My Texan grandmother voted every chance got. She voted in federal elections, state elections, school board elections, and local referendums. I’m surprised her voter’s registration card didn’t have scorch marks on its edges from being used so frequently at the polls.
Truly it’s amazing she didn’t vote on everything from cute baby contests on down, if you remember anything about the times in which she was raised.
The fact is, my grandmother was born a little over a decade into the 2oth century.
That means she was young enough at the time to have watched her college educated mother sit at home while her uneducated (but very smart) father went off to vote.
And it also means that she was old enough a few years later to remember the day that her mother went to vote for the very first time.
What it really means more than anything is that my grandmother saw what it was for women to not have ordinary civic rights— rights on which this country was founded, actually. Rights that apparently didn’t extend to women, or to men of color, or to women of color, or to the little crooked lady who lived down the lane—for more than a hundred and forty years.
On an ordinary day in the 20th century, my great-grandmother got dressed up and put on a hat and went out to vote in an election.
Her little girl watched her go, and when that little girl turned eighteen, by gum, she voted.
My grandmother encouraged everyone to vote, regardless of whether they agreed with her politics or not. Were she still living, she would want me to tell you that she was a registered Democrat, or what Texas called “a yellow dog Democrat” because Democrats were as common as yellow dogs, as the saying went.
We each got the same lecture about our civic rights and responsibilities— we were called on to vote, she would say. And were called on to be a part of a jury of our peers. These were rights and they were responsibilities. To each man, to each woman— one vote. That’s the law.
In turn, my grandmother’s beliefs made a deep impression on my psyche, as you know if you’re a regular reader of this blog. (You also know I’ve been in mourning because she died this year, at the age of 99.) I do love to write about her and share her stories with you. Personally, I find that writing about her during a turbulent season like this one is helping me clarify how I think about the ideas that fill me with a sense of affinity.
What you don’t know about me is that I don’t talk politics because of my grandmother. She came from a family that liked to debate ideas, but really, my impression is that they liked scrap with each other about intelligent, socially-taboo topics— in other words, they talked politics and religion. What I’ve been told is that those fights ended with her father or one of her three brothers pounding on the kitchen table and shouting, after which everyone went to bed and fumed.
And while the mere thought of having anything like a debate makes me prickle around the edges thinking about it, there are times and places where I do find it hard to hold my tongue in my mouth without damn near biting it clean off.
I do vote, and I do follow politics enough to know what is going on especially with the issues I feel are most important. But I will never follow politics with the same avaricious joy as my grandmother did. As a writer, I have had the opportunity to write about specific issues or policies for magazines and newspapers, but usually the politics are tied into a human interest angle, and my job, as I see it, is to make my bias as transparent as possible.
When it comes to my personal life I keep that same bias glassily opaque because my feelings are so deeply held, and so personal that I don’t seek out opportunities to be offended by opinions I do not share.
So, of course, you know I’m going to break my own rule. Tonight, a landmark vote came down in Texas, and it was a bad one. Without getting into too much detail, I will tell you that this vote is about something I am against, and that I am grieving and that I am angry to the point of fury. I keep thinking of my mother’s mother’s mother— my great-grandmother, with her Gibson Girl looks and her quizzical eyes, walking out one day to vote for the first time. (Texas was the ninth state to ratify women’s right to vote.) Eighty-five years later, I remember the day my husband took my grandmother to vote in what would be her last election. In that memory, my spouse is holding her hand as if she were royalty as he bundles her into the car. Because I had already voted, I stood inside waving and waving, watching them drive away.
But this story is not about the loss of my grandmother, really, or even the dire policy at hand. It’s about my family and my family’s legacy in regards to women.
Both of my grandparents felt strongly about the need to protect women’s rights. My grandmother and my grandfather both were quite vocal by the time I, only granddaughter, came along the by and by. While my grandmother focused on modelling strength and independence, my grandfather chose a different tack— he started teaching me early how to use hand and electric tools; how to behave around livestock; how to ride a horse; how to drive a car; how to handle a firearm— all the things I needed to know in order to be a person in Texas.
However, the things I learned weren’t all that unusual for a Texas woman. This country is big and it is rough— you pretty much have to know how to get along in it, or you won’t get along at all. Women here tend to have a little flint to them— you don’t get many withering females in Texas. They just don’t thrive in the soil as well as the tougher succulents. My grandfather knew this, and so did my grandmother, and they tried to keep that little spark of wildness alive in me, and over time, they found ways to cultivate what was native to the girl I was, and to protect and to nurture that wildness for the woman they hoped I would become.
Finally, I find myself returning to one more memory— this moment from my own childhood with my grandfather. I adored my grandfather, and my grandfather adored me. So much of who I am comes from this man’s love and belief in me that I don’t like to talk about him much. He was so magical— so many people thought so. But my grandfather is a part of my life that I consider private. So I trust you to be kind as I share this one story:
One day when I was four I insisted to my grandfather that I would rather be a cowboy than a cowgirl. At the time, we were fussing with a huge magnet he used for picking up nails and screws in the cinder block shop behind his house. The four wrinkles that ran perpendicular across forehead folded together in concern. He fiddled with the magnet for a second, looking sad. I watched him, not understanding at all why what I said made him so very unhappy— my grandfather was almost never that unhappy. After a few more seconds, he told me, “You grow up and be a cowgirl. Cowgirls are just as good as cowboys. Do you understand? Just as good.” I wavered for a second, unsure. “Sometimes,” he added, turning his one blue eye and his one green eye on me, “sometimes a cowgirl is tougher than a cowboy, you see? Like you. You’re strong.”
And so I was. And so I am.
On nights like tonight, when I find myself worrying about where things are headed for Texas women, I remember that my grandmother was under school-age when her mother got the vote. My mother gained freedoms thanks to my grandmother fighting the good fight. And I have gained freedoms that my great-grandmother could not have imagined thanks to my mother. I am the product of three generations of rough-fighting Texas men and women; it’s my turn to pick up the stick and ward off the wild dogs of the night that would try to take away my hard-won rights— especially those rights specific to my gender.
On nights like tonight, I might worry a bit, and find myself wandering through my memory— but it’s all to a good purpose. The wild part my family cultivated in me tasted blood tonight, and I am awake and listening to every sound in the dark. I’ve got a rock, a thought, a stick, an idea, a voter’s card. Come at me. I’m ready.