In Winnie's Footsteps: Feminist Lessons From My Great-Grandmother

by Julia Craven

I was raised by my great-grandmother—a self-proclaimed strong Black women who ain’t need no man. Winnie was independent. She may have enjoyed my great-grandfather’s attention, but she never coveted it. Her self-esteem was not based in what others, or society at-large, thought of her.

Winnie, or Muss as I affectionately called her, gave me my first exposure to feminism. She never called herself a feminist. I don’t think she even really understood what feminism was, but she was definitely a great example of what feminism should be.

I remember being five-years-old and telling her that I wanted to be President one day—a dream I have since given up, though it still illustrates an important example of how Muss influenced my self-worth. I never expected her to look me square in my eyes, place her hands upon my shoulders and say, “You can do anything you set your mind to.”

Blocking out hateful voices that so fervently attack little girls with big dreams was a lesson my Muss instilled in me from an early age. She gave me the tools I needed to construct the mental barriers that would protect me from societal limitations proclaiming little girls could only wear pink, play with dolls, and aspire for careers in the more “feminine” fields — like nursing or secretarial positions.

When I was dead set on becoming a physician, another female relative asked why didn’t I consider going to nursing school instead, because medical school was “too hard” for women.

“I’m not going to be a nurse just because I’m a woman,” I said. “And nursing school isn’t easy,” I added.

Her statement offended me, because women can do whatever the fuck we want to do because we work just as hard—if not harder—than men. This is an ideology I inherited from Muss, who genuinely believed women could do anything just as good as men, if not better. Winnie never wanted me to hinder myself just because someone thought I shouldn’t, or couldn’t, do something.

She also believed in women being strong socially and financially. “Never take any wooden nickels,” she would say to me, meaning, essentially, don’t deal with anybody’s bullshit. She knew because I am a woman and because I am Black, having to encounter others’ bullshit was inevitable. She understood the ills that would plague my life since she herself had experienced, and was molded by, the intersection of racism and sexism.

By encouraging me to pursue a career and be independent, Muss also helped me understand the expectations of being married and having family others would have for me. She knew that Black women are expected to be the backbone and whipping posts of our families. We are expected to endure whatever we must in order to keep our families intact. And if it falls apart, blame often lands upon our shoulders. She knew no matter how decent of a husband I found, the world in which we reside would anticipate me giving up my hopes, dreams and career to stay at home, raise children, and put my husband’s happiness before mine.

Muss believed women could change the world and that we had to seize our right to do so. She didn’t expect me to only want to be a wife or mother. Why a woman would want to be beneath a man socio-politically or economically is something Muss never quite understood. But she also knew that choice was important. She taught me that if I chose to be a housewife, then it was perfectly acceptable. I just shouldn’t allow myself to be backed into any corners or pressured into a life position I did not desire. Though she was not formally educated, she was adamant on women receiving high-caliber educations (she’s why I’m a Carolina alumna).

My great-grandmother was a feminist. She sewed these oats of empowerment in me from an early age. So it was inevitable that I, too, would become a supporter of Black women. Because of her, I learned that my only limits are the ones I place on myself.

Because of Muss, I am a feminist.

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