What my grandmother taught me about feminism

Happy Mother’s Day! In honor of all the amazing moms, grandmothers, step-mothers, older sisters, aunts, godmothers, and female role models out there, we’re celebrating with stories of our relationships with our mother figures. 

My grandmother gave me birthday cards with cats on them every year, no matter how old I got. She loved cats. She gave me a penguin calendar card on one visit, because I love penguins. And when she passed, she gave me a brown and white knit sweater from the 1960s. When I wear it, I feel like her. But there were other things, greater things, she gave me, that she will never know. She gave me pride in myself, confidence, and the feeling that I could do anything. Also, through her support, she inadvertently taught me more about feminism.

My grandmother was born in the latter 1920s and was raised to grow up, get married and have children. It was highly controversial for a woman to go out and do anything without a man. She never traveled by herself. She never went out of the country. I don’t even think she did anything outdoorsy by herself  like hike or camp. I doubt she ever had a “girls weekend.” My grandmother lived a fairly typical, straight-laced life. That’s not to say my grandmother was typical or straight-laced though. Even into her 80s, she still rocked out to Led Zeppelin and The Eagles. She had great taste in music. She was feisty and spunky up until the very end. She may have been raised in a time where women were held back, but she didn’t hold to those ideals.

I have always been an independent woman. I have dreams and goals and I actively pursue them. While many women my age are concerned with getting married and having kids (and that’s fine, y’all, you do you), my focus is on my career and my personal life experiences. While I eventually want to get married and have kids, I’m currently more focused on writing a novel, backpacking through Europe, or hiking trails along the Appalachian. My grandma was always supportive of that.

When I was 20, I did an internship in New York City. I moved from my small Indiana town to the big city without knowing a single person in the five boroughs. I had been to New York a few times, but I still didn’t know where things were and how to navigate the subway. I was thrust into a world vastly different from the one I knew. I remember talking to my grandma on the phone. She was concerned for my safety, but was also so proud of me. She told me that she could “never do that.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she could never up and move to a big city by herself. There was no sense of condescension in her tone; it was more admiration. She called me brave. I had never thought of myself as brave before.

When I was 24, I got on a plane by myself and traveled to France. I met a few of my friends there, one of whom worked with me in New York. It was one of the best times of my life. My grandma had always wanted to go to France. I remember she had this decorative plate with the Arc de Triomphe on it. Once I was there, I knew I had to get her the best souvenir. I called her while I was there and she, again, said how brave I was. She said, “I could never go to a country where I don’t know the language.” While I know enough French to get by, I understood the sentiment.

That following birthday, there was a handwritten letter from her inside my annual cat birthday card. She wrote how proud she was of me. She told me I had courage and that I was strong. She wrote a lot of things. I had never felt more supported. That letter taught me to have pride in myself, because, while I wasn’t doing the things so many other people were, I was living my life fearlessly the way I wanted to. She made me feel like I could do anything.

After that letter, I felt I could talk to her more openly about things. We talked about boys and relationships and I told her I that I didn’t feel ready for marriage and kids and in her feisty tone, she waved it off, telling me to wait until I’m ready. Other grandparents worry if I’ll ever get married, but she knew I wasn’t ready. she reassured me that I was doing nothing wrong.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my grandmother and just how much she helped me. I think there is something to be said for the generational gap and just how far feminism has come. While she supported my life choices, she didn’t make those choices for herself. She didn’t because it wasn’t socially acceptable. She didn’t because the mass majority didn’t. I think if circumstances were different, she would have lived a totally separate kind of life. As it is, I’m grateful that she lead the life she did. It was one that provided so much support and love for me.

In a way I think my grandmother was born in the wrong decade. I only hope, in some way, she can still live through me. I’ll continue taking her with me wherever I go.

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