The Brazen and Beautiful Legacy of Strong-Willed Women

My maternal grandfather called us “strong-willed women”. It was a point of pride with him. I come from a long line of strong-willed women, on both sides of my family, and I am better for it. I mean, there is literally a park in my dad’s hometown named after my grandmother. Pennington Park was a piece of land, owned for many years by my grandparents. After my grandmother’s death, they turned it into a park for the arts and music. So let me tell you about the amazing women in my family.

My Grandmothers

Grandmother with grandchildren
My grandmother with her two oldest great-grandchildren, about three years ago. Photo altered to protect children’s privacy.

My paternal grandmother, Johnnie Fae (we called her Fonnie), graduated from high school at 15, college at 19, then worked for two years and received her master’s degree at 22. She taught Spanish, typing and business math for many, many years. She was also known for her willingness to speak her mind. Fonnie had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to voice them. On separate occasions she told me that women should have the right to make choices about their own bodies (I was around 12 at the time) and, later, that it was fine with her if I lived with my then boyfriend, now husband (I was in my mid-20s at this point). She was simultaneously progressive and traditional. Fonnie once scolded me, when I was an adult, for saying yeah to her in conversation instead of yes m’am. Yes, I grew up in the Deep South in Alabama. She also got into it with a minister at her church because she didn’t like the way he was conducting Sunday services.

Vintage photo of a young woman
My maternal grandmother, as a young woman. She died when I was 9, so don’t have many photos of her.

My other grandmother, my mom’s mom, may not have been as outspoken, but was equally strong-willed. Petrina, nickname Teeny, (we called her Ma) was the first female senior class president at her high school and starred in several school plays. She attended college for two years (at that time women were only allowed to go for two years at the college she attended). In 1931, during the height of the Depression, she opened her own elocution school, teaching public speaking and elocution to Mobile, Alabama’s young adults. Her father had died when she was in her early teens and she had to help her mother keep a roof over their heads. Her mother took in borders to help pay the bills.The Depression helped shape both my grandmothers into the amazing women they were.

My Mother

Woman holding her poker chip winnings
My mama hoarding her winnings after beating all of us at Texas Hold’em this summer.

My mother’s story is one filled with female empowerment and fortitude. My mama, Andrea, is the oldest of her three siblings. When my uncle, 10 years younger than my mom, was born, my grandfather, a car dealer, gave her a car. Yeah, you read that right. It was called a King Midget. It was a micro car, or as my mama described it, a souped-up golf cart. My mother was in the fifth grade. She once drove a gigantic 1950s sedan across Mobile Bay when she was only 12 years old. She and my grandfather went to a march held in Mobile, Alabama after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. She attended President Kennedy’s funeral parade in Washington, DC after his assassination.After graduating from college with a degree in math, my mother became a computer programmer at a bank. She did that for seven years before deciding she wanted to go to law school. My mom was one of 20 women in her 1L class at the University of Alabama School of Law, and by the time she graduated, she was one of only five women left. She went on to open a law practice with my dad, and eventually became a juvenile court judge. She served in the role of Court Referee (a judge appointed to the role by an elected judge) for 28 years. At the time of her retirement, she was the longest-serving political appointee in the state, and the most senior judge on the bench. She once told me that she wasn’t a feminist. But, when you talk to her about her life, she says, “Well, I just did what I wanted. I always thought that if men could do it, I could do it, so I did.” If that’s not a feminist, I don’t know what is!

The Aunts

Image by simpsongirl2003 from
Image by simpsongirl2003 from

My aunt Robin, my mother’s sister, is equally incredible. She got a bachelor’s degree in English, birthed and raised four children, then went back to school and got a master’s in counseling. She worked with kids in group homes for several years and eventually became the Executive Director of an arts non-profit. Now, she’s a writer, a gun control advocate and community volunteer. In Alabama. She, despite the fact that it is an extremely unpopular opinion in my home state, volunteers tirelessly for Moms Demand, speaking to groups about the need for common sense laws around gun ownership. She has encouraged me to write and is a terrific mom and grandmother.My aunt Rosalie, my dad’s sister, was an elementary school librarian for 30-ish years. She adored the kids at her school and all of her nieces and nephews. Rosalie’s book lists and expertise helped shape my reading experience and turn me into the voracious reader I am today. Books like Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and Island of the Blue Dolphins. She and her husband have traveled all over during the course of their marriage, whether abroad or working on their goal of visiting all fifty states. She has supported, and loved me and my sister, like we are her own children and does the same for our kids.My aunt, Evie, my mom’s brother’s wife, is incredible as well. She’s a breast cancer survivor. She is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and is Supervisor, General Ledger and Compliance, at Airgas’s South Division. She kept it all together when things were difficult in her life. Evie has raised two amazing daughters and showed us all what true love and fortitude really are.

The Next Generation—My sister and me

The author and her sister.
The author and her younger sister, earlier this year.

Where do I start with my sister’s story? I mean, she’s so much more badass than I will ever be. Anna is my younger sister and just enough younger that she spent a lot of time feeling like she was living in my shadow, especially at school. But, she, like she always has, shined all on her own. She was both president of the student government and homecoming queen her senior year of high school. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college with double majors in political science and urban planning. She is now the Vice President of Marketing for a billion dollar company. Oh, and she has three kids, with the oldest being eight! She’s smart and tough, and sweet and thoughtful, has the ability to hold her own in a boardroom full of men or as a volunteer in a lunchroom full of elementary school students at her son’s school without blinking an eye.Now, my story has a few twists and turns. I’ve been outspoken and bubbly all my life. I once asked an extremely pointed question to a U.S. Congressman when I was about 14, and a guest at the local Kiwanis Club lunch meeting. The Congressman was the featured speaker and I, being the daughter of two attorneys and more than a little sure of myself, asked a question, much to the delight of many of the Kiwanians. Needless to say, word got out to my parents before I could tell them. They were both proud of me, though my mother was a little more chagrined than my dad. He was just plain thrilled. I’ve never been one to keep my opinions to herself and I have the facts to back them up. I worked in the non-profit sector for a long time, in leadership roles in both professional and volunteer capacities. I moved, with my husband and daughter, to Madrid, Spain for four years, even though I knew no Spanish. We had a second daughter while living there and now I speak decent Spanish. And, I write.Strong-willed women are often described as hard or nasty or bitchy. But, in the always appropriate words of Tina Fey, “Bitches get stuff done.” Long live the strong-willed women! May we continue to push the envelope, speak our minds and influence the generations to come!