Family businesses have traditionally been passed from father to son. Particularly before 1950, girls were usually expected to find a good man, get married and raise children. Marianne Schnall, founder of feminist.com, has a different family story.
NPR 51% Show # 1131
Each March here in the U.S. we highlight the contributions of the extraordinary women throughout history whose accomplishments have been largely undocumented in the history books. Yet rarely do we look to our own personal history for inspiration, to the stories of our mothers, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers and beyond. It is often within our own stories, in the lives of ordinary women who came before us, that we can get a sense of the ongoing evolution of women’s rights and a woman’s experience in the world. And we gain a better understanding of where we personally fit in.
There are amazing stories all around us just waiting to be told. My mother’s story is one of them. Her father, my grandfather, was larger than life, a wise, fun loving, and incredibly generous man, but he also happened to hold very sexist views about women. He was president of a successful family business in a heavily male-dominated industry which had been founded by his father. As an only child, my mother said she always felt like she was a disappointment – her father had wished for a son. She was never once considered to go into the family business. My grandmother had attended an Ivy League university on full scholarship at a time when few women went to college, went to the French Institute, took piano lessons, and was politically active. But she was never encouraged to take a paying job or have a career. After marrying my grandfather, my grandmother became primarily a corporate wife, as my great-grandmother had been before her.
Though my mother was obviously very smart and articulate with a range of possibilities, she was never encouraged to follow her dreams, or to even discover what her dreams were. Instead, she was groomed to be a secretary - to get married and start a family. My mother says she was given the message her whole life that she was an average girl who would go on to do average things.
After graduating from college as a political science major, my mother was sent to speed-writing school, and then worked through a string of secretarial jobs and administrative jobs with increasing responsibilities, quietly gaining self-confidence and experience. By then, her father was getting older and there began to be talks about the future of the business, none of which included her. It was then that my mother did an incredibly bold act - she asked to meet with her father and made a passionate, thoughtful case for why he should consider training her to run the company. He listened and agreed. My mother worked extremely hard those first years learning all aspects of the business, and ran it successfully for 16 years after my grandfather died. She was one of few female executives in the industry and her entry into the business initially created a lot of whispers and skepticism, but she confounded all her critics and earned enormous respect, eventually serving on various industry committees and boards. Towards the end of his life my grandfather evolved too, acknowledging my mother’s capabilities and telling her how proud he was of her.
My mother considers her story a success story, one in which she overcame her own personal odds. It took great courage to create her own reality, to transcend the negative messages, expectations and limits that were placed upon her. Her story is one I have learned from and benefitted from. As a result of her upbringing, she made sure to instill in me the confidence that I could do anything I wanted in my life. She had also married a man, my father, who, in contrast to her father, encouraged and supported her to follow her dreams and achieve her potential, as he has also done for me and my brother. And I am now teaching these same lessons to my daughters. I am aware that I am creating history myself, to be passed on down the line; we all are.
My mother’s is a success story. But sometimes I can’t help thinking about my grandmother. I often wonder – was she happy and fulfilled? Did she ever have regrets or any dreams she wished she had pursued, some part of her she felt she had not been able to fully express? Those unanswered questions and her missing story are imprinted on my history too, and are connected to the lineage of all women. Women have always had these same factors to face over the years, the enormous potentialities that exist within each one of us – which require self-knowledge, courage and a belief in ourselves - contrasted against the reality of societal pressures, expectations of others and the obstacles all women confront. The face of this issue changes throughout the years, but the factors which impact a woman’s experience in our world are often the same. And we can gain just as much motivation from a story of possible wasted potential as we can from one in which dreams are realized.
A few years ago I attended an intergenerational conference at Omega Institute at Rhinebeck, New York. The conference explored how to build bridges across generations that inspire and empower women to change the world. At the conference, a diverse group of women from different generations came together to share their stories. It was a wonderful event and we all came out of it with greater understanding. We don’t have enough opportunities to do this in our society, to connect with women across the generations. And so we lose out on benefitting from each other’s stories and wisdom, and it also often creates misunderstanding and generational divides. We need to consciously seek out opportunities to interact with women – and people generally - of all ages – we all have a story to tell, a unique perspective, and we all have life lessons to share with each other.
So this month while we remember all the women who rightfully belong in the history books, I hope we can remain aware that we are writing our own history, and that looking back and connecting with our own personal stories can help blaze our path as we create the future. Each day is an opportunity to learn, to grow, to leave our own personal mark on the world.
This commentary originally aired on 51% Show # 1131
(03-17-2011) on WAMC and NPR.
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