Growing up in Hawaii, my relatives felt so far away. One grandmother was on the mainland in Illinois, the other in South Asia (India), and yet, their significance and influence in my life was never far away. These women, along with my own mother, were my role models. They were unstoppable women affecting change, valuing equality, and appreciating diversity.
My mother was born and raised in India, a culture that historically often demeaned women. At the age of 18, she moved to America to pursue a Masters Degree in Social Work. In that day and age, and in that country, that was quite rare. Being half Indian and half white, and a woman, now in the United States, she was always keenly aware of how her dark skin was fodder for prejudice and racism. Thankfully, she had a strong mother who would not allow her to succumb to that kind of bias.
Her mother, Dr. Dorothy Dunning Chacko, was also a social worker, humanitarian, and a medical doctor. Graduating at the top of her class from Smith College in 1925, she went on to receive her medical degree from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and additional training at The School of Tropical Medicine in England. My grandmother, and we always called her “grandmother,” was the first female resident in medicine, and then in surgery, at New York’s Metropolitan Hospital.
She met Dr. C. Joseph Chacko, the man she would eventually marry, while at Columbia. He was a Professor of International Law and Political Science. A white woman marrying an Indian man in the 1930’s was practically unheard of! “In those prehistoric days, an American woman who married an ‘ineligible alien’ (Indian, Chinese, or Japanese man) lost her citizenship,” said my grandmother. And so, she automatically became Indian, moving back to his home country and starting the first leprosy colony there.
My paternal grandmother, Beatrice “Buddy” Price Russell, was a force herself. “Grammie,” as we affectionately called her, was educated at New York University, Columbia University, and Union Theological Seminary. Again, at a time when many women were not going to college, let alone allowed to do so in some cases. She was so supportive of young girls that she devoted more than 75 consecutive years to the Girl Scouts of America, even organizing the first troop in Harlem.
Everywhere she traveled in the world, she preached diversity and empowerment of women, “spiritually adopting” as many young people with different cultural backgrounds as she could. It was her way of having this truly “international family.” Dinners at her home looked like the UN!
Both of my grandmothers were involved in humanitarian work and demonstrated outstanding leadership and achievement in their professional and civic lives.
They championed gender equality and leadership opportunities long before it was popular to do so. In particular, both made lifetime commitments to be involved with and support the YWCA.
They lived the mission of the YWCA, an organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.
Grammie’s devotion to the Y was constant! From SouthPort, Connecticut, to Japan, to Chicago, and to Claremont, CA, she spread the message of diversity and the empowerment of young women around the world.
Grandma Chacko was President of the Chester, PA YWCA from 1974-1976, a community that was extremely segregated in the 70’s.
She was so determined to fight racism and bring people together that, despite my grandfather’s strong objections, she “dared” to organize a Luau, bringing the YWCA and the YMCA together. She would not be deterred.
While competing in the Miss America pageant as Miss Illinois 1979, I was asked by a male judge how I thought I could possibly be a wife, mother and work full-time? Keep in mind, this was 40 years ago! I told him I didn’t know any differently. One grandmother was a medical doctor, the other a champion of women’s rights, and my own mother was a full-time social worker. Why shouldn’t I be able to follow in their footsteps? He had no response.
These unstoppable women are my role models. Women who didn’t allow discrimination of any kind to hold them back from going after what they wanted. Women who did what they could to raise awareness against bias. They valued diversity, inclusion, and equality – the same values that fostered the first International Women’s Day back in the early 1900’s.
We’ve made great strides, but there is still more work to do.
In this year, 2020, the theme of International Women’s Day is “an equal world is an enabled world.”
Let us each do our part to take action for equality and celebrate women’s achievements.
My mother and grandmothers are not known on the “world stage,” but they have inspired my world, and many others. Who has inspired your life?