoom reading, and it seemed odd to appear in that get-up as myself. Why not go as you, since one of the protagonists is the book is based on you? And you were so obliging, furnishing words for me to say, as well as sly little jokes like the ones you were fond of inserting into your writings. I had a grand time, and you seemed to enjoy your venture into the 21st century. At last I can apply those years of amateur acting at the Phoenicia Playhouse.

From now on, I plan to have you substitute for me every time I give a talk about the book. (“Violet Snow has been unavoidably delayed, so her great-grandmother has offered to speak in her place.” That’s how I’ll be introduced to the Daughters of the American Revolution, Peter Minuit Chapter, on November 1.)

When I was reading your travel diary and your letters, I had such a longing to know you, and I wished I had been around when you were alive. By writing this book, which draws so much from your letters, I had the chance to spend time with you, and now we are getting even closer. You are such a lively companion! Thank you for saving all those letters, announcements, your marriage certificate, your sons’ report cards, my grandmother‘s baby book (even though it’s slightly creepy to touch the fine blonde hair clipped from the head of my grandmother when she was a baby). I have so many ways of getting to know you. Now I can even be you for an hour at a time. What a joy!

Love, Violet

Note to readers:

To order To March or to Marry in paperback or eBook, click here.

Check out this article on how my great-grandmother, Mary Wingebach, became a character in my novel, from Best Self magazine:

And you are invited to tune in to a livestreamed show on Sunday, October 24, at 7 p.m., as the incisive Betty MacDonald interviews Mary Wingebach, who will also read from To March or to Marry:

#bestself #bestselfmag #bestselfmedia #suffrage #suffragette #ancestors #historicalnovel #historicalfiction

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Suffragists marched, while clubwomen married

Both the suffrage movement and the women’s club movement were vital to the unfolding of feminism in the early 1900s. It’s true that many suffragists were married, and there were clubwomen who joined the suffrage parades, but I chose the title To March or to Marry for my historical novel (now available from to highlight the often conflicting worlds of these two profoundly influential groups of women.

There’s no doubt the suffragettes were flashier and more memorable, while the once hugely popular women’s clubs have disappeared from public consciousness. Suffrage leader Harriot Stanton Blatch made sure her cause made attention-grabbing headlines through activities such as campaigning at an amusement park, as the The Brooklyn Times reported on August 8, 1913:

“’Votes for women’ was the cry at Luna Park yesterday. Fifteen hundred suffragists invaded the place, and the cry resounded from shoot-the-chutes, the Dragon’s Gorge, the Crazy City and some even imagined that the little tots in the the infant incubators gently cooed ‘Votes for women.’”

Most of the clubs, on the other hand, tended to regard public protest as an unfeminine activity. They were more interested in either studying culture or improving their communities:

“The Long Island Council of Women’s Clubs…adopted a resolution protesting against building any more elevated railroads in Brooklyn.”–The Chat, February 6, 1915

“[In Hempstead, Long Island], great progress is being made on the work at Harper Park, and what was once an unsightly marsh will soon assume the aspect of a beautiful park. Credit for this is entirely due to the Hempstead Women’s Club, through whose efforts sufficient money was raised to carry on the project.”–The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 15, 1913

Although the clubs held a domestic vision of femininity, they changed men’s attitudes toward women and women’s understanding of what they were capable of achieving. Many clubwomen went into business and politics after clubs gave them practice in research, writing, public speaking, and lobbying.

New York Governor Charles Whitman acknowledged this progress when he addressed the General Federation of Women’s Clubs in 1915, stating, “I won’t dispute the dictum that woman’s place is in the home, but the State has entered the home, and woman must take an active interest in the State to care for the home. Much of the outside work is mothering on a large scale.”—New York Times, May 15, 1915

What the news articles fail to reveal is the crises in women’s lives that propelled them to take action. Why would a suffragist risk arrest by picketing in front of the White House? What led a clubwoman to write a paper on the illegality of giving birth control advice to women? These personal stories bring the life and times of our foremothers into sharp focus in To March or to Marry, now on sale in softcover and ebook.

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New-York Tribune reports on the influenza epidemic of 1918

nursesAs U.S. women were struggling toward the vote, and World War I was nearing its end, an influenza pandemic broke out in 1918. The disease had hit earlier in the year and then passed, but in the fall, a more virulent strain brought an epidemic to New York City for about two months. Much of the reporting by the New-York Tribune in that period sounds familiar, while other details highlight differences due to the passage of time.

September 18: The city’s Board of Health made influenza and pneumonia “reportable” by doctors, as cases were found on incoming ships. Thousands of cases had occurred in Boston.

September 29: Influenza was on the increase in U.S. military camps, limiting the number of soldiers who could be sent overseas to the war. New York City’s Commissioner of Health, Dr. Royal C. Copeland, advised against overcrowding on subways to prevent transmission of disease. The city so far had 1360 cases reported. Congress appropriated $1,000,000 to fight the flu.

October 5: In Washington DC, the Surgeon General said all communities “stricken with influenza” should close their churches, schools and theaters.

New York City schools remained open as there were few cases in the schools, which were considered the safest places for children to be. The opening and closing times of different types of businesses (shops, wholesalers, offices, textile manufacturers, non-textile manufacturers) were staggered, in order to lessen crowding on subways and streetcars.

In 24 hours, 108 men were fined for spitting in the street. Twenty soda fountain proprietors were fined for failing to wash glasses between use by customers.

October 17: Five thousand new cases were reported in NYC in one day, along with 680 deaths. Across the country, an estimated 180,000 people were thrown out of work by the closing of theaters.

October 22: Copeland declared that influenza was “burning out” in the city, as the number of new cases decreased. Some landlords had to be forced to supply heat in their buildings, with lack of heat blamed for influenza in tenements. Prosecution was underway for people who were profiteering in funerals and drugs. The Academy of Medicine proposed making it a misdemeanor to cough or sneeze in a public place without covering the mouth and nose.

October 29: The epidemic appeared to be waning across most of the nation. Motion picture theaters were expected to reopen within the week.

October 30: Despite the influenza, suffragists reported they had registered 600,000 women voters upstate and 400,000 in New York City for the first national election to take place since the state approved its woman suffrage referendum the year before.

November 7: Copeland sought foster parents for 400 children orphaned by the epidemic. The number of daily influenza cases continued to drop.

November 8: City residents were advised to use coal sparingly, as national production of anthracite was down 500,000 tons due to the epidemic. To prevent tuberculosis and nervous disorders in those recovering from the influenza, Copeland planned to send nurses into the homes of convalescents to supply advice.

November 12: Only 108 new cases were reported in 24 hours. The Health Department took a holiday to celebrate the end of the war.

November 13: Dry goods manufacturers and the typesetters union petitioned for an end to staggered opening times now that the epidemic was over.

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Suffrage advertising gimmicks, plus civil disobedience

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Suffrage hat and sash

“Although the proposition that women should vote is seriously and profoundly true, it will at first be established…much as the virtues of a breakfast cereal are established, by affirmation.”–suffrage leader Harriot Stanton Blatch, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Picture a poor neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1914. A horse tows a former lunch van down the street, and the wagon is parked at a corner. Young women emerge, bearing a banner that says “Votes for Women,” and one of them shouts out a speech that attracts passersby, who gather to listen and to examine the truck. Across the van’s pull-down side panel, another woman is selling, for pennies apiece, suffrage literature, suffrage pencils, and suffrage cigarettes.

The “roving store” was just one of one many gimmicks that Harriot Blatch of the Women’s Political Union (WPU) devised as she sought to infiltrate the hearts of U.S. citizens and convert them to the cause of suffrage. Blatch was no lightweight. She gloried in battling with legislators as she urged them to support a New York State referendum on giving women the vote. But she also recognized that the most effective pressure on politicians came from their constituents.

Exploiting the new technology of moving pictures, the WPU collaborated with a Manhattan film company to produce a movie entitled “The Suffragette and the Man,” in which a young woman is forced to choose between her suffrage stance and her fiancé. She sticks to her principles but eventually wins over the fellow as well, taking him back from an anti-suffrage rival.

Parades were another method of rousing popular enthusiasm for the cause, and suffrage parades were organized in great detail, down to the colors worn by marchers. Leading up to the May 1913 New York City parade, Blatch announced a contest in which prominent male artists judged suffrage hats decorated by individual women. As Blatch’s biographer, Ellen Carol DuBois observes, this attention-getting stunt not only rewarded creativity but also made fun of the enormous hats worn by wealthy women and criticized by suffragists for limiting mobility.

When Alice Paul organized the first Washington DC parade in 1913, the day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson, she arranged a tableau of dancers representing Liberty, Charity, Justice, and other noble principles. The women performed at the plaza in front of the Treasury Building as the parade passed by.

Paul’s ultimate and most serious stunt was the silent picketing of the White House to protest the president’s refusal to endorse national suffrage. Like the British suffs both Paul and Blatch had learned from, U.S. protestors were eventually arrested, and many of them went on hunger strike while in prison. The protests, which continued after the U.S. had entered World War I, were widely criticized as unpatriotic and childish, but they led to increases in membership and donations to Paul’s organization, the National Woman’s Party. Newspaper reports on the treatment of imprisoned women proved embarrassing to the administration.

When Wilson finally came out in favor of suffrage, he said women had proved their worth by taking over the work of men who had gone off to war. But there was no doubt in the minds of suffragists that publicity about their protests had contributed to the president’s change of position.

Violet Snow’s historical novel, To March or to Marry, is about suffrage and the women’s club movement. You can read more about it or purchase it here.

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Women’s clubs go mainstream

miller ad

Ad from the 1921 Register of Women’s Clubs

In addition to ads for baking powder, shoe polish, cloth (flannels, draperies, worsteds, gabardines), and other household products, The Register of Women’s Clubs contained advertising for educational offerings aimed at clubwomen. For instance, not every club had access to a library, so publications offered articles to help women research papers. One ad read:

Every club member will find The Yale Review exceptionally useful for club papers and discussions. The Yale Review has many requests for copies containing articles for such use. “The Novels of 1920,” by Wilbur Cross in the January number, was especially good for this purpose.

The Register of Women’s Clubs listed clubs, their presidents, and the department heads of state Federations of Women’s Clubs. The national Federation had over 1.5 million members by 1914, six years before the suffrage amendment was ratified. In small towns, new clubs sought structure as they made their sometimes tentative way into existence, and domestic topics made an easy transition.

A Course of Study in Bread Facts – For the use of Women’s Clubs, Extension Workers, Schools and the Public. SUMMARY OF TOPICS 1. Bread-making—an ancient art; its development—an index of civilization. 2. Evolution of the Grain-Raising Industry. 3. The Yeast Family. 4. Old vs. New Methods of Baking….

Screen Shot 2019-10-24 at 9.15.19 PMSelf-improvement clubs focused on subjects that were literary or related to home life. Other clubs were devoted to social reform in the period when women’s consciences were provoked by the spread of poverty and environmental destruction during the Industrial Revolution. Club meetings tended to revolve around the reading out of papers by women who had researched specific topics, but guest lecturers or performers were sometimes invited.

A handbook entitled Woman’s Club Work and Programs by Caroline French Benton was published in 1913, giving explicit guidance to women who wanted to start clubs. Benton offers outlines for programs on The Modern Drama, The Opera, The American Women Writers, The Home, Town Improvement, Nature, and so on. Each program contained a summary of subtopics and a bibliography for suggested research, designed to fill either ten or twenty meetings.

But many clubs were self-reliant, with a committee of members selecting topics. In 1905, my great-grandmother, Mary Wingebach, wrote to her mother:

The President appointed committees for the reception and for preparing the programme of next year. Mrs. Wingebach is Chairman of the Programme Committee, and is also a member of the other committee. Am I not in it? I have been many times congratulated on the way I have been able to attend and keep up my papers this year, and all it has entailed has been to leave my blessed baby about three hours each week. That is certainly not neglect, is it?

My heart warms at the thought of my plucky ancestor leaping into the role of committee chair while embracing the intellectual life.

Violet Snow’s historical novel, To March or to Marry, is about suffrage and the women’s club movement. You can read more about it or purchase it here.

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Women who didn’t want the vote

anti flyerIt’s hard for us to imagine, in the modern world, that there were women who were aware of the suffrage movement in the 1800s and early 1900s and yet were not interested in gaining the right to vote. In fact, most of the leaders of anti-suffrage organizations were women. Most women’s clubs, whose members were intent on learning and self-improvement, refused to allow discussion of the controversial issue of suffrage at their meetings.

How do we understand the reluctance, or even opposition, of women to pursuing their own right to participate in the democratic process?

It’s important to recognize the prevailing attitudes about gender in the early years of the United States. At first, men’s and women’s spheres overlapped in rural life, where the labor of wives and daughters was essential to the success of a farm. As the 1800s progressed, the Industrial Revolution created a middle class in which men were drawn into the urban and small-town workforce, while women were confined to the role of homemaker. One writer, Mrs. John Sandford, described the ideal woman in an 1838 text on domesticity:

It is not to shine, but to please, that a woman should desire; and she will do so only when she is graceful and unaffected, when her wish is not so much to be admired as to contribute to the gratification of others.*

Women were socialized to conform to nurturing, homebound roles and shamed for moving outside them. When female study circles were formed in the mid-1800s, devoted to the relatively mild goal of “cultivation and improvement of the mind,” they had to contend with opposition, as evidenced by the inaugural address of the first president of the short-lived Edgeworthalean Society of Bloomington, Indiana, organized in 1841:

It is agreed by many that mental culture unfits a woman for the performance of those domestic employments which make a part of her daily duties. That this pursuit, like everything under the sun, may be abused, perverted, cannot be denied; but surely when properly directed it has no such tendency….*

By the turn of the century, when the women’s club movement was in full swing, “mental culture” had become widely accepted as a female endeavor. However, it was a big leap from writing a paper on Sophocles to insisting that women should have the vote.

Most of the leaders of the suffrage movement were wealthy, educated women, while the members of women’s clubs were largely middle-class and conventional. Among the reasons clubwomen resisted suffrage was a belief that their strengths lay in empathy and kindness, which made them unsuited to the rough, dirty world of politics. Some bought the contention that women were too emotional to make rational political decisions, or they simply didn’t want the responsibility. The suffragettes struck them as strident, mannish, and likely to give their gender a bad name.

But when clubs moved in the direction of social reform, as many of them did, women discovered the value of having the vote, as they found it challenging to make legislators heed their requests for such measures as universal kindergarten or citywide trash collection. In 1914, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs voted to endorse suffrage for the first time.

When the 19th amendment was finally adopted in 1920, more than six decades of club activities had surely contributed to the gradual change in attitudes that made legislators agree women should have the right to vote.

Violet Snow’s historical novel, To March or to Marry, is about suffrage and the women’s club movement. You can read more about it or purchase it here.

* The quotes cited above were found in two engaging studies on women’s clubs. The first is from The Clubwoman as Feminist by Karen J. Blair, published in 1980. The second is from The Sound of Our Own Voices: Women’s Study Clubs 1860-1910 by Theodora Penny Martin, from 1987.

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Clubwomen and the environment


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In 1910, the official proceedings of the convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs reported:

We read in the papers that every time one of the great Sunday journals of New York City is issued, thirteen acres of timberland are consumed to make up the paper; that every time one of the great ships crosses the ocean thousands of tons of coal were destroyed, and we began to feel like those prodigals and spendthrifts, who, at some supreme moment discover that their fortune has vanished….Every thoughtful man, and every thoughtful woman, began to devote something of their time and strength to that great crusade by which we hope to preserve these natural resources, not only for our selves, but for those who come after us….[E]very woman’s club is consecrated by the very existence of their organization, and by the very temperament of their nature, to preserve these great assets.

Women, “by the very temperament of their nature,” were seen as connected to the Earth. The clubs, dedicated to making use of women’s innate talents for the good of society, therefore felt it was their duty to speak out in favor of conservation of resources.

At the 1910 convention, recognizing the effects human intervention had had on the environment, a resolution was discussed

[t]hat we lend the weight of our influence to further the preservation and intelligent utilization of our forests; the reclamation of our arid lands through irrigation; the restoration of our rivers to navigability through the construction of deep waterways;…and the adequate protection of our bird life. (Referred to Forestry Committee.)

Another resolution stated,

[t]hat the Federation vigorously opposes the proposed destruction of the Hetch-Hetchy Valley and withdrawal of the finest part of National Park, to be used as a water supply for San Francisco. (Referred to Legislative Committee.)

True to their feminine instincts, the clubwomen also addressed aesthetic symbolism, recommending that

each State consider the question of a National Floral Emblem and take such action as it deems fit.

Environmental issues were just part of a club agenda that included improving conditions in schools, implementing workplace safety regulations and compensation for workers injured on the job, outlawing “food products that are either adulterated, preserved by antiseptics, peeled by lye or prepared by any process that will either conceal inferiority or diminish their food value,” and many other social issues that were especially of concern to mothers and wives.

At the 1910 convention, 42 years after the start of the women’s club movement, it was acknowledged that many smaller groups were still “study clubs,” devoted to self-improvement and learning about culture. But as the activity of the convention makes it clear, clubwomen did not wait to get the vote (finally granted nationwide in 1920) before lobbying for social reform.

Maybe your great-grandmother belonged to a women’s club.

Violet Snow’s historical novel, To March or to Marry, is about suffrage and the women’s club movement. You can read more about it or purchase it here.

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Clubs and women’s moral superiority

mary davies nyc c1900 (Mrs. WA Robinson photography studio)

Mary Davies, 1900, before her marriage to August Wingebach

When the New York City Press Club gave a reception welcoming Charles Dickens to the U.S. in 1868, journalist Jane Cunningham Croly applied for a ticket. The all-male club treated her request as a joke.

The invitation they eventually extended to a small group of women, “to prevent each other from feeling lonely,” was so condescending, Croly rescinded her application. She then started a club for professional women, called Sorosis.

Also in 1868, a group of Boston women (including poet and activist Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the lyrics to “Battle Hymn of the Republic”) independently founded the New England Women’s Club, which focused on social issues. Soon clubs began to form in towns and cities around the country, giving women—mostly white and mostly middle-class–a chance to get out of the house, socialize, and learn, changing society in the process.

For my great-grandmother, Mary Davies Wingebach, joining the Athenaeum Club in New York City must have saved her sanity. She had been working as a secretary in the field of publishing since the age of 14, when she taught herself typing and shorthand. Marriage and the abrupt transition to housework, after more than a decade as a working girl, must have been a shock. What a relief to get out of the house every Tuesday afternoon, from October through June, and share the life of the mind with other women!

The Athenaeum Club, formed in 1898 for “the intellectual and social improvement of its members,” was typical of literary clubs, in which women researched writers, artists, and historical figures and wrote papers to be read aloud at club meetings. These women were not radicals, marching for the vote. They reflected the attitudes of Jane Croly, who believed women were morally superior to men due to their focus on home and family, and they therefore had an important role to play in influencing the world outside the home. According to Karen J. Blair, author of the 1980 monograph, The Clubwoman as Feminist. “Croly’s refusal to relinquish the domestic sphere and her attempt to reconcile it with public influence yielded the Domestic Feminism that club members practiced.”

Most clubwomen’s attitudes were conservative, in comparison with the suffragettes, whose picketing, hunger striking, and political lobbying led to Congress granting women the right to vote. But Blair contends that women’s clubs had more influence than the radicals gave them credit for.

By teaching skills of researching, critical thinking, and public speaking, the clubs paved the way for women to enter business and politics. Clubs that addressed social issues lobbied government to take on responsibilities we now take for granted, such as passage of pure food and drug laws and the regulation of child labor.

The clubs also gave women an identity outside the home and permission to move beyond the limited wife and mother roles expected of them. I’m proud and grateful that my great-grandmother helped lay the groundwork for changes that my life has built upon.

Violet Snow’s historical novel, To March or to Marry, is about suffrage and the women’s club movement. You can read more about it or purchase it here.

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Election Day romance

votingBefore the commercialization of Christmas took hold, before the Easter bunny was born, and before Thanksgiving became a pig-out, Election Day was America’s big, festive holiday. Amid the Election Day celebration of 1899, my great-grandparents’ courtship began.

The history of the holiday dates back to the Puritans, who didn’t believe in having fun on Christmas or Easter. These sacred seasons were meant to be devoted to prayer, not partying. Therefore, Election Day became the party day.

George Washington’s campaign budget was entirely devoted to buying alcohol for his supporters (and potential supporters). When voters came from the Connecticut countryside to Hartford to participate in the elections, candidates’ wives baked hearty (often rum-soaked) “election cakes” to sustain the out-of-towners. This tradition is being revived in 2016 by two North Carolina bakers under the rubric “Make America Cake Again,” as reported on BonAppé

In the 1890s, when my great-grandmother, Mary Davies, was working as a secretary at the Manhattan publisher Dodd, Mead & Company, New Yorkers celebrated Election Night with bonfires, fireworks, and torchlight parades.

In the process of transcribing love letters between Mary and her husband, August Wingebach, written two years after their marriage, I discovered that they met on Election Day. I assume a party was involved.

August wrote to Mary, in October 1904:

The time is approaching that in spite of any care we will keep sacred, –the time when we were brought together. Dolly will you sometimes take me, or when I’ve taken you tell me of our ‘Election’ outing, that night, the next week, you can recall all those images, will you do so for me, Dear? Just sometimes the little Sabbaths of the soul that care ought not blight, since they are holy heritages.

On another occasion, when he’s missing her and combing nostalgically through old writings:

On page 27 of one of my Diaries I read “Miss Davies gave me the following Pome of Robert Browning to read”–(on the train that Great ‘Election Day.’ ) O my beloved Mary, hour after Hour passes yet let me but add one more excerpt from my Diary (Nov 9th, 3 days after Election).
You will recall sweet Heart that I was in Love with you before you were with me…

August had been the Sunday School teacher of Mary’s nephew. I picture an afternoon picnic, organized by the local Methodist church. After everyone has voted, they take a train ride from the Bronx up to a park in Westchester County. Maybe August catches Mary’s attention by playing his violin to entertain the group. On the way home, he sits down next to her on the train and asks what she’s reading. She shows him the Browning poem–and the rest is history.

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The Halfway Café

halfway-cafe-150x150Here is a podcast of my short story, “The Halfway Café,” narrated by a dead woman and examining such questions as: Do our ancestors watch us? Why would they care if we mourn? An outtake from my mystery novel, Stone’s House, it is based on beliefs of indigenous people about the persistence of consciousness after death. The story opens:

“The Halfway Café was almost empty. You might have thought it was a Monday night, but after you die, there are no Mondays, and no night.”

To listen to the story–part of the podcast series “The Strange Recital”–and a short, free-wheeling interview, click here:

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