“Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things that may not be taken from you.”
My mother recently found the above quote, written by my grandmother, on the back of a greeting card while she was going through old family photos. I don’t know when she wrote it, or why, but I think it captures her spirit. These words really hit me and have made me reflect on the lessons I learned from my grandmother, a formidable woman in her own right. She was strong, funny, kind, flawed, and I think she was amazing. I also credit her with, basically, giving me no choice but to become a true, unapologetic feminist and embedding in me a sense of confidence that my voice matters.
Many people have asked me when I realized that I was a feminist. The answer is, I never had that “moment.” I came to it honestly. I’m homegrown. I didn’t have a choice, and I’m glad I didn’t. Hillary Clinton (our next president?) said that women’s rights are human rights. It’s a no-brainer and it’s something I never had to learn. I guess I just looked around and knew. Thank you, Nana.
To really understand this story, we have to take a trip back about 85 years. We arrive in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania and the year is 1930. That’s the year my grandmother, Anne Gaffney, was born to a very blue-collar family. Her dad worked for the railroads and money was tight. When Nana was about 13, the house burned down, and she lost her youngest brother, the baby, Larry. She was thirteen years old.
Not long after, the family moved to Albany, New York. Nana graduated from Albany High School. As the eldest girl, the responsibility often fell to her to help take care of her siblings. For many years she was the primary caregiver to my great Uncle Ed, who is developmentally disabled.
By the time she met my grandfather, Jack Gaffney, Nana was a single mother with three children. They got married and had six more of their own: Dan, George, Patty, Jackie (my mom), Kate, and Meg. Nana attended Schenectady Community College and Russell Sage, but was never able to graduate. She didn’t let this stop her. She was PTA president and worked for the state legislator for many years. She was also an active member of the Albany Democratic Women’s Club.
In the late 1970s, Anne Gaffney was elected to the Albany County Legislature. In my grandparent’s house in Guilderland, I walked by a campaign poster that proclaimed her “Anne Gaffney: A Woman of her Word in the 33rd,” almost every day. In her position, she was a tireless advocate for the disadvantaged. One of the biggest battles that she fought, the cost of which was her political career, was to protect the Pine Bush Nature Preserve and stop the construction of Crossgates Mall. Suspiciously, before her reelection she was redistricted and forced to run in Colonie against a long-time incumbent. The Democratic Party refused to nominate her, so she ran as an independent. She also had a stroke during this period and published a letter in the local paper to her constituency from her hospital bed. She lost the election.
Life went on for the Gaffney family, but something shifted fundamentally after this experience. I ultimately think that it is a testament to her absolute unwillingness to bend, to sacrifice her beliefs, even in the face of insurmountable obstacles. I try to carry a little bit of that unwavering commitment to my beliefs with me.
I recently graduated from college and am hoping to begin a career in public policy. I often try to evoke my grandmother when I make decisions and even when I read the news. I wonder about her reactions; I imagine what her advice would be. She taught me that a woman, a mother, a wife, could also be a career woman, a politician, a leader. We should all look to these role models; whether they are family, someone who inspires us academically, or even someone we have only seen on TV. In 2015, being a woman, or being a young person in general, during uncertain times, is hard and scary. Let’s all look to those who helped us understand the importance of our own voice for motivation to reach our goals, and, if possible, advice to help us get there. Mr. Wilde would say that this is something that can never be taken from us.
Images: Courtesy of Hannah Cohen