An Unlikely Feminist

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A guest post by ObstacleChick

My grandparents were members of what has been termed “the Greatest Generation”; that generation of people who came of age during World War II. My grandfather was a combat war veteran in the Pacific theater — drafted into the US Army/Air Corps as an 18 year-old. He was newly married to his 16-year-old sweetheart, and their baby was born while he was in boot camp. Because he assaulted his superior officer after his drunken father called saying his baby was going blind (untrue), grandpa was demoted from corporal to private. He was required to serve an extra tour of duty, and was sent overseas early with another unit. His previous unit’s ship was sunk by the Japanese when they were finally deployed, so his bad behavior saved his life.

After the war, grandpa took advantage of the GI Bill, studying electrical and refrigeration in night school. He had only completed 6th grade (he lied and told us all that he completed 8th grade but his Army records stated 6th). Army testing proved that he was intelligent, and he was put into the emerging signal corps with much more educated men. After the war, my grandparents and mother lived in government housing, and they eventually had another child, my uncle. They bought a house, then later bought a bigger house in the suburbs of Nashville.

My grandparents were Southern Baptists, with my grandfather serving as a deacon and my grandmother serving as a Sunday school teacher and Women’s Missionary Union leader. I was never sure how much my grandfather bought into all the religious stuff, though he did implore me to “get saved” when I was about 12 years old. He stated what I later learned as Pascal’s wager when questioned about the existence of heaven and hell. He prayed the blessing over meals and at church, but he never really talked about having a personal relationship with God, and I never saw him reading the Bible. He always found a way to be busy at church during Sunday School, so he rarely sat through a class, but he was generally present for most of the Sunday church service in his deacon capacity. My grandmother, on the other hand, was consumed with studying the Bible and Christianity. She had her own personal library of Bible concordances, study guides, commentaries, Bible history, Bible geography, and Bible archaeology, as well as books by authors like James Dobson, Hal Lindsey, Billy Graham and Christian biographies about Johnny Cash, Corrie Ten Boom, and many others. Living near Nashville, she would travel to the Baptist Book Store to pick up whatever books she needed. Every day, she devoted 2 hours in the afternoon to studying and making lesson plans for women’s Sunday school and Women’s Missionary Union classes. I suspect that her lessons were way beyond the understanding of many of the women she taught due to the thoroughness in her research and planning. I always thought she would have made a great university professor. Although she dropped out of high school in 10th grade due to severe anemia, she earned her GED as an adult (I asked her why she bothered, and she said it was because she wanted to earn her high school degree).

My mother was twice divorced and thrice married. She was a National Merit Semi-Finalist in high school, tied for second in her graduating class of over 300 (she and the other student were required to take a test to determine salutatorian, and because my mom was painfully shy and did not want to make a speech, she threw the test). Her high school counselor suggested she should apply to college. No one in our family had attended college, and she had no idea what to pursue as a career. She always figured she would be a wife and mother like her mother. But she applied to a local university, got a scholarship, and went to college like a good student who always did what was expected of her. Not knowing what she wanted to do, she majored in education. Most young women in 1961 majored in education or nursing — she cared for neither — but given a choice she thought education would be a better option. Without a passion for pursuing a career, she dropped out of college after the first semester of her junior year and got married. She was divorced a year later. Her excellent verbal skills helped her procure a job as a secretary. She married my father who ended up being a selfish and abusive man. When I was 3 years old, my mom left my dad because he threatened her, and we moved in with  my mom’s parents and my great-grandmother. My mom suffered from depression, anxiety, and loneliness for many years. When I was 11, she married my stepdad, and my brother was born a year later. I chose to live with my grandparents, but eventually my mom and stepdad built a house across the street, so I spent time in both houses. I considered my grandparents more like my parents, with my mom and stepdad more like older siblings.

My grandfather’s biggest regret in life was that he did not convince my mother to stay in college, earn her degree, and pursue a career. In his mind, if she had gotten her degree and pursued a career, she would not have ended up a single mom struggling financially. Even in her 3rd marriage, they struggled financially, especially after my stepdad became disabled and could no longer work. Despite his severe pain, though, that man worked hard doing most of the cooking, cleaning, home repair, and yard work. If he couldn’t stand, he would sit on a stool. He worked relentlessly until the day he died.

Because of my mother’s circumstances, my grandfather made it his mission to instill in me that pursuing education and preparing for a career was my number one priority in life. He told me, “Never be dependent on a man.” From the time I was 11 years old, I remember him saying repeatedly that my education came first and that NOTHING should come in the way of that. He did everything he could to facilitate my ability to obtain what he believed was a good education by paying for my private school tuition and piano lessons. While I might argue now that the fundamentalist evangelical Christian school might not have been the best choice, I was admitted to a top secular university despite my lack of knowledge on evolution (the school taught young earth creationism).

His teaching that I should never be dependent on a man was contrary to the teachings of his church. In the 1980s, our church started teaching complementarianism (see previous post: Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), offering courses to men and women in the church. My grandmother and mom took the married women’s course, and I took the single women’s course. My grandmother, ever striving to be the most obedient Christian — following her God’s dictates — took on the role of the submissive “helpmeet” wife. My grandfather had no interest in that. He valued my grandmother’s intellect and spirit. My grandmother struggled against what she considered her rebellious nature, but she tried as hard as she could to be a submissive wife. My mom took the course too, but when I asked her why she was not submissive, she said, “We all know that I am smarter than your stepdad so we agreed that I make the decisions.” And that was the end of that.

The concept of complementarianism was one of the major reasons I began my exit from evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. I have never taken well to the notion that women are somehow lesser. As I studied biology and psychology, I found that gender and sexuality are present on a spectrum, not strictly binary. We learn in grade school about XX and XY chromosomes, but in fact, there are X0, XXY, XXX, XYY possibilities as well.

My grandfather lived to see me graduate from college, but died a couple of months later. I think he would be proud of the fact that I married someone who is my partner, and as it so happened I am the primary bread-winner in the family (both of us work).

My grandfather wasn’t someone we would call a feminist by today’s standards, and he might roll over in his grave if he heard me call him a feminist. Indeed, his feminism was situational, based on personal experience. I never asked him if he thought ALL women should never be dependent on men. He still believed women should not serve in combat because (a) he didn’t think most were physically strong enough and (b) he was concerned that female combat troops could be captured by the enemy and raped by their captors. And he wasn’t too keen on homosexuality, but I’m not sure if it was because of his religion or if he just personally didn’t like it. I do know that my grandfather’s brother disowned his son (my grandfather’s nephew) for being gay, but my grandfather would invite his nephew to our house to visit and to provide a place for his sister-in-law to visit her son, as the nephew was not allowed in his parents’ house. But compared to most men of his religion and generation, he was more progressive than his peers. Therefore, oddly enough, I consider my grandfather instrumental in sending me on the path toward feminism.

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2 Comments

  1. Appalachian Agnostic

    This was an interesting article. Your grandmother sounds a lot like my mom.

    Reply
    1. ObstacleChick

      Thank you!

      It still amazes me that women accept complementarianism – basically, accepting the concept that they are lesser than men – just because they believe that their deity deems it to be so. That kind of teaching always made me feel sick to my stomach. And my grandma would make passive aggressive comments about it too when she felt like she had to accept or do something she didn’t like just because she felt that her husband was head of household and had final word/authority. (And he didn’t even feel that way so it was such a weird dynamic). I was always thinking, just stop it already! But no, her goal in life was to follow to the letter each standard that she thought her deity required.

      Reply

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