My maternal grandmother, Ann, was born in 1918 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and my paternal grandmother, Anna was born in Russia in 1904 before moving to the small town of Gardner, MA at the tender age of two.
They lived in an alternative universe from the one we, our daughters, nieces, and granddaughters live in today. And as much as I cherish their memories, that’s a good thing.
My grandmothers lived in a male-dominated world. They played the roles passed down from their mothers and grandmothers in traditionally Jewish Orthodox homes; they cooked, cleaned, raised the children, and most certainly did not work outside the house. And, unlike today, they all had large families. Nana, my mom’s mom, eventually did the bookkeeping for my grandfather’s electrical business, but only because he needed her help and the price was right (free).
My grandparents kept kosher, not out of choice, but because it was expected. My grandmothers used two sets of dishes, so in addition to doing all the cooking from scratch, they washed and dried each dirty dish by hand.
While the men relaxed after Passover Seders, Shabbat dinners, break-the-fast meals, and nightly home-cooked meals, the women were tasked with cleaning up the very large mess. For them, this was the norm. It was their life, their religion, their tradition. The women of my grandparent’s generation couldn’t have imagined life unfolding any other way.
When my mom graduated high-school, she realized there was one big difference between her and her brothers: they were allowed to go to college and she was not. She wanted to. She was an excellent student and loved learning. But as far as my grandparents were concerned, in the late 1950s, college was strictly for boys. After marrying, and while raising four, young daughters, my mom took college courses (over thirteen years) and eventually finished her Bachelor’s Degree. She became a respiratory therapist and then a practice manager for a large medical group. She fiercely broke the mold, paving the way for my sisters and me to follow our dreams.
And yet, there were still barriers. For instance, while growing up, we girls could play softball, tennis, track, or be on the swim, gymnastics, or cheerleading teams (I was a cheerleader my sophomore and junior years – GO BRUINS!). However, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, golf, football, and wrestling were off limits. Those were for boys. A few of these sports are still limited for girls, but are slowly being implemented in high schools across the nation.
And there is another area where girls have progressed. Sexuality, whether gay or straight, was often governed by taboos and silence when I was younger. Being gay was not something people spoke openly about.
Thankfully, life for my 25, 19, and 7 year-old nieces is different. They have the freedom and independence to travel the world on their own. My two older nieces have traveled to Europe, Bali, and Israel—and in Nicaragua recently, my younger niece helped a poverty-stricken town build latrines. These days, girls attend college, pursue any and all of their career choices, play whatever sports they choose, and are more free to express their sexuality in an honest and authentic way. These are the latest barriers that have been torn down; glass ceilings that have been shattered into millions of unrecognizable pieces.
Of course, there are still barriers to be broken, the largest being a woman occupying the seat behind the desk in the Oval Office, symbolizing the fact that the country is ready for a woman having the ultimate power. We’re not there yet. And though it feels like we’re in a backlash moment right now (we are!), my guess is, it won’t be long until even that glass ceiling is shattered.
Chipping away at sexism and outdated ideas about gender has real-life consequences. I want the next generation of girls in my family to live in a truly altered universe from the one my grandmothers experienced.