Today is my grandmother’s 76th birthday and I can confidently say that I have the most inspirational grandma in the world. One of the most courageous, strong and powerful women in the working-class world, my grandma was, is, and will always be a feminist.
Though her childhood is riddled with obstacles like no other and her adolescence was nearly deprived of all things
innocent, she stayed strong. Through the 1970s and Modern Feminist Movement, she pushed through to make the world a better place for all women. She was very aware of this new feminist movement of the 70s: “I was a woman, so I was very aware.”
She was adamantly supportive of feminism in response to the sexist treatment she had received in her professional life. She cited her first experience with sexism after she had graduated from nursing school in the 1960s.
“My husband and I moved to Nashville, Tennessee while he went to the Master Diesel Mechanic School and I worked at Vanderbilt University. I made around $325 a month and [after finishing school] he made around $2-3,000 at Akers Motor Line. Even though I had to work harder and had to acquire a great deal more of education and knowledge, I wasn’t valued as much as him.”
She also noted that, when she applied to Appalachian State University in 1958, all of the educational scholarships were awarded to men applicants. In turn, she wasn’t able to receive her undergraduate degree with them.
Her final straw with sexism happened at her long-time church in small-town, North Carolina. She ran and was elected to be on the church board as a secretary, which she was fine with. She had the opportunity to talk at meetings and give her opinions and she had no problems with her colleagues receiving her professionally. It was, however, when the diocese assistant to the Bishop came to visit, that she received a cold shoulder. In one of these regular meetings, he asked for suggestions from the board. As usual, she piped up and gave her two-cents. Though he heard her–and it was obvious that he heard her–the diocese refused to look at her all while asking, “Does no one have any suggestions?” After a couple of attempts at trying to be heard, my grandmother’s uncle spoke up, relaying exactly what she had said moments before. At this time, the diocese responded and praised her uncle for his suggestion. “That’s when I knew I was done,” she told me, “I resigned from my position and that’s when I began to question religion as well.” She didn’t officially leave the church for another couple of decades after having a confrontation involving her daughter.
Grandma only slowly began to see changes happening socially for women beginning in the 1970s. Over the phone she said somberly to me, “It’s still happening slowly. It’s not okay, honey. There is no reason a woman shouldn’t wear what she wants–what’s appropriate–but what she wants, without a boy hollering at her. It’s still going on, especially in the South. Many, many men are still misogynists.”
She’s been battling with sexism up until recently. After getting in a car accident (a very minor one, at that), her insurance company couldn’t find her policy listed under her name. Though she had two homes and three cars listed on her policy, they couldn’t find her name. It wasn’t until she gave them her husband’s name that they found it. Though it was she who payed for these things (and payed for them on time), it was her husband’s name that they were filed under. Voice shaking, she told me, “If I’m carrying my own shit, I should be responsible for my own shit and I should be recognized as being responsible for my own shit.”
When asking her whether or not she identified as a feminist, I already knew the answer. I couldn’t predict, however, her response. “It [identifying as a feminist] ruined my career in public health.” She told me about how she had advocated–since the 1970s–for the education of teen girls about their bodies. The pregnancy rate of teenaged girls during this time was at an ultimate high and, working for the health department, she saw these young women on a daily basis. They would come to her scared, and unaware of what to do saying, “I can’t go back home. My daddy said he would shoot me if I became pregnant.” She mentioned also, the amount of incestual pregnancies she encountered as well. It was sickening. What was more profound, though, were the statistics: teens were having more sex than before and they needed to be aware of their bodies and safety measures in order to prevent pregnancies.
This is why, in the early 1990s, she worked to get school health services into the local schools–not just for girls, but for all the kids. She aimed to have a professional public health official there, educating kids about their bodies without swaying them in any particular direction. She wanted teen girls to have access to birth control if they were sexually active. She wanted them to know that it was available at the health department and the Planned Parenthood chapter in her county (that she would actually lead in developing). This was when people began picketing in front of the health department with signs reading, “Down with Margie Cole.” She eventually left the place she had called home for most of her life and moved on in other directions.
I’ve always known that my grandma is strong and passionate. I’ve always known that she’s been through more than any other person I’ve ever known. Her stamina and battles throughout her lifetime have done more than prove her capabilities as a human being and I am beyond lucky to be so closely acquainted with a role model like her. She’s a tough bitch–she’s a feminist. Happy birthday, Grandma.