My grandmother is drunk in a hotel bar when she reaches for my arm, teeth stained by red wine, and says “promise me something. Promise you’ll do whatever you need to do, even if it’s on your own”.
This is a woman who has provided many pearls of wisdom over the years, my favourite of all time being “you get the hips, you get the tits – you don’t get the hips, you buy the tits” after thirteen-year-old me worried about my curved figure. But this took me by surprise; the territory felt completely unfamiliar. Was… was my grandmother about to start a conversation about feminism with me?
Now, allow me to explain my shock. Amongst my family, I am known, and proudly accept my role as the resident outspoken feminist. I ask them to donate to my period poverty fundraisers and tell them when they’re being misogynistic and give seminars over the dinner table about non-binary genders. But I am the only one who talks about it, ever.
Many of the women in my family suffer from the middle class affliction of believing, because of their economic privilege, that they don’t need feminism. To them, equality looks like the vote and a high-powered job and wearing trousers and playing football, and they have all of that, plus all the cultural capital and opportunities in the world. Feminism is a necessity for marginalised women in oppressed communities, not the empowered businesswomen I have been brought up by.
“To them, equality looks like the vote and a high-powered job and wearing trousers and playing football”
So, when my grandma, aged 73, talks to me for over an hour about regretting selling herself short and not having the confidence to be who she really wanted to, I can’t quite believe it. This is a woman who, before my grandfather died in 2014, had never left the country not by his side and makes jam for the W.I. She seems as old-school as it gets.
Except, that night I learned that she wasn’t, not at all. She was grateful for her life and wouldn’t have changed it – she made sure I knew that – but also wished that she had considered that there was another path she could’ve taken. You can do both, she tells me, meaning have a career and family, something nobody ever told her.
She was a stay at home wife, raising two children whilst my grandad ran their successful business and whilst she wasn’t unhappy in that role, she simply regretted never even thinking about an alternative. My grandfather never limited her, she said, in fact he tried to mobilise and encourage her to do what she wanted, she just never took it upon herself to live up to that.
Her biggest regret was not taking up her independence when it was right in front of her. She was luckier than most of her friends – with a progressive husband who wanted her to live her own life and the financial security of being able to do so. She had the opportunity that many women couldn’t only have dreamed of, and she never took it. She felt guilty for that, like she’d betrayed not just herself, but her fellow women (I think, if she had known the term, she would’ve said ‘the sisterhood’).
As the evening went by, I grew more and more proud. Trust women, she said when the conversation teetered on the edge of Me Too and someone exclaimed that they doubted an accusation because he “didn’t seem that kind of guy”. I nearly burst.
That’s when it fully hit me that feminist journeys are rarely linear. Just like social awareness, none of us wake up with a full knowledge of justice and inequality, they are things we have to make an active effort to educate ourselves about. We grow into our feminism, like the jumpers our parents would buy three sizes too big at the start of the school year, so they would “last”, and my grandmother just took longer to take her shape. But she’s certainly making up for lost time. Last year, her and her 80-year-old best friend flew to Vegas together and got drunk in casinos until the early hours.
Our grandmothers aren’t left behind by or removed from feminism, they just encounter and deal with it in different ways. Their feminist acts may look different to ours, subtler and more every day, like taking themselves away for a weekend or refusing to share their bingo winnings with their husband. And sometimes they are just as loud and proud as the rest of us. One of my favourite stories was told to me by my friend Sara, about her grandmother who lied that she was taking flower arranging classes to secretly go to university after her husband forbid her from studying. The world is full of radical womxn and non-radicals, and both sides of the coin are perfectly okay. There is honour in recognising your mistakes and choosing to see things a different way, and no shame in turning up to the party later than others.
All that matters is that we show up, and dance and drink and party together.
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