We Asked Our Grandmothers How Being a Woman Has Changed in Their Lifetimes
"There's still a lot to fight for, but I'm positive we'll achieve it."
Grandmothers are generally packages of pure goodness, and none of us are truly worthy of eating their soup, washing our hands with their endless collection of cute little soaps, or just watching dubbed Mexican telenovelas by their side. You might share some hereditary traits with your gran, but you probably haven't shared many of the same experiences. So much has changed in a few generations—50 or 60 years ago, the expectations on young people were vastly different to what is expected of you now.
In honor of International Women's Day, VICE staffers from Europe and Mexico spoke to their grandmothers about the choices they would have made, had they spent 2017 as millennials instead of septuagenarians.
My grandmother, Sylvia, worked as a hairdresser and a barmaid before moving to Jamaica in 1990, where she worked as a chicken farmer and dressmaker. After she returned to the UK, she became a family photographer and later did administrative work before retiring.—Amy, 21, Intern VICE UK
VICE: Growing up in the 1960s, did you feel you had as many rights then as women do today?
Sylvia: At the time, young women generally felt very liberated because the pill had just been introduced. The pay gap was a lot worse back then, and women are much better educated now. Back then, even if they were bright, a lot of working-class women couldn't go on to get a degree because their parents wanted them to work. So it was different in the 1960s, but I think a lot had happened by then to help our emancipation. It was a hopeful time.
Do you think your choices in life would have been different if you had been born in 1995 like me?
I'm not sure if I would have gotten married. I realize now that I got married too young—I was only 19, your granddad was 21. We had kids without thinking about it—getting married, moving in together, and having kids was just the normal thing to do. We didn't think of how hard it would be. But the hard work wasn't the issue; it was the loneliness. Being a single parent is lonely, of course, but even when you're married, it can be very lonely at home when your husband's at work all day.
Is there something you really wanted to do but couldn't because you're a woman?
Well, [after I divorced your grandfather in the early 1970s], I wanted to buy a terraced house, and I couldn't get a mortgage from a building society—despite having a job and enough savings to put down a deposit. They just laughed at me because I was a woman. Eventually, I did manage to get a mortgage through a local council. I also wanted to be a policewoman, but the reason I couldn't be one had nothing to do with women's rights. I just wasn't tall enough.
My grandmother, Melpo, lives in Piraeus. She spent most of her life working as a homemaker and taking care of her five children.—Melpomeni Maragidou, 27, News Editor VICE Greece
VICE: Do you think you and I made different choices in life because we grew up as women in different times?
Melpo: I had a good husband who gave me more freedom than other men gave their wives. But you and your mother were raised very differently than I was. I was never allowed to go out by myself, for example. I had an arranged marriage when I was 19. If I was young now, I guess I'd probably get married to someone I loved—although I got to love my husband as the years went by. I also wish I'd been older when I got married and that I'd lived my life before that. But if I were to do it all over again, I'd still marry my husband. He was a good man. He never bossed me around.
Are there any other things you would have done differently if you were growing up now?
I wish I had gotten a job. My husband made enough money to support our family, but I would have liked to make my own money. Instead, I was trapped in the house looking after my five children and later, my nine grandchildren. I love them all, but it's not like I had a choice. I'd really liked to have been a cook or a chauffeur. But I never learned how to drive.
My husband gave me a lot of freedom, so whenever I had the chance, I just did whatever I felt like. He was an ardent right-wing supporter, and I'd always tell him, "Don't worry, I voted for the guy you told me to vote for," but I would vote for the social democratic party instead. I never told him, of course.
What rights do you think women should keep on fighting for today?
Many things have changed, but we're not there yet. There's no true equality behind closed doors—women still bear the brunt of having to balance their career, raising their children, cleaning the house, and looking after elderly relatives. You need to make your own money and be good at your job so that you can be independent and leave your partner at any time you want. Never stay with someone because you feel obliged to. It doesn't matter how many men you've been with—one, two, three, ten—just try to find the one who's best for you and if he's not: Next please!
María Aguirre, 75
My grandmother, María, lives in Venezuela. Before having her children, she worked as a secretary for a few years.—Diego Urdaneta, 27, Staff Writer VICE Mexico
VICE: Would you have made any different choices in your life if you had grown up now?
María Aguirre: Yes, I would have made everything of the freedom I'd have. When I was growing up, I was not allowed to go out on my own. I only went out with your grandfather—he was very protective and didn't let me go out by myself. I met your grandfather at 17—he made me quit my job as a secretary so I could take care of my sons. I was happy to do that, and I never regretted it, but it would have been interesting to pursue a career like young women do today.
Was there anything about your position as a woman living in that time that bothered you especially?
As a woman with my skills, the only job I could get was as a secretary. I couldn't get promoted. I always wanted to be a senior executive or something like that—I regularly helped the guys in the office with their work, but I wasn't allowed to have an opinion on their decisions.
Do you think women have achieved equality in the corporate workplace now?
Women today do have jobs and careers that in my time were only for men. So I think that we're very close to equality, yes. We even have female presidents!
My grandmother, Janina, grew up in Iława, Poland, and worked as a psychologist for 41 years. She recently retired.—Maja, 18, Contributor VICE Poland
VICE: Do you think you and I grew up completely differently?
Janina: Yes. Women didn't have as many rights when I was your age. Women were supposed to clean the house and discipline their children. Little girls were taught how to be a good wife and a responsible mother. Women's Day on March 8 was a national holiday in communist times, and women would traditionally receive a carnation and a pair of stockings on that day. Men would celebrate, too, mostly by roaming the streets drunk.
What bothered you the most about your position as a woman in communist Poland?
I could never buy the clothes I wanted. And at the time, no one was talking about women's sexuality. The only thing we learned about was how to prevent pregnancy—and if you had gotten pregnant, how to give birth to a healthy child. That changed after the publication of Michalina Wisłocka's book The Art of Loving. Wisłocka showed that women were people with individual desires and needs.
Women in Poland still have a lot to take to the streets for—like when the government tried to completely ban abortion last year. What do you think is the most important fight facing Polish women today?
We still have to fight for equal rights and equal duties in raising children. When a child is causing trouble, society usually blames the mother. And many employers aren't interested in employing women, because by law, employers need to guarantee child care for female employers with children. As a result, qualified and educated women remain unemployed and are forced to stay home to take care of their husband and children. If they do get a job, they'll get less pay than men for the same work. There's so much left to protest in Poland.
Manuela Doral Pardo, 78
My grandmother, Lola, was born in Noceda do Cervantes but moved to Barcelona in 1954. She used to work as a kitchen hand at the Vall d'Hebrón Hospital in Barcelona, and has three children, who are now 56, 46, and 36.—Laura Muriel, 31, Editor VICE Spain
VICE: If you had grown up around the same time I grew up, would you have gone differently about your life?
Lola: For starters, I would have studied nursing. I was born during the Spanish Civil War, so I never went to school because I had to take care of my family's cows and sheep. At 16, I moved to Barcelona and started working as a maid for rich families. I only learned to read and write when I was 36—I had two children by that time, the first one I had at 21. If I were young now, I'd have gone to school and would have had my family later. Not as late as women do today, though.
Was there something that bothered you in particular about being a young woman in that time?
I think that back in my time women were more ignorant and men were more sexist. I remember being really bothered when I found out I earned less than men in my workplace, while I was working longer hours. I had no idea. I spent 30 years working in a hospital kitchen, where men were cooks and women were the kitchen hands—we cooked too, but the women also had to serve the meals to more than 100 patients per turn. The men didn't have to work as hard, while they made more money. When we protested to get the same conditions as the men, the hospital management threatened to fire us and said we complained too much. In the end, nothing changed—the men were the cooks, and women were their assistants.
Do you think women and men today have equal rights?
There's still a lot to fight for, but I'm positive we'll achieve it. We don't have equal rights yet because men feel threatened by us, but they shouldn't be—our success doesn't discredit them or what they do. Also, men should realize that we need them in our fight for equality—if they help us out, things will be better for everybody. However, I'm worried that issues such as drug addiction and unemployment in our society will delay gender equality.
Maria Zeveleanu, 78
My grandmother, Maria, worked as a chemist in the steel industry for 32 years until she retired.—Andrada Lăutaru, 26, Contributor VICE Romania
VICE: What was life like for a young woman in communist Romania?
Maria Zeveleanu: I got my job right after graduation, when I was 17. If I had been born in another time, I think I would have liked to go to college to study IT or maybe a foreign language.
Was there anything about your position as a woman in that time that bothered you especially?
It was tough. We weren't allowed to have abortions or leave the country. We basically didn't have any freedom. The only thing we were allowed to do was work more than men and get paid less.
What would you have done differently if you were 26 today?
If I were 26 now, I would have been able to find a better job with a decent salary. I would travel—I'm sad I didn't have the opportunity to spend vacations abroad and see the world like you do. And there's so much corruption in this country—if I were your age, I would have joined the protests against the government, too.
Birgitta Andréasson, 74
My grandmother, Birgitta, lives in Kalmar and worked as an administrator at the Swedish Tax Agency before she retired.—Benjamin Wirström, 24, Translator VICE Sweden
VICE: Do you think things are different for women today compared to when you were young?
Birgitta: I think the world is very different. I obviously don't know how women are living their lives today, but when I watch teen movies and see what kids are doing, it's a world of difference. We were so naïve, I think we matured much later in life than young people today.
Would you have made any different choices in your life if you had grown up now?
Absolutely. What I'm jealous of is that young people today get to travel the world and learn so much by doing that. It's become so simple to go to different countries and meet people—you grow and you learn so much by meeting different kinds of people.
What rights do you feel women in Sweden still need to fight for?
Equal pay is a big thing, right? Even though our society has progressed in so many ways, our laws are antiquated when it comes to wages. I don't know if it is possible to achieve true equality, even in 100 years. Men and women simply have different sets of privileges, because we're so fundamentally different.
My grandmother, Maria, worked as a teacher and is now retired and living in Zurich. Women in Zurich were only granted the right to vote in federal elections in 1971. The last Swiss canton to allow women to vote in local issues was forced to do so in 1991.—Julian Riegel, 25, Deputy Editor Noisey Alps
VICE: Do you think you and I grew up differently when it comes to women's rights?
Maria: There's a lot more awareness surrounding women's rights these days. I had the right to vote most of my life, but there wasn't a real public push for equality, and we never even got close to wage equality. When I was teaching, I was paid a lot less then my male peers. The men were hired by the state and women by the town councils.
Would you have made any different choices in your life if you were my age now?
I was the very first girl in our village to go to secondary school. In those days, people just didn't think a girl needed an education. Because there weren't many options for a girl who wanted to study, I had to enroll in a boarding school run by nuns. That was terrible. During the summer, we had to wear white dresses, and during the winter, dark blue ones. We weren't allowed to go for a walk alone; the nuns checked all of our correspondence. When I finished secondary school at 20, I joined the military because women's service had been promoted heavily, and I thought it could help me. I don't know if I would have made the same choice today.
What do you think Swiss women still have to fight for?
We have to fight for equality, for the same opportunities in the workplace that men enjoy. And we need to fight to change men's perception of women. A lot of men feel threatened by women's rights; they feel they need to put women down to remain strong—but I think women and men need to work together to make life better for everyone.
Maria Sobral, 82
My grandmother, Maria Sobral, was born in the city of Beja in 1935. She worked as a social worker after her children were born.—Madalena Maltez, 23, Contributor VICE Portugal
VICE: Were you aware of women's rights growing up?
Maria: I grew up as the daughter of a landowner in a rural part of Portugal, and women's rights were not something you'd talk about. Workers' rights were already causing my father sleepless nights—I can't imagine what he would have done if I had brought up women's issues.
Did you ever have a job?
Yes, I started working as a social worker in 1973, after my four children had been born and were in school. I had been busy raising my children before that. Women of my social class weren't expected to have a job or even leave the house without a chaperone. I confess that I never really felt the urge to work. At the time, a woman's salary belonged to her husband—by law, he managed the family income and could ask for his wife's contract to be terminated. But my husband never wanted that—my salary was mine. He still is much more of a political person than I am—a staunch supporter of equality.
Do you think you would have done anything differently in your life if you had grown up now?
I honestly don't think I personally would have, no. Things would have been different, of course. I grew up in a dictatorship, which meant I was shielded from politics. The education I got was designed in such a way that distracted me from social causes, and many of the families that owned land where I grew up were supporters of or related to the government and the dictatorship. I wouldn't change any of my personal choices, but I would have liked to have been more aware of what life was really like for many people under that status quo. I have no doubt that life for women is much better now.