Feminism in Limbo: Cathy Jo

My maternal grandmother isn’t the sweet, cookie-baking, hugs-and-kisses kind of grandma. She is the opposite of subtle and expects only the best from her children and grandchildren. She’s also intimidating – not only is she confrontational but at nearly 5’11” she’s quite physically imposing. She’s taller than many men, especially those in my family.

She became a mother right around the time she graduated high school, yet continued her education. She eventually earned her PhD; in the 1970s for a female that’s its own kind of impressive. Hearing her talk about her education and her career path and how she did it all while raising kids and making a marriage work is astounding. Shortly after she gained her PhD, she had an incredible job with (at the time, very new) AT&T, and she was a huge part of AT&T’s growth in the 80s and 90s.

As a female, she’s an incredible role model. As her granddaughter, she drives me insane.

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Not only is she a force to be reckoned with all her own, but she has an entirely different view of sexism. If anything, she thinks men are incompetent and shouldn’t be employed in certain jobs. While boys are her favorite – her son, her grandson – I think it’s more that she thinks the male ego is fragile and needs to be tended to, while women and girls need to be pushed to reach their full potential.

She’s a teacher now, and I think she honestly believes male teachers just aren’t as good as female teachers. They have no patience, she says, or they just don’t communicate well.

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Like I said, she isn’t the typical grandma. Compliments from her are rare, and if I get one from her it means it was well-deserved; no fluff or ego-boost from this grandma. The last compliment I remember getting from her wasn’t exactly eloquent, but it summed up everything I had been feeling in the months after I graduated:

You’re lucky you know. I mean, you aren’t lucky. You are who you are and that’s allowed you to have a job when other kids don’t. But that’s not luck, you worked for that and you worked hard. Luck really has nothing to do with it. But still, it all paid off and well… you are who you are.

This may not seem like much, but she was the first person who told me I’m not lucky with this job. She realizes it was working three jobs in college, and taking internships for less money than I would waiting tables because waiting tables wouldn’t get my foot in the door of the places I wanted to be when I graduated. She realized none of it was lucky. And while I don’t get offended when people tell me “Oh wow you’re so lucky to have a job, good for you!” it’s still nice to know there are people who realize it isn’t entirely about luck. There is some degree of right-place-right-time, I get that. But when you walk into an interview, they don’t just tell you to flip a coin and see what happens. You have to earn it.


A few years before I was born, my grandma was on the other side of the country when she discovered she would have to figure out how to raise 3 children on her own after becoming a widow far too young.

I think there used to be this version of her, before she became a widow. A version of her I’ve never met. Everyone who knew her said she just shut down after my grandfather died. Yet, no one can tell me what she was like before he died. I can’t picture her as anything but calculating and career-focused. I don’t know if she was the adventurous “try everything once” type of person or the more reserved, “better safe than sorry” kind of person when she was younger.

The only thing I do know is that, like a few other people I’ve met, she’s the type of person who tends to prove her love financially. I believe there’s nothing wrong with this – some people just aren’t emotional, and everyone needs some financial love every now and then, right? Because of her incredible career and her way of showing financial affection, she’s been able to give my brothers and I things that maybe my parents couldn’t.

I just wonder if there was a version of her that loved, once.

If there was, then it means maybe there is just one person out there for all of us. For her, that person was my grandfather and when he died part of her died too.

When I started, I thought this post was going to be about how she was a great career role model for me. But instead, maybe this semi-cold, pushy, insane woman taught me more about love than any fucked up romantic comedy.

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Feminist in Limbo: Chapter 3

I used to be terrified of thunderstorms. I was convinced the lighting would get me, and that I was especially vulnerable in my upstairs bedroom. I refused to go to my room when it was storming, and I rarely went to sleep until the storm had moved on. I would hold back tears as best I could, but then I would catch a glimpse of lighting or hear a crack of thunder over the television and start bawling. Even once the rain and clouds had moved on, it still took my parents at least a half hour to convince me it had stopped; I was safe now.

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Grandma Dar is currently 83 and is incredibly resourceful and wise and generous. She had a total of five kids in the ’60s and ’70s; she had 2 girls, then a boy, then 2 more girls. The middle child and her only son was my Grandpa Gary.

So Grandma Dar had five kids, four of which were girls. These women, my great-aunts, are as different as any four siblings can be. Some have been married for 25 years or more, and some have had as many as 7 husbands. Some were housewives, some have had very successful careers. But they all had children, Dar’s grandchildren. And a good number of Dar’s grandchildren had children. Grandma Dar currently has over 45 grand- and great-grandchildren, and her second great-great-grandchild will soon be born. Bringing us to a grand total of over 50 people that wouldn’t exist on this planet without Grandma Dar.

Most people grow up in patriarchal families headed by a sole male figure whose name everyone shares, whose name and bloodline is very important to carry on. Sons who can keep the family name going are sought after and even preferred. In defiance of this patriarchal structure, my mom’s family is very much a matriarchy run by women and headed by the sole matriarch: Grandma Dar. There are many different family names, and characteristics that might be from a father’s or a mother’s bloodline, but neither are preferred. It just is. You might have a Reinhardt nose, or a Keefer laugh, or Cady height. Babies were babies, and they were all wonderful blessings no matter how they came into existence or who they belonged to.

Grandma Dar built all that. Not only is she responsible for the mere existence of over 50 humans, but she also helped raise every single one of us. She visits parents with their newborn babies and she finds a way to come back into the child’s life when they’re old enough to remember her, too. Grandma Dar is everyone’s favorite and she remembers every single one of us.

The summer after my brother was born, Grandma Dar came to stay with us like she does when new babies are born. In the Midwest we have snow in the winter, and storms in the summer. So of course the night my parents decide to go out and leave the new baby and I with Grandma, it storms. We had this big picture window in our living room at the time, facing the river across the street. Our couch was backed up against the big window, so it was the perfect little perch to watch everything going on outside whether it was summer parades or waiting for Santa on Christmas Eve. But this particular night, Grandma was determined to break my fear of thunderstorms.

She didn’t tell me that storms were about God’s wrath, or some mythical battle being fought in the sky. Instead she told me that with so many clouds up there, sometimes they bump into each other. Sometimes it got pretty loud, but that was when two really big clouds bumped into each other. And that’s all storms were – the skies just got a little crowded. When you’re a kid, and you start personifying these clouds, it becomes kind of fun to watch the clouds move around like bumper cars. So from that big picture window, we watched the clouds bump into each other. I cried a little less and maybe even giggled my infectious girly giggle. Most importantly, I eventually fell asleep during that storm, dreaming bumpy-cloud dreams. Now it was just the dog my parents had to worry about during storms.

Grandma Dar’s commitment to family is unremarkable and often unheard of. She didn’t just build this family and then sit back from a distance, living her own life. No, her family is her life. Her one-of-a-kind legacy will continue to live on within over fifty different people, with over fifty different memories of her.

Some people build businesses or political empires. Grandma Dar built her own kind of empire.