This time last year I wrote a blog for International Women’s Day that mentioned my granny. Reading back and with her 92nd birthday approaching, I wondered why I spoke of her only briefly, as her life has often provided me with an opportunity for useful reflection on what it means to be a woman today as opposed to ten decades ago.
Born in 1921 in County Down, a year of political upheaval, change and uncertainty unprecedented by even the tumultuous standards of that part of the world, she was barely a month old when King George V formally opened the First Ulster Parliament. Whilst her childhood years was, for many, a time for flapper dresses and art deco, her upbringing and that of most of her neighbours was more akin to the Victorian era. In a blink of an eye she was old enough to work in one of the big houses of wealthy North Down, but the relative freedom that brought was short-lived as by and by German bombs were decimating nearby Belfast and she was called back to her family farm to help support her parents with the upbringing of her many younger siblings.
War ended and a few years later she married a man who was born before even the first war to end all wars. They had their own considerable brood, but once more the innocence of childhood was cut short – this time for her offspring - as bombs again fell on Belfast and throughout the country; bombs that were the property of neighbours and countrymen, not a Führer many miles away.
It’s almost incomprehensible to imagine what it must be like to have lived through nearly all of the last 100 years. Women had just achieved the vote when granny was born; she has lived through world wars, cold wars, local wars. She has worked in flax bogs and big houses. Cruel school mistresses did not spare the rod with her and she has kept her own personal faith when the church she loves has been rocked by scandal. She’s survived house fires and heartbreak – she had fifty years to enjoy with the man she loved. She’s buried brothers, sisters and friends and has pulled herself through bouts of her own ill health and aches.
What a tough life I think as I write this and yet…. and yet if she was sitting here beside me now and I asked her to sum it all up she’d say: “Sure it’s been great, I don’t know my luck! The teachers told me I was no good; the girls said I was nothing to look at, who’d have thought I would still be here now looking back at it all!”
At her 90th birthday party she did two things I thought I would never see her do - dancing and taking a mic in her hand. “I can’t believe it!” she said “Looking out at you all, I can’t believe I did it!”.
She did it and so much more. There were four generations of her family looking lovingly back at her and bar the odd spouse; not-one of us in that room would have been born without her. She had in turn cared for each of us when we were ill, mended the rips in our clothes and never forgot any of her birthdays.
The sacrifices she has made and the gratitude she has for simply being is humbling. I feel like I owe it to her and her generation to take nothing for granted and to not be complacent. The lives of women in this country have in many ways been utterly transformed in the course of her lifetime, but she would be the first to say to accept no nonsense, strive to be your best and challenge the obstacles deliberately put in your way to prevent your progress.
Imagine what the incredible women of my granny’s generation would be doing now if they had their youth today? I have a feeling they wouldn’t be sitting on their laurels and saying the objectives of feminism have been achieved.
On this International Women’s Day, I am calling on all of us to give those inspirational women in our lives something to be proud of.
Happy International Women’s Day everyone.
Putting her first ever Irish passport, issued at the age of 90, to good use to come to London for my wedding.