Today is International Women’s Day. It’s also the day my late grandmother would have turned 111. I always thought it was fitting that she shared her special day with the day meant to celebrate and lift up all women because she was one of the toughest old ladies I’ve ever met (she was 70 when I was born, so she was always “old” to me). Born in 1910 in Weston, Massachusetts, to a blacksmith who immigrated from Nova Scotia, my grandmother and her five siblings lost their mother (also an immigrant from Nova Scotia) when they were teenagers, to illness. My grandmother lived through the 1918 pandemic, World War I, and the Depression—she recalled scraping mold off food and eating what remained during the hardest years.
Upon graduating from high school, she attended secretarial school and soon thereafter married my grandfather. They moved into the house across the street from where my grandmother was raised, and she filled her days with the things housewives were expected to do in the 1930s… with one exception: At the time, my grandparents didn’t have any children. They believed themselves unable to conceive, and they were fine with that. They spent weekends in the woods and on lakes and rivers, fly fishing and picking fruit to make pies and jams. They were happy being childless, even if they hadn’t actively chosen that life.
After 11 years of marriage, as World War II was ending, my grandmother was surprised to find herself pregnant with my aunt. Four years later, she had my father. She loved being a mother, but always said that she would have been completely content to have remained childless if that had been her path.
My grandfather died of a brain aneurysm working on the roof of their remote, off-the-grid cabin in the northern Maine woods when I was a baby, so I only ever knew my grandmother as a widow. She kept fly fishing into her 90s and lived alone until she was 96 in the same two-story house where she had lived her whole adult life. She read the newspaper every day, gardened, fed chipmunks by hand (a hobby that I inherited), and served as president of her local senior citizens club. She had grit and sass, and she never shied away from voicing her opinion, whether it was about the outrageous cost of real estate in her town (over the course of her lifetime, it had gone from rural village to tony Boston suburb—the population of Massachusetts nearly doubled during her lifetime, from 3.4 million to 6.5 million) or my wholly unacceptable diet of “bird food” (I became a vegetarian at 14).
As much as I admire my grandmother for how she lived her life and how much spunk she had, I wonder what she could have been if she had been born into a world where being a woman wasn’t a conscription for a life centered around cooking, cleaning, and raising children. A world where she could have worked and earned her own salary for more than one or two years after finishing school. A world where she could have had equal say in important matters while my grandfather was still alive.
Given how much has changed for women in the two generations that came after her, I’m hopeful that I’ll live long enough to see our country, and our world, achieve gender equity at long last.