We are about to have International Women’s Day for 2020. It is a much spoken of day bringing up issues of feminism, equal opportunity, women’s safety …. what it is to be a woman of our era. I consider myself very much a woman of my time. I have had an excellent education and continue to pursue further education even now. I have experienced a solid full time career, I am divorced and I am financially independent. With all the trials and tribulations life has thrown in my direction to this point; I have enjoyed advantages and freedoms many women of previous generations never even dreamed of.
It makes me think about the women who came before me in my family. Their hopes, dreams, aspirations and histories. Who were they really? What did they actually think? What would they have to say if they were here now to see how far we have come.
And how far we have yet to go.
I know surprisingly little in many ways about the women who have been my immediate predecessors. My grandmother married my grandfather after he returned from WW1. He was a gentle soul who served at Gallipoli and had given his promise to her before he joined up. Beatrice is remembered as an angry, unstable and rather cruel woman who subsequently had two daughters born 13 years apart. Yvonne in 1919 and my mother Geanette in 1932. By the time she appears in my conscious memory Beatrice is a very old lady in a recliner with advanced dementia. My grandmother passed away when I was fourteen. Because of her lifelong mental health issues I knew nothing of her personal history. She is remembered simply as a wife to a kind man and as a mother of two; who determinedly kept one daughter at home with her (whilst the younger was eventually permitted to marry).
Yet surely Beatrice was more than that. She would have once been a young girl with her life ahead of her. Was she always destined for a prison of mental illness? Or would a modern world have given her opportunity to address her demons. Was she frustrated by a society where her mind was not used to its full potential? The book of Beatrice’s life may have been a very different novel a mere two generations on. My grandmother, for all her grisly attributes, doubtless had talents and intelligence that went unseen and untapped.
As was to be glimpsed in her second baby who went on to be my own mother.
Whilst the older sister was a quiet and obedient girl who lived to pacify her volatile mother; Geanette was wilful and intelligent. She also displayed some of the same unstable attributes as Beatrice.
Yet again, what do I really know of these two sisters a mere generation before my own? Yvonne fell in love with a young man whom she met at a dance. He was Catholic and wanted to marry her. His religion made him wildly undesirable as a family member; although she quietly accepted his proposal. Snippets I have learned indicate he was vocal that things in the household were not as they should be. The man she loved was to finally walk away from the situation as it was impossible. Yvonne could not abandon her baby sister to her mother’s cruelty and she was mercilessly brow beaten until she broke off the engagement. I do not even know her fiancee’s name. One wonders how my aunt processed the fact a man she wished to marry gave her up. Yvonne never entered the workforce or met anyone else. She nursed both my grandparents until their deaths in the 1980’s and passed away in 2003 alone and still in the family home.
Who was Yvonne really? She is a single generation before my own and I have no real clue. An obedient daughter, a loyal sibling, a woman with very little education. We will never glean Yvonne’s true persona or potential. It went undiscovered at a time when what she wanted out of life was not part of the equation.
My own mother did well at school, but exited with a Leaver’s Certificate as was expected with girls of her generation. It is my understanding she was nearly dux of her year. She went on to secretarial school and topped the state in shorthand, before taking a job at the radio station where she was to meet my father. They began dating aged 23 but they did not marry until she was nearly 29. She was reluctant to marry and Beatrice fought to keep her at home. These family facts that I have known all my life take on a different perspective as I age.
Mum liked to act in amateur theatre, she studied piano, she liked her job and she wasn’t keen to walk down an aisle. These freedoms came at the cost of her sister’s continued subservience to their mother. By the time she married my father, Geanette was already displaying the signs of mental illness that were to ravage much of her later life. She gave birth to me aged 36 and her persona quickly spiralled into a vortex of depression, anxiety and frustration. Just one generation ago vital help was simply not there. Not there for my mother and not there for me either as her young daughter. Mum worked sporadically after my birth, but the wisdom of age and hindsight show me a woman with a bright mind who was incredibly bored and very unwell. There were no available tools to address either issue. She was a wife, she was a mother, she had a husband in the workforce, she cooked and cleaned and that was just how it was.
With each generation comes incremental change. I went on to finish high school, get a University degree and create the life of a more modern woman. I surmise that my mother lived vicariously through the opportunities made available to me in a variety of ways. Not all of them healthy …. she was often transparently resentful. That aside, one wonders who Geanette (with her evident intellect) would have really become with the stimulation of a tertiary education and a satisfying career.
I am grateful I was born into my own generation and not that of my grandmother or her daughters. It is unfortunate my own path has been somewhat derailed by a marriage that was not what it should have been. Despite that massive speed hump, I have my education and a burgeoning understanding of what I want to be. What I want to achieve to take me into my next chapter.
As women we are on the cusp of change. Readying ourselves and our younger counterparts to fight a perilous battle for what we deserve. What we want is not greedy nor should it be insurmountable. A wish to reach our full potential in a world where we are free to live safely and control our circumstances. As we once fought for the vote, accessible contraception and education; we now fight for the kind of equality that makes us truly create our own destiny. For some of our sisters in other cultures, the old battles are only just beginning. We are forging a path for them as well as ourselves.
Many men want what is best for the women they love. Their mothers, aunts, sisters, wives, daughters and friends. In troubled times, as we begin to address the abuse and mistreatment of women, we know so many good men who have our backs. International Women’s Day isn’t solely for the sisterhood. It’s for everyone invested in the future of women in our society. Simply looking back over two generations of my own line shows the incredible potential for rapid change.
To Beatrice, Yvonne and to my mother Geanette. I wish you might have enjoyed lives with many more keys to unlock your potential. To the girls to come after my own time line I would say …… imagine how it can be. Know your worth. Know your strength. We’ve already come so far.
Make it happen. xxx