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I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately. She passed away about 6 years ago, but her health had been failing for a long time. She had four children, 10 grandchildren, and a handful of great-grandchildren. Many would look at the healthy, happy generations that she created and say that she lived a successful life. She achieved the pinnacle of womanhood with her large family and smiling grandchildren. And she loved us all, oh so much.
But the life she lived wasn’t the life she wanted. She didn’t have the chance to do the things she dreamed of. Travel, adventure, exploration – those were her innermost desires. But she was prevented from pursuing them by a society that valued women for their ability to reproduce and for the unpaid labor they completed.
The Life and Times of My Grandmother
My grandma was born in 1935, while America was still ravaged by the Great Depression. She didn’t talk much about her childhood or her upbringing. I asked her about her mother once, and all she would say is “she was a lovely woman.” I get the impression that she was quiet, reserved, and an obedient wife to a tyrant husband, which, unfortunately, was typical of the period.
When she did speak of her childhood, it was of the abusive actions of her father. He was not a kind man. Spiteful and malicious, unyielding in his cruelty, his home was an oppressive dictatorship. Even their basic needs, like toilet paper, would be questioned and rationed to an unbearable degree.
My grandmother and her siblings were only allowed one square of toilet paper when they used the bathroom. If they dared use more, they were severely punished.
From a modern perspective, it could be argued that the Depression caused this strict adherence to frugality. However, I know better. Not all families were completely destitute during the depression. Our family was never wealthy, but her dad had a job, and they could afford basic necessities. Perhaps it was the stress of the times, where things like toilet paper were luxury commodities, hard to get a hold of. We know from our current struggles with COVID supply chain issues that toilet paper is one of the first things to be hoarded. However, his crazy toilet paper rule wasn’t limited to the heart of the depression. It lingered on through the economic boom of the 1940s and into the 1950s when she left the house for good. This wasn’t about money. It was about cruelty and control. He controlled the toilet paper because he could. And he controlled every other aspect of her life as well because he could.
The Choices Available in the Early 1950s
It was the early 1950s. The main goal for any young woman of the era was to get that ring. Find a man and settle into a life of marriage and homemaking. Society, culture, and cold war propaganda all played a hand in structuring this norm. The American Family, the Ideal Life, the birth of the American Dream.
Some women did go to college, but those who did were wealthier women and generally only went to find a wealthy husband. College wasn’t pushed or expected. A woman’s place was in the home. Her primary responsibility was to take care of her family,
During this time, some women pushed boundaries and ignored the social conditioning of the time. These pioneer women should rightfully be celebrated, but we need to understand the intense pressure most women were under. There is no shame in following the cultural norms of the time, in not knowing that you had the option to do something different. Most women didn’t actually have the option.
This was the case with my grandmother. She saw her options very clearly. She could stay in an abusive household with her father or follow the social norms and get married.
There was another, distant third option, which was to try to make it on her own. But at the time, women without means didn’t have a lot of career options. Branching out on her own would be an immense struggle, one that most women didn’t even attempt.
She chose what she saw as her best option – she chose to marry.
Marriage and Kids
My grandmother got married in 1952. She was 17. She got pregnant with her first daughter, my aunt, shortly after being wed and had my mother the day after her 20th birthday. Two sons followed shortly after.
Her marriage with my grandfather was always tenuous. For as long as I could remember, they had separate bedrooms. My grandma was always present and engaging, happy to take us places or tag along on our adventures. She’d be out meeting her friends for coffee at their favorite restaurants or taking trips up to Wisconsin for get-a-ways.
My grandfather was the opposite. He was a homebody who hardly ever came out of his room. He never went anywhere with us or took much of an interest in us when we visited. I wondered, at a young age, how they ended up together and why they stayed together.
When I was an adult, I finally had the courage to ask her.
When my grandparents first met, my grandfather acted like a completely different person. He took her out dancing and to restaurants. He promised her vacations and adventure, a life of fun and excitement. For a 17-year-old trapped in an abusive household, it seemed like a dream come true.
The fun stopped along with the wedding bells. Once he had that ring secured and the marriage certificate signed, my grandpa stopped pretending to be someone he wasn’t. They stopped going out. He didn’t even try to keep his promises of travel and adventure. He worked and came home to his own hobbies, disinterested in helping with the childcare or the housework.
The thing is, though, this was the norm of the time. Husbands went to work and made money while wives stayed home and completed the domestic tasks. My grandfather was a perfect husband of the time, he was a provider, and he didn’t abuse her or the kids. The bar was so low that this was considered a “good” marriage.
The next question I asked is why she stayed. Why not file for divorce?
The truth is, it wasn’t that easy. When I asked her specifically why she didn’t divorce him, she responded, “that’s just not something you did,” and I get it.
Divorce was not common or typical in the 1960s and 70s. Divorced women were stigmatized and often struggled to advance beyond the poverty level.
No-fault divorce wasn’t even fully available until 1980, though some states did enact it earlier. My grandfather never did anything wrong in the eyes of the law. He didn’t cheat or abuse her. She wouldn’t have even been eligible for a divorce until after she was married for 30 years. And at that point, how would she support herself? As a wife and mother for 30 years, whose only job experience was babysitting, she had no marketable skills. How would she support herself as she approached her senior years if she filed for divorce?
Again, she had a choice. She could choose to stay married and have a modicum of financial security for the rest of her life based on my grandfather’s employment, or she could get divorced and be destitute. Neither option would allow her to live the life of travel and adventure that she really wanted. She chose to stay, and I understand that choice. It was the best option available to her.
A Look at Women’s Right’s During My Grandmothers’ Time
We can question the choices our grandmothers made all we want. Maybe she should never have married. Maybe she would have been happier had she divorced. However, we tend to look at these things with a modern lens without considering the reality of a time that isn’t that far distant.
When we dig deep into the laws and restrictions of the time, we discover a darker truth. My grandmother was married for twenty years before women had the right to have their own bank accounts. She was dependent on her father and then my grandfather for her financial well-being because she didn’t have the right to strike out on her own. She didn’t have access to credit until the 1970s, so she couldn’t get a mortgage for her own house or finance her own car or do any of the things we take for granted today.
My grandmother did not have the same options that I have when it came to having a family either. Birth control was not available until 1960, after she had her four children. She did not have control over her own reproduction. The option to not have children did not exist.
She could have chosen to leave my grandfather after having kids, but that would have thrust her into a life of poverty and strife.
Our grandmothers did not live in the same world we do. They didn’t have the choices we have. They didn’t have the right to live their own lives in their own ways. Instead of judging them for their choices, we need to remember that they didn’t have the same options we do. They made the best choices they could.
Not Actually That Long Ago
I hope you realized the glaring elephant in the room. The 1970s. This wasn’t that long ago. Our parents were teenagers and young adults. My sister was born at the end of the decade.
Women’s right to equality is less than fifty years old. And let’s think about what that means for building wealth.
Women couldn’t invest in real estate, leverage credit, or even earn interest on bank accounts. They couldn’t get high-paying jobs. They were dependent on their male relatives for their livelihood.
Culture changes more slowly than the law. Even though the law may have changed in the 1970s, that doesn’t mean that women suddenly owned homes and had their own accounts. To even get started in the financial world, you need capital. Women didn’t have jobs; they didn’t have the money to open a bank account even when they could. They were trapped in domestic servitude for decades and had no marketable skills to apply for the jobs that were slowly becoming available.
It wasn’t until the 1980s – the decade I was born in – that women became competitive in the workforce. And it was still a struggle. Sexual harassment was rampant, and women were not paid equally (we still aren’t, 40 years later!). Women were passed over for raises and promotions for “family men” who had “families to take care of.”
Women, in the grand scheme of things, have not had a lot of time to flourish and build wealth independently. My generation is the first generation of women who have been given that opportunity, and it was a hard-fought battle.
An Ongoing Battle
My generation is the first generation of women who have the ability to control our own financial and reproductive destinies. The war rages on. Battles are still being fought on the front lines to strip women of our bodily autonomy and our ability to make our own choices.
The connection between reproductive autonomy and financial independence is glaringly obvious. Stripping women of the ability to plan when, how, and if they will have children is the first, massive step in stripping us of our ability to support ourselves financially. Having children at an early age makes moving up the career ladder immensely harder. Being forced into motherhood before being ready is one of the main reasons women get trapped in poverty. If we lose this basic right, we may lose other options. We may be faced with similar choices to our grandmothers – marry someone miserable for financial security or live a life of destitution. This scenario gets played out repeatedly in the United States, with millions of women trapped in unhappy and often abusive marriages because they can’t afford to leave.
Honoring Our Grandmothers With Financial Independence
We need to honor our grandmothers while we still have the chance. We can do this in two main ways – we can fight for the rights that we do have and vote to make sure that future generations can enjoy the same rights, and we can also take advantage of those rights.
Taking advantage of these rights means living our lives for ourselves. Following our own hopes and dreams in ways that our grandmothers never could have imagined. We can open our own bank accounts, save our own money, go on solo adventures around the world. We can do whatever we want with our lives and don’t have to rely on anyone.
So let’s do it. Let’s honor our grandmothers’ sacrifices and take control of our own destinies. For me, that means following my passions for travel, art, gaming, and fun. It might mean something completely different for you, and that’s okay. That’s the beauty of the rights we currently have. We are all free to choose our own destinies. Don’t let that freedom go to waste. Go out there and live your life for yourself. Make your grandmother proud.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.