Phenomenal Women: An ode to those who inspire us

When my Fem 2.0 editor sent out a request for us to ponder which woman inspire us, I posted the question on Facebook. I was curious if there would be a consensus (there wasn’t). And I was curious to know what kind of woman it was that invoked such an awesome emotion. After all, to inspire someone is pretty magical.

There were quite a few nominations for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as Vandana Shiva. Others nominated were Frances Fox Piven, Mother Theresa, Kathleen Hanna (love that!), Aung San Suu Kyi, Kathleen Zellner and many more. Indeed, I was impressed by how many women there are to be inspired by! A few people mentioned that they were inspired by people who are not politicians or at all famous, including family members.

As much as I am inspired sometimes by famous women, the truth is when I think about which woman, or women, inspires me most I always go back to my grandmothers.

My grandmothers could not have been more different, even though they were born and raised in the same Midwest state, less than 50 miles from each other. I had what you might call a Country Grandma and a City Grandma, but for all their differences, both of them taught me so much about life and being a smart, fierce, strong woman in this world.

My Country Grandma was born, raised, and died on the same farm. Widowed and left to raise three young girls on her own, she stared bravely into the face of an American culture of the 1960s that did not take kindly to single mothers. Having survived a sexual assault as a girl, she taught all her girls how to shoot guns and drive a car before they were 15. Life was hard on the farm and they were miles away from anywhere. But she put herself through night school and became a nurse in the maternity ward of the very same hospital where I was born. (She gave me my first bath!) As she continued to have a productive cattle farm (her livestock was sold for meat), she had to make men respect her, even as they looked down on her barely 5-foot frame. And when my mother became another unplanned teenage pregnancy statistic of 1976, my grandmother took us in and became my rock. No matter how strange things got with my often inept young parents, my Country Grandmother was there, full of spit and fire and a sureness about life that was at once comforting and, indeed, inspiring. What I learned from her more than anything else is that you have to respect yourself before anyone else will respect you. And that sometimes you have to make a lot of noise and make people really uncomfortable before they will give you a seat at the table. But you won’t get anywhere if you give up.

On the other side of the coin was my City Grandmother. Where my Country Grandmother would dole out folk-wisdom and fill a room with a hearty bellow of a laugh, my City Grandmother was all class. She was a lady in an era of ladies. She wore an apron and her garden always had beautiful flowers smiling up at you. But this is not to say that my City Grandmother was conventional. As a young woman, she got a music scholarship from playing the violin, which meant she left home and went to college in an age when that was quite rare. After college, she worked as a teacher even after she married my Grandfather. (Working after marriage! Such a rebel!) And she continued to juggle her many talents — from teaching, to secretarial work, to work as a seamstress and tailor — throughout my father’s childhood. When I was girl, my City Grandmother, then working as a librarian, taught me how to write a well-crafted, hand-written letter (my first foray into story-telling), and she encouraged me to use my imagination to turn the mundane — like metal tins full of old buttons — into a thrilling afternoon, dancing around her living room with home-made maracas. If my Country Grandmother taught me to walk with a big stick, my City Grandmother was the one who helped me understand how to speak softly while using it. And perhaps because the world around her couldn’t understand her desire to work outside the home and to use her artistic side to create beautiful things — she once made me a life-size baby doll, making every stitch of the doll, its clothes and hair — my City Grandmother always reminded me that having a big imagination and marching to your own beat is a blessing, not a curse.

Together my two grandmothers showed me the strength and power of being a woman. They taught me the thrill of making mud pies and the thrill of making something beautiful. Each of them encouraged me to be my authentic self and never let the outside world force me to compromise my spirit for the sake of fitting in or being popular. They also were living examples of the fact that there is no such thing as “women’s work.” There is just work. And it needs to get done.

Sadly, both of my grandmothers have now passed away. I think of them all the time, especially now that I am raising my daughter. But the lessons I received will be passed down and I can only hope that I can match my Country Grandmother’s fire and my City Grandmother’s imagination in my daughter’s eyes.

Here’s hoping that whomever you see as inspirational, that you use that to propel you forward in 2013!

This post originally appeared on Fem 2.0.

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