BEYOND FAME15 :: #WomensHistoryMonth: Writing My Grandmother Back into History
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by DENA KOKLANARIS
Exactly three decades ago, in 1987, the U.S. Congress designated the month of March as Women’s History Month. While momentum for the designation had been building since the late 1970s, with several state departments of education developing curriculum materials to foster equality in our classrooms, the official declaration didn’t occur until 1987.
The designation was a major win for the National Women’s History Project – the coalition that lobbied the U.S. Congress to make the designation – and for women across the country. The organizers wanted to right a historical wrong: they saw that women were largely absent from history texts. History was being taught on a half empty stage, with central characters completely missing and written out of the script. At its core, from the first official designation of Women’s History Month to today, the goal remains: to “write women back into history.” Today, the National Women’s History Project continues to mobilize and direct Women’s History Month, a milestone that honors women’s extraordinary contributions and historical achievements.
I know this because 1: I have access to a computer and 2: I’ve had the good fortune of going to school. Not just elementary school. But also high school. And college. I’ve had and continue to have opportunities and access to a life of learning, writing, and creative work that many women and girls around the world are denied. And I know this all too well because my paternal grandmother was one of those women.
At nine years old, all my grandmother wanted was to stay in school. But, as was customary in her remote island village of Ikaria, Greece, circa 1913, girls were needed at home. So, after finishing the third grade, her formal education officially ended. While her brothers got to stay in school, she was kept at home. Days spent learning and playing with other children turned to days spent tending house. Her brothers were taught math, she cleaned. Her brothers studied grammar, she prepared meals for the family.
Yet the absence of a formal education didn’t deter my grandmother. Throughout her life, she continued to read and write. Avidly. While still in Greece and later, after becoming a U.S. citizen and raising her family in the Pittsburgh region, she encouraged her children and grandchildren to study everything she had been denied. We achieved the dreams she had for us – of going to college and creating fulfilling lives for ourselves and our families.
My grandmother was fiercely intelligent, loving and exceptionally strong. Were she still alive today, she’d know that all six of her granddaughters have had opportunities to pursue everything she couldn’t. She’d know that we’ve all graduated from college and gone on to careers in fields as diverse as communications and marketing, medicine, teaching, tourism, and writing. That my sisters, cousins, and I often have the joy of working alongside bright, strong-willed women, doing work that we cherish and find challenging. She’d know that we’ve all flown across oceans, multiple times. That we’ve all spent summer afternoons on the unbelievably beautiful beaches of Ikaria, her homeland. And that our travels have taken us around the globe – from watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night, to riding camels up to the Great Pyramids, to eating mangoes off of beaches as far away as Costa Rica and Thailand. She’d smile knowing that whenever we set off on an adventure, we do so with her memory in our minds and hearts. And she’d delight in learning that her great-granddaughters are already blazing their own trails and following their dreams.
We’ve all asked each other what we think she’d have pursued had she been born in the U.S., during a different era, an era like our own. We’ll never find out. But we do know this: that each time we set off to work, step foot on a plane, or crack open a book, we continue, in some small way, to write her back into history.