Strong Women


When you walk into mine and Sam’s home, there are two portraits that greet you. One is of my mom. The other is of Sam’s Grandma Jo. Joeolene. That’s the correct spelling, I promise. I never met Jo but I know I would have loved her. She was tough, a single mom, married a few times, resourceful, and had a tremendous ability and desire to keep learning and improving until the day she died. She could do anything and from what I’ve heard, she knew it.

I watched a lot of those sorts of women as I grew. They had different formulas, different strengths. But they all had one big thing in common. They never questioned why things needed done, they just did them. They found a way. Some way to put food on the table, mow the lawn, get to work, make sure the kids had a safe place to stay, go to school, better themselves, get out of a bad situation, pay the mortgage, have some fun, be a good host, and to fulfill every role that was expected of them.

A lot of the tough women I watched as a child were moms first and everything else second. They were a big part of a wave of ladies who married shit guys and left them, trusting they could do it on their own. Or they got pregnant and the man never stepped up. Or they just knew their life would be better without the hassle. Either way, they had abandoned the nuclear family for something else, a different kind of family. A different set of values. But most of those ladies retained that traditional feminine role in the home. They cooked and cleaned and nurtured. But they also worked a job or two or three. They worked on their own homes, mowed their own lawns, fixed their own cars. Mostly out of necessity it seemed, no money to pay someone else to do it.

I struggled with the gender role discussion when I went to college and took classes that preached feminist theory. The women I saw in academia didn’t look like moms, they didn’t look tired enough. They were well-hydrated liberal chicks with PHDs, Subaru’s, and practical shoes. I loved them. I wanted to be a feminist and I became one. I learned about the Bechdel test and words like liminal and agency. I could talk a long time about the character in some book or some film and whether they dismantled the traditional feminine ideals accepted by our culture.  

I wrote a thesis where I used the word liminal about 300 times. This is what it means. 1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process or 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold. I was interested in the latter and how it pertained to Appalachian women. I think I was trying really hard to resolve the conflict I felt between the women of my childhood and the women of academia. I did a little bit of work towards that end but mostly I just watched Winter’s Bone and Wild and Wonderful Whites a million times. I did more work towards dismantling the trope of the hillbilly than anything relating to women and their roles in my culture.

The women of my culture did very little for me in the way of thinking about self-worth and the giant task of unpacking I’ve had to do in my adult life. There wasn’t time to talk or think about self-worth, it was all about getting the things done that needed done. That fast became my metric for success and it still holds pretty true. What have I gotten done today? Did I tend to my home? Did I go to work? Did I make some food for myself and my loved ones? Did I go out of my way for someone? Did I pay any bills? These are questions I know my mom asked herself every day. And if the answers were yes (they usually were), then she would feel satisfaction.  

My list has grown to encompass a bit more. Did I do something that makes me happy today? Did I do something that leads to accomplishing my goals? Did I do something that is good for my body? But the questions my mom seemed to measure herself by, that all those tough single ladies seemed to ask themselves, they are deep-down engrained in my idea of meaning and life. They are much higher on the list than say, how much I weigh, how much money is in my bank account, what type of car I have, how socially acceptable my friends seem to be, and honestly, what others think of me.

The women of my childhood and of Appalachia seemed to me to unabashedly handle their shit. They may not have read as many books as you but by God they would pay their bills and go get some beers at the bar and take their kids to the river and be at work bright and early on Monday morning or Saturday night or whatever their start time happened to be at whatever job they happened to have.

My mom had this incredible little print on her wall. I can’t really remember when or where she found it, but it is this real stylized giant woman walking boldly into a bunch of skyscrapers, sunbeams washing over her and all the buildings. It says this across the bottom:

I am in the world to change the world.

And I’ll be damned if she didn’t do that every day of her life. And I bet Sam’s Grandma Jo did the same thing. And I watch the ladies I surround myself with do it too. Grace. Mir. Marissa. Aira. Felicia. There are countless others, but they are all chicks who unabashedly handle their shit. Some of them are Appalachian and some of them are not. Who cares, they rule.