My grandmother turned 97 this week. She was born in 1914, which, as I reminded her several times throughout the day, was a very, very long time ago. Of course, the fact that she turned 97 on Wednesday didn’t stop her from kicking my sorry ass at Scrabble on Wednesday – twice. The second time, it was by a 107-point margin. That one still stings.
But this blog post is not about just how badly my grandmother trounced me at Scrabble. Nor is it about the trash-talking that took place during said trouncing (“I’m kicking your butt, little girl!”). It is about nonagenarian feminists. Why not simply “old” feminists? Because if I’m ever going to beat this woman at Scrabble, I need to practice using big words.
At some point during the day, I said to her, “did you know that when you were born, women in America were still six years away from the right to vote?”
Yes, she did know that.
“And did you know that when you were born, only about 5% of American women went to college?”
Yes, she knew that too. She also has memories of being one of the few women in her lectures at Baruch College in the 1930s.
She knew all this because while to me, women’s suffrage and the advent of co-educational universities are events in women’s history, to her, they are just things she watched happen. Things she lived through and was a part of. To me, this is history. To her, it is life. And when you live for almost a hundred years, you inevitably get to live through a few exciting things that your young, upstart grandkids will one day consider to be “history.” Here are a few things that we young ones consider history, that my grandmother lived through.
Women’s suffrage. The legalization of birth control, first for married couples, then for everyone. The legalization of abortion. The elimination of laws that prohibited women from owning property, or from opening a credit card or buying a car without a husband’s or father’s permission.
The Women’s, gay rights and Civil Rights movements. No big deal. Just a series of cultural, social and legal overhauls that changed the way Americans think about equality.
The election of the country’s first woman Representative and Senator. The appointment of the country’s first woman cabinet secretary, first woman Supreme Court Justice and first woman Secretary of State. The opening of the Ivy League and other prestigious institutions to women (just in time for my grandmother’s daughter to have memories of being one of the only women in her lectures at Yale University!). The first women Ivy League presidents.
The first women to run for major party Presidential nominations. The first woman on a Presidential ticket. The first First Lady with a graduate degree. The first Black First Lady.
And on, and on it goes. To me, and to many women my age, this is history. To my grandmother, and to many other older women still alive today, this is life. These are monumental events, yes, but they’re also just things they lived through. And they happened in part because my grandmother’s generation of women, and the generation of women they raised, demanded them. The older generation might not have called themselves feminists – though my grandmother certainly would – but they fought for the social, political and legal changes that meant that the world they were born into bore very little resemblance to the one we grew up in.
So thanks, nonagenarian feminists (and octogenarian feminists, and septuagenarian feminists, too), for living through those things, for making those things happen, so that we can look back in awe at how much the world has changed in the last 97 years.
And sorry, grandma, for saying “fuck” in a post about you. Although, let’s be honest – a K is worth five points in Scrabble, and if you could find a triple letter score square to put it on, you would totally do it.