Somewhere between the peaceful female protesters holding signs declaring “mama” and the sight of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko wearing traditional braids, my Ukrainian heritage started calling. Moreover, I found myself in the throngs of a cultural jealousy.
My grandfather fought with the Ukrainian army in World War II. When the Germans took control, he and the men of his regiment were ordered to fight on the front lines — becoming human shields to the German soldiers behind them — or go to a concentration camp. Knowing either direction meant death, he somehow escaped and crossed a range of mountains eating grass, roots, and whatever else he could find to survive. My grandmother, who was punished for sneaking food to her jailed, starving brother in her hometown of Ternopil, assumed her husband was dead. Through horrors and wonders too plentiful to cover here, the American dream became my family’s reality. The possibilities of The United States, the reality that all those who work hard and make an honest living can survive, thrive, and pursue true happiness has been instilled in me since I was old enough to listen to the old world accents that filled the air over dinners of borscht and varenyky. So why do pictures of these contemporary Ukrainian women affect me so greatly?
They have achieved what my mother’s Helen Reddy generation sang ballads about. These are women, and the world hears them roar — not with a whimper but with a yawp Walt Whitman himself would take pride in.
These women are powerhouses — mothers honored for their strength and intelligence, not women afraid to mention their maternal roles in fear of not being taken seriously; a leader with feminine braids in her hair respected for her intelligence and bravery, not a politician cutting her hair short and wearing boxy pantsuits to hide any glimpse of femininity.
Is Ukraine a country to model after? In many ways, the suggestion is ludicrous, but when I look at the position of women in their society, I see a world far beyond the America I know today. “Mommy wars” tear through our culture; stay-at-home mothers are shunned for not contributing to the greater world, while mothers in the workforce hesitate to mention their kids to avoid being seen as not fully committed to their company roles. Women who do attain political success do so by avoiding discussion of “women’s issues” — as if political discussions can be segmented like bathroom lines.
I had a great-aunt who joined the Ukrainian resistance at age eighteen in the 1930s and spent the remainder of her life fighting for her homeland’s independence. My grandmother raised two daughters to be graceful, funny, and college-educated — even when their lives began practically penniless as immigrants in a country where they didn’t speak the language.
I have known strong women. They are in my blood, and their pictures hang on my walls. With these roots, I feel so lucky to live in a society, where equality is becoming truer and truer with each passing year. Yet our women still fight to be seen for all they are. We fight for our place. We fight among ourselves.
From beauty pageants to GE appliance commercials, we are presented a constant dichotomy between brains and beauty — a cultural construct that is perpetuating itself. Can a woman not be feminine and brilliant? Can we not be mothers and leaders, thinkers and doers alike?
I don’t pretend to be an expert in foreign affairs. All I know is that the people of Ukraine want their own country. I’ve known this since I first heard my grandfather’s war stories or my grandmother’s heavy sighs when she spoke of her long ago murdered brother.
When your ancestry shapes your present day, you want to celebrate that heritage. When I see the women of Ukraine — in the rare glimpses the media gives them — I see hope and promise for a future someday to be realized. Theirs, of course, but ours in this country as well.