Her name was Evelyn, and she spent most of her life in Florida. I want you to picture her red hair, probably wavy from all that salty air. She had five children and was married to a railroad man. She was born in July 1891 and would never have worked outside her home. Managing a household back then could have meant everything from making clothing to growing your own food to never having a babysitter to give you a break. She would have been dependent on her husband’s bank account, his vote, his job to represent them both.
One of her daughters was named Ollie Rebecca, but everyone seemed to call her Ollie May. She had the same red hair as her mother and lived in Florida near the same place she was raised. She was born in 1912 and had two children. She and her sister became welders in the shipyard during World War I while their husbands were off fighting. I like to imagine her as our family’s version of Rosie the Riveter, answering the call to go to work when her country needed her. Her daughter recalls seeing her in bulky coveralls, looking far from the ladylike figure that was expected of women. I imagine what a shock it must have been to leave behind the family life that was so all-encompassing for women and be asked to learn a trade—one that was dirty and hot and a full-time reminder that your husband was off in a dangerous place. And when he came back home safe, she was expected to set it all aside and go back to being a homemaker.
One of her daughters is named Janet Evelyn. She was born in 1936 and had three children of her own. She married an Air Force man who seemed to be deployed somewhere different every year. As a navigator, he touched down in dozens of countries but rarely got to see much of them. She managed their family life, even caring for her husband’s mother in Kentucky while he was fighting in Vietnam. Each of her daughters was born in a different state, and they would make friends knowing that it might be a short stay. She says that one complication of living on the military bases was that bases were usually built with a bit of separation from the nearby cities, making it hard for wives to have jobs. For most of her adult life, she learned to live on her husband’s salary in both lean times and times of plenty later when he owned his own businesses. When I asked her whether she felt comfortable being a homemaker, she said she knew she was good at it. I guess you just follow where life leads you sometimes.
One of her daughters is named Wanda Sue. She was born in 1955 in Topeka, Kansas. I want you to picture her with long red hair and a petite frame, wearing her favorite white go-go boots. She married her high school sweetheart at just 19 years old and later had three children. She spent some time in Wyoming, where her husband worked in a mine, before they traveled down to Texas, where her father was retiring from the Air Force. She knew that she couldn’t possibly make enough money to pay for childcare for three kids, so she stayed home. When her youngest child started school, she felt a calling to become a teacher and found a way to get a college degree in just three years. She taught at the same school for more than 20 years, full of kids getting free lunches and most living with only one parent. When her husband passed away suddenly from a heart attack, she was so grateful that she had her own income to help keep her life from completely falling apart. She was always a hard worker but found a way to balance life and home.
One of her daughters is me. I was born in 1982 and have three children of my own. I always knew that I wanted to go to college and work outside my home. I wasn’t a girl who had baby dolls and named them all. I played with notepads and broken phones that my father brought home from his company. I got my first job when I was 15 and have been working ever since. Our family has learned to run off of two incomes, and we would have to make a lot of adjustments to ever go back to just one. I have always known that I have choices and that my job offers my family even more choices.
My daughter’s name is Cameron. She was born in 2008 and has the most beautiful fiery red hair. She changes her mind all the time regarding the jobs she will have when she grows up. One day she is going to be a volleyball coach; the next, a dancer; the next, a veterinarian… But she knows that she can chase after any dream that she chooses. She watched a woman get really close to being President! She sees me struggling to be mostly OK at being a mom and mostly OK at being a professional. And she can be whatever she wants to be.
I want to show her that the ladies in our lineage have done it all—that we can be mothers and workers and movers and shakers. We have more freedom than so many other places around the world. We might be making less. We might have to break through that barrier of gender bias. We might even have to sacrifice for the better of those we love, but that strength is inside her. And maybe she can help remind me that it’s inside me, too.