Probably because I hadn’t lived enough to fully appreciate how trailblazing they were. Or because I was raised by a super feminist and never before realized that she was unequivocally the exception to the rule.
But it’s certainly clear to me now that both my mother and my grandmother were strong, smart, badass women that bucked convention in a male-dominated world.
Helen D. Alexander was my grandmother – and a true force of nature. To meet her was to engage a bright, lovely woman. But beneath the surface was a person of immeasurable strength, tenacity, intelligence, and capability. I could (and maybe should) write a book in order to cover all of the amazing accomplishments and credentials she generated during her life time, but, following are just a few notable highlights.
When Mama Helen (as we called her) finished high school, she started out as a nurse. She remained a nurse through WWII to willingly support what America needed, and continued the vocation after my grandfather’s return from the War and supported their family while he earned his university education.
It was during this time that my mother was born into what was known as “Trailerville” - a collection of trailers set up on campus specifically to support the war vets and their families.
My grandmother was now getting deeply involved in a variety of political groups, and before long became the Democratic State Committee woman.
Among her many duties was organizing the welcome party for JFK on that fateful day in Dallas. She ended up at the hospital after he was assassinated, and helped manage the ensuing crisis.
She took an oath and never shared details of that horrific event, taking whatever she had seen and heard with her to the grave.
Soon thereafter, based on her love of business and numbers, she pursued a second education and graduated with a Finance degree from Southern Methodist University (SMU). Ironically my mother was graduating from SMU right around the same time, which afforded my grandmother the space to further her own education.
Mama Helen went on to be a VP at the Bank of Dallas.
Can you imagine being the only woman that had a key to go to the floor where the Vice Presidents had offices? Every other VP was a man. My grandmother was never one to talk about her challenges or accomplishments, and so I seldom heard the details of these stories. She simply persevered so she could do the work that challenged and thrilled her.
But I finally did get to witness how two extremely strong women worked together and supported one another when she left the Bank of Dallas for the opportunity to work for a private individual, a powerful woman, and manage all of her finances. It was a phenomenal experience for me.
And it showed me how important it is when women support each other and thrive together in their individual life experiences instead of wasting time competing for the imaginary seats at the table, which unfortunately is far too commonplace.
In many ways, my mother was the exact opposite of her mother, and in many ways just the same. Mom was an ultra-feminist. A hippie of the late 60s and early 70s, she marched for women’s rights, and had us eating natural/organic foods and whole grains way before it was trendy and accepted. She also just basically raised me in the same way as my three brothers. Which meant I wore their hand-me-downs, and was discouraged from wearing make-up, shaving, or doing anything overly feminine.
My mom got a teaching degree following her four-year college degree and worked as a substitute teacher during my youth, while also managing a family of four kids. She volunteered her time at our schools, and was heavily invested in our education. When I was in high school, she went back to teaching full time, received a masters degree, taught in the public system and then spent the end of her career teaching on the Southern Ute Indian reservation. While she continued to march and speak out for all of the things that mattered to her: women’s rights, diversity and inclusion and equality in education, she found the time to teach me how to balance a checkbook and manage expenses and cash flow. It’s why I continue to grow a business with a tightly managed P&L.
Those that knew her loved her. Like my grandmother, she was strong, smart, consistent and committed.
I no longer take for granted the models I had in these two women. They each navigated a world built for men but used their courage, intelligence and perseverance to create successful careers. I benefited from the wisdom handed down to me through two generations: that one can choose her own path, and it doesn’t have to be the “norm.” I saw that while following the less traditional path can be hard, it’s also extremely rewarding.
So on this International Women’s Day I feel fortunate for and inspired by these two amazing women who laid the foundation from which I could spring forward. And I hope their stories are inspiring for anyone who is driven to follow their own path.