In honor of International Women’s Day, I am reposting this essay. It originally appeared on BlogHer on March 8, 2010.
It’s March and that means it’s Women’s History Month. In schools across the country, children will be learning about Sacagawea and Cleopatra and Queen Elizabeth and the myriad other
famous women who are lauded for their role in changing the course of history. They won’t, however, be reading about the everyday woman. The woman who cares for her children, works to support her family, volunteers in her community. The woman who is the backbone of this country and most others around the world. They will not be reading about my grandmother, Jeanette Stromberg.
If you Google my grandmother, you will learn about the hall named after her at the Albuquerque Technical-Vocational Institute, part of the New Mexico community college system, but you won’t find much else. You won’t find that she was the first woman on the Albuquerque school board and that during her twelve years of tenure, from 1961 to 1973, she was the sole board member in support of a teacher’s strike. “You can’t have good education without money,” she said. You won’t find that she when she joined the school board, there were no libraries in the schools, and when she left there were 57 elementary school libraries, because she believed teaching a child to love the library ensures a lifetime love of learning.
You also won’t find that she spent years waitressing in her home town of Trinidad, Colorado, in order to save enough to attend Mt. Holyoke College, one of the nation’s first women’s colleges. That after graduation, while engaged to my grandfather who was back in Trinidad, she stayed for three years in Amherst, Massachusetts, and worked as a librarian in order to pay off her college loans. She insisted on coming to her marriage debt-free. She believed education was the greatest gift we could give ourselves and others. She quoted her father when she said, “Even if a person was going to dig ditches for a living, he could dig better ditches if he was educated.”
You won’t read about this woman who married a man of little education but much ambition. Together they built a clothing business serving the military and dressing the well-to-do of Albuquerque. They also established the first credit union and the first shopping center in town. They even opened an auto dealership. While he worked, she volunteered: PTA president, founder of a home for neglected and abused children, Planned Parenthood board member. She also raised my father and his siblings. The four went on to great accomplishments: a Rhodes Scholar, a doctor and NIH scientist, an educator and a community activist.
I only know these things about my grandmother from the stories my family has told. When I knew her, she was the proverbial little old lady who sat in her bedroom and spent her days reading. Every nook and cranny of her house was filled with books. One of her prized possessions was an original copy of the entire eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (considered by many to be its best), purchased from a door-to-door salesman in 1933. She preferred to keep her hearing aid on low because sometimes it was best to just not hear the sour words of others. At her full height, she was only 5’1,” and she jokingly complained when the doctor “misread” the height chart telling her she was now only 4’11”. “I better stop,” she said. “I don’t have much more to lose.” Bent like a question mark from osteoporosis, I always felt she was leaning in to hear just what I had to say.
When she was dying, I traveled across the country in order to place my newborn son on her death bed in hopes that she might awaken from her coma and offer him her blessing. After her funeral, I hid myself in her library as though the books themselves would speak to me of who she really was. Along the back wall were rows of black ledgers, sentinels to a history I did not know. As I pulled out the first one, wiping dust from its cover, it fell open to an entry for January 1933. The following was listed: ACLU $1, Planned Parenthood $2, NAACP $3, Roosevelt campaign $4. These ledgers lead all the way from the post-Depression era to the inflationary mid-1970s. They contained the history of my grandmother’s philanthropy. Although she did not work outside the home, she managed her household money carefully in order to be able to give to the causes she passionately supported. If there are unsung heroes, there is no doubt, Jeanette Stromberg was one.
My grandmother and the millions of everyday women like her who have made but a small impact on our world will not appear in any history book. However, I believe the small ripple she created will lead to great waves in the future. Do you have an unsung hero in your life? Honor her this month. Tell her story to those who might not know. She is waiting to be recognized.