My mother is a physician and believes fervently in the education of women. She was raised in the years after the war in the United Kingdom during a time when women's education was generally viewed as being less important than the education of men. She tells the story of how her mother - also a physician - argued with my grandfather because he wouldn't spend the money to send his two youngest daughters to boarding school. I think of my maternal grandmother often. She was an extraordinary women. She grew up in a small community in the West of Ireland. Her parents were not university educated, but her mother believed in the power of education and encouraged her four children to attend university. My grandmother became a physician, eventually moving to the United Kingdom where she would become a sexual health physician - one of the first in the country. When a couple married in the 1940's they were required to include their profession on the marriage certificate. My grandfather was also a physician. But despite the fact that my grandmother had been practicing medicine for several years when they became engaged, because she was over a certain age (I believe it was 28) she had to write Spinster instead of Physician. Nearly every time our family would visit her she would tell this story and show us the marriage certificate. As a little girl I understood that this wasn't fair, but it wasn't until I was an adult that I truly understood how hurtful this must have been for her. She was denied recognition for her role as a professional, and denied equality to her spouse, both of which were among the most important parts of who she was. Together they raised six children all of whom would attend university and gain professional degrees. Their four daughters would all go on to raise women, all of us university educated.
My father was an only child and was raised in an household where both parents worked full-time. This was unusual in the 1950's in Alberta. While neither of his parents were university educated, my grandmother remains one of the most intelligent women I know. Given the chance, there is little doubt in my mind that she would have achieved extraordinary academic success. She was raised in a poor family in Northern Alberta and left school at 15 to work in an office. By the time she was 20 years old she was married and had a baby. When my dad was in grade school she was working at the university as a secretary to one of the Dean's, a good job for a women who had taught herself to type and take notes. She would make the roles she took on in her professional career her own. She demanded more of the men she worked for, and demanded more of the women under her supervision. She expected the women in her office to work hard and take initiative. She also expected them to be treated with respect and kindness by their superiors, all of whom were men. She would spend over 25 years working at the University of Alberta and in addition to the financial legacy she leaves for engineering students, she also leaves a legacy of expectation around how women should be treated in the workplace.
There are a few key things that I believe to be true and one of them is that we ask to come into this life, into the lives of our parents for very specific reasons. We are there to heal and teach them, and they are here to heal and teach us. I also believe that my father was meant to raise women. He has taught me that men can be compassionate and kind, giving and nurturing, gentle and affectionate. Many women I know have had very different experiences in their lives and their relationship to men, so I feel this is a real gift. In turn, my mother has taught me the power of independent thought and opinion as a women. She has shown my sister and I that a women can be ferociously protective, yet soft and loving. Both my parents have taught my sister and I what it means to be a women.
And while it's infuriating and shocking to me that the things my grandmothers fought for, my mother and father protested continue to be the things that I protest, I want to recognize the small, powerful acts that each of them contributed. My maternal grandmother educated women about their bodies, their babies, their menstrual cycles. She insisted her 4 daughters all attend university. My paternal grandmother created a work environment where the mistreatment of women was not tolerated. She showed a young boy that a working mother was nothing to be ashamed of. My mother showed her daughters the value of women putting their hand up to sit in leadership roles, even though it was hard and required sacrifice. My father has taught me that the most beautiful men are the ones who allow themselves to be vulnerable and compassionate.
So while the men and women in my family will not necessarily be inscribed into the history books like others, their lives are a testament to the great Margaret Mead who said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
I hope today that you will think about and thank someone in your life who has allowed you to understand what it means to be a women, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a feminist. Because today isn't just about women, it's about community and love and honouring where we've come from, where we are and the work that still needs to be done.