Today is International Women’s Day, and I want to do something different. Instead of talking about London or travel, women’s rights or gender equality, I’d like to share some personal stories with you. These are stories of women in my family that have inspired me and influenced my life choices so much that they’re the reason you’re reading the A Lady in London blog today.
International Women’s Day Inspiration
International Women’s Day is difficult for me. I’m a self-proclaimed feminist (with all the good, bad, and ugly connotations), and I get discouraged by stories of gender pay gaps, women’s lack of rights, and violence against women.
So instead of dwelling on how far we have to go, I want to focus on how far we’ve come. The amazing stories of women in my family have had such a profound impact on my life that I want to share them in hope that they’ll not only help me see today in a positive light, but inspire you, too.
Emma & Ruth
The first story is that of my great-great-grandmother, Emma, and her daughter, Ruth. Emma was suddenly widowed when Ruth was a baby, and a few years later she made the courageous decision to move from a comfortable home in New York to a frontier settlement in Michigan.
She and Ruth were some of the earliest white settlers in the Scottville area in the early 1880s, and Emma negotiated hard to become the first full-time female teacher in the community (the men previously thought a woman couldn’t handle the job).
Ruth later went on to marry my Scottish-born great-grandfather and become the matriarch of the city as it grew up around them. They ran a dairy farm and later a dairy business, providing milk and ice cream (yum!) to the greater community for decades.
In the year of Ruth’s 100th birthday, a community member wrote a book about Scottville that was as much a history of the city as it was a biography of my great-grandmother. I read the book as a child, but recently tracked down another copy of Back Home with Ruth that Ruth had signed. Reading about her and Emma’s pioneering spirit and refusal to take no for an answer inspired me to make bold choices of my own and stand up for myself in my business.
Not only that, but a few years ago I managed to find one of Ruth’s dairy milk bottles on eBay, and it now sits on my bedside table as a reminder of her and the other strong women in my family.
The second story is about Ruth’s daughter, Grace. My great-aunt was not only born into a line of brave women, but was also a trailblazer herself. Born in 1914, she started her own women’s clothing shop in an era when most women didn’t work, let alone become entrepreneurs.
Grace traveled to New York to buy for the shop, but women weren’t allowed to participate in the after-hours card games where her male counterparts did most of the big business deals. Undeterred, Grace sat at the bar drinking Diet Coke until she heard the men put down their cards and start to talk shop. As soon as they did, she rushed over to the table to make sure she got in on the deal, then went back to the bar to finish her soda.
Having started my career in banking, I can relate to Grace’s experiences as a woman in a man’s industry. When I think of how many private equity job interviews where I was told “we’ve never had a woman on the team” before I was passed over for a male candidate, I feel disheartened.
But learning how Grace persevered in the face of a challenging business environment showed me how much I can accomplish if I don’t let obstacles deter me from finding a creative solution to achieve my goals. Private equity wasn’t interested in hiring a woman, so I left banking and started my own business where nobody could hire a man instead of me.
Alice & Jean
The third story comes from the other side of my family. My great-grandmother, Alice, was born into a conservative Mennonite family in Pennsylvania, and she was married off to an older man when she was a teenager. After my grandfather and great-uncle were born she decided she’d had enough of it, so got a divorce and moved to Chicago with her sons.
As if that wasn’t brave enough for a woman in the early 20th century, Alice started buying real estate. She owned one particular residential building in Chicago that an immigrant family from Glasgow moved into in the 1920s. When Alice sent my grandfather to their apartment to do some repairs, he fell for the family’s daughter, Jean, who later became my grandmother. Jean’s own story was equally courageous, having left Glasgow with her family at the age of 23 to forge a new life in America.
Alice and Jean’s stories of leaving lives they were unsatisfied with to start over and create futures they wanted have always inspired me. They’re part of the reason I chose to leave an unfulfilling career in my home city and move to London to begin again.
Alice’s story in particular inspires me to not let any barriers—gender or otherwise—stop me from pursuing my dreams. If a single mother in 1920’s Chicago could convince someone to give her a loan to buy real estate, anything is possible for me in 21st-century London. I just have to have the courage and creativity to make it happen.
I hope you’ve found inspiration in my family’s stories, and I’m sure you have inspiring tales, too. I would love for you to leave a comment on this post sharing about women in your family that have inspired you. Please tell your friends about this and encourage them to do the same.
I hope this can be a place where we all share and inspire one another to keep blazing trails for our generations and future generations of women until someday we live in a world where we don’t have to think about gender as it relates to our careers, rights, love of cupcakes, what kind of cupcakes we will be eating next, what color frosting said cupcakes will have, or anything else (oh goodness, I want a cupcake now).