My grandmother's life overlapped mine for fourteenyears, and I thought I knew her well. After all, we lived in the same town, Ioften spent afternoons at her house and she ate dinner with my family everySunday night. But it wasn't until after her death that I began to learn what astrong, independent woman she had been. As our tears dried, the stories of mygrandmother's life emerged.
My mother did not grow up in a typical 1950sfamily. True, she belonged to a nuclear, middle-class family, but my grandfather,an artist, was the one who stayed home with the children. My grandmother was thefamily's breadwinner and worked as a city clerk. When the sink leaked or the doorhandle needed fixing, she was the one who hauled out the tool box. She taught herchildren how to drive and, as soon as they were in high school, divorced mygrandfather to make an independent life.
It was as a single woman, afterthe death of her second husband whom she loved, that I knew my grandmother. Iknew she owned and ran her own print shop, creating books of poetry and art bylocals, and had been an Army physical therapist during World War II. I knew shewent to conservation society meetings, had traveled to Africa and Australia as anold woman, and could make funny faces. But I didn't know she was alsoinstrumental in shutting down a pulp mill polluting a local bay and that, as cityclerk, she worked beside the male mayor doing half the work of running the citywhile receiving little credit.
When I was a child, I spent many afternoonsat her house in the forest, picking berries and making inky prints of woodblockcarvings at her shop. I absorbed her common sense and self-sufficiency andthought these normal, admirable traits for both women and men. My grandmotheralways had such an air of determination and purpose that I was surprised to learnher independence was not common among women of her generation.
I didn'trealize I was a feminist until after my grandmother died. Her only piece ofadvice I remember was to immediately say yes if someone asked me to go on anexciting trip. "Don't even think about money or time," she said in hertiny kitchen as we made huckleberry cobbler. "Just go." Her constantpresence gave me a clear picture of a strong, successful woman who refused to lether gender get in the way. She never held back from saying exactly what shethought, even if it was uncomplimentary.
I don't think I ever heard mygrandmother say the word "feminist," much less think of herself as one,but it's plain to me now that she was. By establishing herself as a person apartfrom any man, tackling problems herself and eschewing the traditional femalerole, my grandmother was a feminist.
I wish my grandmother could see howshe inspired me. Like her, I am intelligent and independent. I am going tocollege and making plans to travel the world. I set my goals regardless of thefact that I am a wo-man, even though today women are subtly discouraged fromreaching high. I know my mind and I speak it. I am not the most popular girl inmy school because of my intelligence and refusal to become a simpering waif forthe benefit of any boy who walks by, but I am following the path to happiness asI define it.
To me, feminism is women living on their own terms, takingrisks and seeking happiness without limiting themselves because of their gender.My grandmother is a success story from an era when most women got married andbecame housewives instead of going to college. She succeeded in several careersand lived happily as a single woman for many years. I doubt it ever crossed hermind that she was incapable of accomplishing anything a man could. She simplystrode forth, making her own decisions and knowing herself to be a capableperson. This, to me, is what feminism is about: rejecting the subservient femalerole and taking absolute charge of one's own life.
Women have a muchstronger voice than half a century ago. Still, the specter of the woman whotrades her dreams for marriage, who stays in the kitchen and doesn't speak heropinions, the woman who cheers men on in their games instead of playing theirown, looms above society and threatens to claim many women. As a feminist, Ireject this passive ideal and go for my own glory. My grandmother's life shapedmy own, though her influence was so profound that I didn't realize it until afterher death. Because of my grandmother, I am a feminist down to my cells. Iinherited my belief in my worth and potential, my independence, my love for achallenge, my knowledge that I am a woman and capable of forging a life formyself.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.