“I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up, but since women couldn’t do that, I went to secretary school,” Abbita (short for abuelita) explained, when I called to interview her for a homework assignment about feminism. I’d been nervous to call, afraid she’d say feminism was a crazy American import or that it was un-Christian and ruining “the family” or that she was disappointed in me. Instead she told me about how she had worked for Licenciado Müller, a lawyer who helped women get divorced in Chihuahua. Abbita, whose real name was Carolina, said she loved her job because she cared about helping those women and because her boss trusted her judgment.
I never knew about any of this because she stopped working after she and my grandfather got married, but hearing this story illuminated the parts of her life I did know in a new way. It was the light turning on in a room I’d only explored with a flashlight.
All my life I’d heard about how she had been on her school’s basketball team. The girls wore long skirts as part of their uniform, but she joined the team in secret and had to hide it from her family because playing sports––even in giant skirts––was not ladylike. It was a quiet act of resistance. Like most of what she did.
My grandmother would often tell me the story of a woman who got married in the city and was soon forced by her husband to move to a little house with a dirt floor in the mountains, completely isolated from her friends and family. She would get angry telling this story and say that she supported the woman leaving her husband because the way he treated her was wrong. When I was little, I thought this was just one of those stories that grandmas tell (“This one again?”). I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal to her. Now I can imagine how desperate I would feel if I lost control of my life from one day to the next, can imagine how many women my grandmother knew who never regained it.
Whenever a woman she knew got married, Abbita would give her a little bit of money in secret because she believed it was essential that women have a way to escape bad marriages. This too seemed melodramatic to me (“Por si el marido le sale malo” sounded like something from a novela, and when I heard about my grandmother’s bridal safety-net tactics, I laughed and thought, “Too much Televisa.”)
In my own life, I’ve noticed that it is very taboo to talk about divorce if you’re married, but I don’t think I could be married if divorce weren’t legal and accessible to women. I don’t mean to imply that I take my relationship with Devin lightly, but I think marriage fundamentally changes when it is not an obligation. When I decided to get married, I didn’t have to give up my name or my rights. I didn’t have to give up my job or my dreams. I didn’t become someone’s property. I believe that Devin and I choose to be together even though we are free to leave. I believe we have the kind of marriage women like my grandmother fought for.
On the day of my cousin Vanessa’s wedding, Abbita told me a story. “I was never interested in cooking, but when I married your grandfather, I thought I should learn. He said, ‘No! Don’t take a cooking class. You should learn to play the piano,’ and he got me a piano. In the end, I didn’t learn to cook or play the piano. All I did was have babies. What kind of a life is that?”
Of course, that isn’t all she did. She did lots of things, like finding a way to own and manage properties and teaching me how to read and write and becoming so well-known for her wit that people would ask her to write their greeting cards and building relationships so strong that her children and grandchildren would fight over who got to sleep in the extra twin bed she kept in her room.
Still, I know she would have liked to do other things, too. It’s no coincidence that all of her daughters have Master’s degrees or that she gave each of her grandchildren a small sum of money when we turned 18 and said, “This is your money. You can do whatever you want with it.” She believed fiercely in independence. She took as much of it as she could and made sure we were free to have more.
Abbita didn’t go around exclaiming “I’m a feminist!,” but when I asked her to explain if she was, she had a quick answer: “Machismo means men are in charge, but feminism doesn’t mean women should be in charge. Do you know the saying ‘Behind every great man is a great woman’? Well, I don’t think anyone should be behind anyone. To me, feminism means that we all walk together, hand-in-hand.”
I think about myself at 21, nervous to call her, worried that I would have to defend feminism to my grandmother, wondering if there were any books I could give her to explain it in a way she could understand. I was so silly, thinking I’d discovered feminism when she had taught it to me all along.