In Winnie’s Footsteps: Becoming a Feminist Wrought in my Grandmother’s Image

This post is a part of the What Black Feminism Means to Me series

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

Winnie, 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 human marker of the phenomenon.

I remember being five-years-old and telling her that I wanted to be president one day. It is a dream since forgotten though it illustrates a moment that sits at the crux of my self-worth. I never expected Muss 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 internal barriers that would protect me from societal sentiments proclaiming little girls can 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, a woman relative asked me why didn’t I consider going to nursing school instead. She told me medical school was “too hard” for women.

“I’m not going to be a nurse just because I’m a woman,” I said. “You’re also insulting women who want to be nurses and dismissing men who nurse.”

“And nursing school isn’t easy,” I added.

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 — if not better than — men. Winnie never wanted me to hinder myself just because someone thought I shouldn’t, or couldn’t, do something.

She 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 that because I am a woman and because I am Black, bullshit was inevitable. I believe she understood the ills that would plague my life since she herself had experienced, and was molded by, the intersection of racism and sexism.

Expectations to carry my family’s weight upon my back once I was married is another thing Muss knew would be presumed of me. Black women, whether subtly or explicitly, 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 and the struggles we may have faced within a hapless marriage are silenced.

Muss knew if my future husband or marriage failed, I would be scapegoated since my Black skin and vagina make me an easy target for shame. 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 make sure my man obtained the wildest of his fantasies.

Why a woman would want to be beneath a man sociopolitically or economically is something Muss never quite understood. But she did grasp 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.

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Muss believed women could change the world and that we had to seize our right to do so. She supported women in office and other leadership roles. She was adamant on women receiving high-caliber educations (she’s why I’m a Carolina alumna).

Though not in the educated, nuanced sense for which she championed, my great-grandmother was a feminist. She sewed feminist oats in me from an early age and, looking back on it, it was inevitable that I, too, would become a supporter of Black women.

If it were not for her, I would not have learned that my only limits are the ones I place on myself and I would have never begun shooting for the stars. If it were not for Muss, I wouldn’t be a feminist.

Thoughts?

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