The Quiet Feminism of My Grandma

The more I reflect on my Grandmother’s life, the more I can say with confidence that she was a feminist.

From the surface, it would seem that the opposite was true. Born in 1939, Grandma grew up in the segregated South, worked with her family in the kitchen of the local “White Only” country club, became a teacher, married young, had children, and stayed married until the day she died. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that my Grandmother was the 1st in her family to graduate college in 1963, started an elementary performing arts program in Washington DC that served over 1000 public school students, and still managed to raise two generations of children in one home.

Though she never invested herself, she taught me the importance of financial freedom through limiting debt, investing, and home ownership. Never disparaging men, instead she would say “Never become dependent on one person, but don’t be above asking for help either.”

It’s a balance I’m still trying to master.

Even in her relationship with my Grandaddy, which wasn’t always the best, Grandma demonstrated what resilience looks like. She demanded to be treated as an equal during an era when women barely worked outside of the home. There wasn’t a business venture or deal made without her knowledge (thought not always with her consent). Recalling the miserable lives of the wealthy women she worked for in Virginia, married to men they didn’t know with occupations they didn’t understand, she vowed that she would never be trapped in a life she didn’t have a say in. And she taught her granddaughters to never settle for such a fate.

I think that people assume there is one face of Feminism. It’s usually a “wild woman” who unabashedly hates all men. But like all things, it’s more nuanced than that.

Feminism can be as simple as being the oldest girl in a rural black family setting the example of going to college. Or as complex as serving an erased community in the shadow of the Nation’s capital.

I didn’t understand as a child how important it was to be raised to believe in myself. That the loving sternness of a schoolteacher could instill in me a courage some women wait all of their lives to achieve. I am who I am because of my grandmother. I’m sure that is a form of feminism.