For women’s history month, lifestyle is featuring essays and stories about the women in our own lives who have influenced us and made their own kind of history in our worlds. In this article, Games Editor Al Rosenberg shares her story of finding a role model in her own life; one right under her nose.

Women should have women role models. My roommate is entering the field of urban planning, and she often comes home from lectures, classes, or her internship declaring that she’s found herself a new potential mentor. Occasionally these folks are men, but often they’re women, and there’s a reason for that. While many men have taught me important life lessons, seeing a woman in a role I eventually want for myself makes it seem possible. There’s a glass ceiling and a prejudice against women still in many fields, but if other women have made it there, maybe we won’t feel so alone.

Yet it took me a while to find women that I felt I could look up to in a meaningful way. After years of seeking, the woman who influenced me the most ended up being a person I’ve known my whole life, but it took both of us aging and growing for me to recognize her importance in my life.

I didn’t call myself a feminist until college, after taking a Feminist Theories course with the professor who would eventually become my thesis advisor (a hefty work preciously entitled “Feminism: A Primer”). In fact, high school me was not only not a feminist, but actively anti-feminist. I said the kinds of things about feminists and feminism that cause me to roll my eyes now in frustration. I didn’t hate other women, I already knew I was queer (“bisexual” at the time), but I thought women had already achieved so much. Plus I didn’t yet understand that “using my sex appeal” at the workplace was demeaning and would eventually leave deep emotional scars.

It wasn’t even that I didn’t have strong women in my life. There were strong women all around me who were toxically unhappy in their private lives, and none of them considered themselves feminists. As I’ve written before, my mother was anything but the vision of maternal love. She was emotionally abusive, manipulative, and neglectful. Most of the women in my family were overly dependent on their husbands, put down other women’s successes, and slut-shamed without hesitation.

[pullquote]When I first described myself as a feminist in my first year of college she groaned good-naturedly and made a comment about my body hair. Still I didn’t believe I had a role model to look up to, how could I when we disagreed on so much?[/pullquote]I was saved from my early situation by my grandmother, a woman I consider to be my best friend. At fifteen I moved into her home. Now, I talk to my grandmother almost everyday and can tell her almost anything. She was the second family member I ever told about my sexuality (the first was one of my brothers) and, though she was raised in the homophobic South and considers herself a Catholic, she didn’t bat an eyelash. Yet, there’s a disconnect between us that she attributes to a generational gap, but I believe is just a difference in ideology. When I first described myself as a feminist in my first year of college she groaned good-naturedly and made a comment about my body hair. Still I didn’t believe I had a role model to look up to, how could I when we disagreed on so much?

The first year I lived with her was rough. I wasn’t used to being taken care of, and without someone who needed my constant attention and care, I fell into a deep depression. What was my purpose in life if not as a caretaker for my mother? I began to experience panic attacks daily and nothing seemed to calm them. After therapy and medication, I became a mostly functional teenager again, but my behavior during those months had cost me the friendship of my two best friends at school. Through all of this, my grandmother listened to my manic rants and terrified anxieties with patience and care. Yet I still thought of her as a woman who said things like, “I’ll need to discuss it with your grandfather” when it came to finances.

It was moving across the country that changed our relationship and opened my eyes to the true strength of my grandmother. She is the second youngest of six girls born to an immigrant Irish family. Her father died when she was very young, and she speaks of her own mother’s strength in raising the brood with a reverence usually reserved for saints. A divorced mother of two young girls, my grandmother took her ill mother in and cared for her until her death. She married again, watched her children make many mistakes, and took care of my mother through the younger woman’s endless depressive episodes.

[pullquote]If not for my grandmother I would never have gone to college. I likely would never have become a feminist.[/pullquote]My grandmother and I once got into a fight about morality. She was raised Catholic, I am a Jew. She believes strongly in G-d and an afterlife, whereas I shrug my shoulders in a typically Jewish resistance to just one opinion. So there are moments when our opinions chafe. I think women forced into marriage and children should be allowed to leave their situations without being vilified, but she cannot wrap her head around a mother ever abandoning her children. When my mother conceived me with a teenage boy she worked with, my grandmother helped them pay for the wedding and let them both live in her home on and off for the years of their desperate marriage. When my mother slid into addiction, my grandmother tried to save her from herself, and when that was no longer possible, she saved me from my mother. If not for my grandmother, I wouldn’t have been able to leave Florida and the trailer parks and apartments I shared with the woman who birthed me. If not for my grandmother I would never have gone to college. I likely would never have become a feminist.

It was during a conversation about my future that I felt the full force of my admiration for her. Already I knew I loved her more than I had ever believed it possible to love another person, but we often still struggled to find common ground. My tendency is to discuss a point of tension until a compromise is found, hers is to sweep it under the rug and agree to disagree. Last year, when I was diagnosed with a life-changing illness, we talked about the possibility of my moving back in with her. It would mean returning to an area devoid of other queers, of a literary scene, of almost any happy memories, but it also meant returning to her, the one person who had never turned her back on me for not being enough.

She said to me, “I want you here, but I want you to be happy more. I would do anything for you.” And in a flash, my final walls fell away. For my entire life I had felt afraid of letting anyone take care of me. Vulnerability was too dangerous, it meant I would be taken advantage of, treated poorly, forgotten. Yet my grandmother has never asked me for anything, has only affirmed my identity over and over again, even when it went against her own upbringing. She likes to tell me that I would have loved her mother, that her mother loved everyone and held no prejudices. My grandmother may not call herself a feminist, we may still fight on occasion, but her selfless love and care for me has been the single most motivating force in my life.