Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.
– Maya Angelou, American poet, memoirist, actress, and American Civil Rights Movement activist
The National Women’s History Project‘s theme this year for Women’s History Month is Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment. The Project honors 12 women whose lives and work serve as a source of inspiration for both girls and boys and women and men to make our world a more compassionate and more equitable place for everyone. In honoring these women and bringing their accomplishments to the forefront, the Project is making good on its goal of “writing women back into history.”
With that in mind, I thought a worthy exercise in honor of Women’s History Month would be to write a short essay on a woman in your life who exhibited character, courage, and commitment, and inspired you to do the same. For me, that’s easy – it would be my mother. Born in 1926 in the Philippines, she endured the occupation of her homeland by the Japanese in World War II, forced to witness such atrocities as the bayoneting of babies thrown into the air in the town square. “We looked away,” my mother had murmured when I asked her if the story my sister had told me was true. She worked to help put her brothers and sisters through school. She forsake true love and ended up marrying my father and coming to the States after the war. Instead of working to get her teaching credential here – she was a school teacher back home – she picked grapes in the summertime and packed oranges in the wintertime for decades, until she retired. She saved money like crazy, though she and my father didn’t make very much money, and we grew up never feeling poor, though we lived in a rural farming community. My mother instilled in my two sisters and me the importance of education, especially higher education, and being a good citizen. Those were the facts of her life, but there is so much more.
The day after my mother passed away on January 3, 2012, my old high school friend, Kimi, wrote about my mother in an e-mail to me in the early hours of the morning: “She was steel. Thin, lithe, wiry, graceful, resilient, unbreakable; tempered. She was beautiful, proud, determined, resolved, smart. If she had lived in a different time or place, if she’d had our opportunities, we can only imagine what she would have accomplished. But, she took the yoke and humble, coarse work that was available – and she lived her dreams through you. As an observer, and not the one grinding away to meet your mom’s expectations, it was always clear to me that she was very, very proud of you, Joyce and Heidi. She built the runway, you flew. She was happy. She felt accomplished. In the end, she achieved her dreams and she had a good life.”
I wrote Kimi back, accusing her of making me cry. What haunted me, what moved me the most of her words – If she had lived in a different time or place, if she’d had our opportunities, we can only imagine what she would have accomplished – still resonates with me as I think about Women’s History Month. My mother was at once meek and determined, dutiful and unrelenting, bearing burdens and yet strategizing for a better life for her family. Had she lived in a different time or place, had she been led to more windows and doors, she would have opened them and gone through. She would have built the runway and taken off herself.
How many girls and women in the world today don’t even know that windows and doors exist? How many never realize they could entertain the crazy notion that they can build their own runway and take off or actually have a voice and the audacity to dream big and make good on them – as a result of the tyranny of governments and politics, religion, misogyny, and on and on? How do we as women, who are privileged and who have had our basic needs and more met, reach them?
When I think of all those questions and wonder where in those pockets and dark corners of the world those girls and women may be, I understand the desire to write women back into history, to use our voices, and shine the light on women’s accomplishments. These subversive acts – which one day won’t be subversive, though we must always strive to be subversive when it comes to advancing girls and women – plant the seeds. And when we scatter them all around us, beautiful things will grow.
So what can we as individuals do? Nora Ephron entreats us to be the heroine of our lives. Do the small things in our homes, our neighborhoods, and our communities. Nurture and use your gifts for good deeds. Create windows and doors. Go through them, but make sure someone is behind you doing the same. Be compassionate. Be courageous. Be present. Be.