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  • Rena Chen

A Girl Who Wanted to Read

I cannot think of a stronger woman than my grandma. She is quite tall for her generation, about five foot four. Her hair barely reaches her ears, and she claims that “all the girls” have hair like that. She takes care to put on the same wristwatch every morning for decades because she doesn’t trust others to tell her the time. When I was little, she would always tell us that story about how she caught eels from the river with her bare hands. She would say, “big eel” while making a jerking motion with her hands to demonstrate how she would snatch it from the water and wring its neck.

My grandma is the eldest daughter of eleven children. Growing up, she was thrust into being an adult. Every morning she would get up before sunrise and take two buckets to the well to fetch water for the day. She would raise her siblings as her mother nursed the most recent baby. While everyone else was asleep, she and her mother would still be kneading dough for the next morning’s breakfast. She was a mother before a child.

One day, her older brother left the house with a stool strapped to his back and a pencil in hand. Grandma asked her mother, “Where is Brother going?”

Her mother answered, “He is going to school.”

Grandma asked if she could go to school with him, but her mother shook her head, saying that girls don’t go to school. I used to think that she lied to keep her daughter working at home, but I now know that the concept of equal rights for women was non-existent when she was a child.

My great-grandmother and the women before her were all illiterate. Women were supposed to stay at home, take care of the children, do the chores, and serve their husbands. My great grandmother’s life was a string of chores, so there was no need to learn to read. She was the first to wake and the last to sleep because she was so busy raising children, doing housework, and weaving cloth. Once she finally finished her duties, she would go right to bed. If she ever managed to have free time, she would sit on the cot and doze off while still sitting upright. Her favorite saying was, “Riding a horse up a hill so steep is nothing compared to going to sleep.” I am sure that she believed that the same future awaited her daughter.

However, the times my grandma grew up in were quickly changing. Under the new China, women were encouraged to break free of old traditions and join their male peers in society. Foot binding was abolished. Arranged marriages were discouraged. It was the beginning of a new era. A few years later, the seventh daughter joined her brothers at the door to the courtyard, ready to go to school. By then, my grandma had already accepted her fate, but this sight reignited the flames within her. She quickly confronted her mother, demanding to know why her little sister could go to school but she couldn’t.

This time, her mother shook her head again, but told her that the fact that her younger sisters were going to school only made it even more necessary for the elder daughter to stay home and do the chores. However, the times were different now—this time, she would not be denied.

Grandma staged what my mom called a “sit-in strike.” She sat on her cot, refusing to pick up the broom or the bucket. Her father beat her, her mother pleaded with her, but she would not move. I am told that this went on for days. She was rooted to that cot like a stone withstanding the rushing current. So strong is a woman’s desire to rise up in life that no force can stop her. Grandma understood more than anyone else that education was not just about learning to read — it was about gaining the power to change her future. Either she could give up and consciously allow the rest of her life to be confined within the walls of oppression, or she could bear the temporary pains and win a chance at reaching her full potential.

Finally, her parents caved and struck a compromise. She could only go to school for half the day, and when she went, she would have to carry one of her baby siblings with her. When I first heard this story, I thought that it was so unfair. Why couldn’t she keep bargaining to win herself more concessions? Looking back, I realize that although the times were changing, oppression is not something so easily bargained away. Even in America, the 19th Amendment was passed over seventy years after the Seneca Falls convention took place. However, this doesn’t mean that feminism is a lost cause. What this does mean is that we must never stop fighting, because justice will always be achieved, whether it is a decade, a century, or a millennium after. Feminism is not just about fighting for your own rights—it is also about fighting for the rights of your daughters, your granddaughters, and your great-granddaughters.

My grandma didn’t allow these chains to hold her down. She was years older than the kids in her class, but she was not ashamed. She held her head up high and took advantage of every precious minute she was granted in the classroom. There was a blackboard on two opposing walls of the classroom, which allowed one half of the room to be dedicated to one grade and the other to another grade. My grandma somehow managed to pay attention to the lessons on both blackboards while nursing a baby and taking notes. When she went home, she would recite the things she learned while doing her chores, drilling the lessons into her brain. After three years, she was forced to drop out, but she was different now—she was powerful. She had the power to pave a path separate from the one laid out before her.

Despite her short education, she managed to attain a middle school level literacy. However, the fight does not stop at getting an education. Learning to read meant that she won herself intellectual freedom, but the next step would be financial freedom.

Using her education as a springboard, Grandma took whatever jobs she could find. She was a teacher, a police officer, and a telephone girl. These jobs gave her a little independence, but she was not satisfied. She set her sights on the civil service exam to win a government position.

Grandma saved up the money from her jobs and bought a test prep book from the bookstore. Every night, she would study the book after completing her duties. Her mother told her that it was pointless because she would need to quit her job after marrying, but Grandma insisted on taking the test.

The day of the test came, and swarms of bicycles rushed towards the testing center. My grandma strapped her prep book to the back seat of her bike, just in case. As she struggled up the hill, she went over everything she learned in her head. Suddenly, she remembered that she didn’t know something. She stopped her bike right in the middle of that upward slope and opened her book to check that fact. After confirming the fact, she kicked up the stopper and mounted her bike again.

Weeks later, the test results were announced. Anxious test-takers crowded the bulletin board to see the results. My grandma pushed her way to the front, elbowing people and slipping under raised arms. She had never experienced something so important or life-changing, so her heart beat faster than when she was biking up that hill. When she reached the board, she scanned the list of names, and her eyes quickly caught her own.

Grandma always likes to tell people that she only passed because she suddenly remembered that obscure fact on the way to the test center, which turned out to be a question on the test. I’m sure that it contributed to the result, but I believe that the real reason why she passed was because of her hard work. Unlike most of her fellow test-takers, she had to juggle a job, housework, and studying all at once. Her determination to forward her career pushed her to overcome whatever obstacles stood in her way.

The path towards gender equality is much like biking up a hill. You stand with your bike at the bottom, craning your neck to see the peak of the hill. You have heard that on the other side of the hill is freedom, but the great shadow of that hill looms over you, warning you against even trying to climb it. It’s easy to kick up the stopper and mount the bike, but it takes guts to start pedaling up the vertical incline. As you bike up that hill, it never gets easier. If anything, it becomes more tiring as you inch up the slope. You consider letting off the pedals and allowing your bike to roll back down to the bottom. It would be fast and easy. Unfortunately, many women are forced to do this, and they cannot be blamed for doing so. It’s hard to keep struggling up that hill when you have only heard rumors of what lies on the other side. However, those who continue to pedal will find themselves getting closer and closer to the top. Sometimes this takes years, or even decades. When you finally reach the peak and look down at where you came from and where you are going, you realize that the struggle was all worth it. You wipe the sweat off your brow and fly down the other side of the hill, towards liberty.

My grandma did the same thing as she biked up that hill to take her civil service exam. In fact, she had been doing it ever since she first demanded an education. After becoming a civil servant, she continued the fight for her future, and eventually her family.

My grandma was arranged to be married to a complete stranger, which was a custom in China that had been around ever since the start of Chinese civilization. Pillars of society rooted in oppression are harder to knock down, so she was unable to completely avoid it. Despite how entrenched this tradition was, my grandma fought against it to gain social freedom, the final step to liberty.

Usually, the bride and the groom would not be allowed to meet until the wedding day, but my grandma secretly arranged for an interview with her future husband. She decided that she would break off the engagement if he didn’t meet her requirements. My mom laughed as she told me how nervous my great-grandfather was, watching his son squirming in the hot-seat secretly from a corner. Apparently, my grandpa passed the test because my grandma decided that she would have a go at “dating,” which was something unheard of in the village. Eventually, they got married and had a set of twins and a daughter.

This made my grandma the first working mom in her entire family. Her husband was serving in the military and she had to raise three children while working as a civil servant. Despite these difficulties, she always found time to care for her children. My mom often reminisces about the little treats her mother would bring back from work. Every once in a while, my grandma would find the chance to buy a loaf or two of milk bread, which would be carefully divided between the children. My mom also liked to say that Grandma favored her. Once, my grandma bought a little sharpener in the shape of a tiger and a two-colored rubber eraser for my mom. These luxuries made her the talk of the class, and my mom would proudly show them off whenever her pencil was a little dull.

Many “feminists” incorrectly assume that feminism is about turning away from feminine things. If anything, this belief directly contradicts the principles of feminism. Instead of being ashamed of being a housewife, wearing makeup, or liking the color pink, feminism is about gaining gender equality. How can man and woman be equal when all things associated with women are considered shameful and less honorable than things associated with men? If anyone truly embodied what it meant to be a feminist, it would be my grandma. She had a job and independence, but she was not afraid to embrace her role as a woman and a mother.

Grandma’s actions were not glamorous or earth-shaking like the great suffragists of Seneca Falls, or the axe-wielding prohibitionists of the 19th century, but I still think that it is important to tell you this story of a girl who wanted to read. Feminism is not just the great endeavors of prominent leaders; it is the constant wave of unnamed women around the world who fight for their rights, their futures, and their lives, beating against the rocky cliffs of oppression. It is our duty to enjoy the fruits of their labor and continue the fight.

As Americans, we must take advantage of the hard-earned vote that the suffragists won. As global citizens, we must strive to win gender equality in places that don’t have it. As people, we must understand that we are all fellow human beings, no matter our gender. That is what it means to be a feminist.

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