Equality for Women: Insights from My Grandfather

Equality for Women: Insights from My Grandfather

by Maame-Mensima Horne

I was raised in a feminist household where I was exposed to feminism and its theory early.

I realized my
grandfather was
the head feminist.

My parents created a foundation, which I complemented with books, films and stories from international feminists. Most of my mother’s friends are in academia, as is she. Many are African and Caribbean feminists who work to include the voice of Africans and African descendants in the global feminist movement. They take the concept of social, political and economic equality to another level and frame feminism as people committed to making the world a better place for women and their families, which inherently benefits all of humanity.

It is under this definition that I am a feminist.

I always thought my mother was the biggest feminist our family. She writes about mothering and feminism. She was the convener of the African Studies Association Women’s Caucus, convener of the “Celebrating Our Students” conference for Women’s Studies students from all eight Indiana University campuses, and a member of the Women’s Caucus of the African Language Association.

It wasn’t until January 2009 that I realized my grandfather was the head feminist.

That’s when my grandfather came to the United States for the first time at age 87; I was 22. When I went to visit with him, I asked him to tell me about my grandmother, Ama Adoma Mensima Nickelson. She died when my mother was 13, so I never had an opportunity to get to know her.

They had an arranged marriage in 1948. A pioneer of his time, my grandfather believed that his wife should be his equal and nothing less. Living in Ghana at that time, it was normal for women to take on traditional gender roles, so my grandfather’s decision to cook meals, clean the house and raise their children together was revolutionary.

His passion for women’s human rights didn’t stop there. He ensured that the women in my grandmother’s family were educated. As a result, my mother earned her doctorate degree and her sisters all had university education. My grandfather’s actions make him a feminist — although he may not claim the label and might not be included on a list of feminists by my peers.

Broadening the Definition

Too often, everyday people whose actions are creating opportunities for their wives, sisters, mothers, daughters, brothers or husbands get left out of the equation because they don’t speak the lingo, may not fit the label, can’t afford to write a check for the cause or never publish so they perish. They aren’t invited to the table or even acknowledged for their contribution to our movement. I believe feminism becomes exclusionary when those of us who can use a mouthpiece or an advanced degree are the ones who control the movement.

I advocate for
issues that may
never affect me

Through organizing for reproductive justice, which I started with SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective in Atlanta and continued in Miami with Mi Lola, Miami International Latinas Organizing for Leadership and Advocacy, I realized that I had to redefine feminism. I needed to incorporate social justice and human rights frameworks so I could reach women who are generally not included in the movement, or feel that they are not. I could talk about the right to choose but it didn’t mobilize women whose choices were taken away due to forced sterilizations or permanent birth control. I couldn’t organize women who want to parent their children, but couldn’t afford to feed themselves or their families.

I met the young mother of two who decided to abort her last pregnancy — not because she didn’t want children, but because she had two children and couldn’t afford to add another mouth to an already stretched budget. She worked at Dollar General and couldn’t afford to take a day off even after she had the surgery because she needed to feed her kids. To make such a decision solely based on survival was disheartening because I could see the sadness she tried to hide.

We can talk about these issues, but until you see or experience the varied inequalities that exist outside of the middle-class America, it’s hard to learn feminism that betters the lives of all women. Of course, there are glass ceiling or pay equity issues for women who have executive positions and are making less than their male counterparts — but executives are making more than the average American. There are women who don’t make a living wage; some are working 50 hours a week and are still impoverished.

Embracing A Bigger View of Human Rights

I saw this first-hand when I moved back to Miami in January 2010 after a year in Atlanta and I became a member of MiLola. At one of the meetings, I learned about the realities of wage theft.

Many of the women who are victimized are Spanish-speaking immigrants who work in hospitality at luxury hotels. Although their employers promise them a certain pay and they worked their committed hours, the women didn’t receive their full pay for months. Some women weren’t paid for years.

Five women attended the meeting to share their experiences as undocumented workers and to advocate for a Miami-Dade County ordinance that would protect them against future theft. One woman, who worked for a cleaning company contracted to clean luxury hotels, shared her story of fear prior to connecting with a civil liberties lawyer. She didn’t think she had the right to receive her full pay and feared her employer would call immigration authorities if she spoke out against the injustice. For almost a year, her employer would pay her below their agreed rate and she didn’t complain.

These are women with families to feed. They work harder than I do, but my education and citizenship provide me with privileges that aren’t available to them. But we can’t forget they are human, and, therefore, have human rights. There is no reason they should live their lives in fear and accept unequal treatment due to lack of documentation.

I believe that these are the issues feminists need to learn more about in order to make substantial changes in the lives of all women. Just as we hope in the reproductive justice field that sharing abortion stories will make our movement stronger, hearing these stories from the source is making me a better feminist.

I think feminism means learning outside of the classroom and looking at whatever a person can do to better the lives of women in whatever field she chooses — all women, and not just middle-class women. As a supervisor are you committed to creating flexible work schedules so parents are able to spend time with their children? If you see any form of harassment, do you ignore it and pretend it doesn’t happen, or do you report it and ensure the behavior isn’t repeated? All of us can include a human rights and social justice framework in the work we do.

I go to meetings every month and learn about new injustices that impact people in my community. I talk to my family members to learn how to apply my theories and I advocate for issues that may never affect me personally. Through this, I believe I have become a global feminist and can advocate for all women, and not just those who are privileged.

To commit to bettering the lives of all women takes a commitment to leave that which is comfortable behind, and to use our privilege for those most underserved. I thank my grandfather for making such commitments and for providing the guidance that made it possible for my mother to broaden my feminist perspective.

Maame-Mensima Horne is the Director of Imagine Miami, a program of the Human Services Coalition, and is a reproductive justice activist and feminist.

Also see A Feminist’s U-Turn: A Torrid Tale of Disappointment and Discovery by Megan Carpentier in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See On The Frontlines: A Counselor Must Address A Gauntlet of Lies by Mary Lou Greenberg in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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