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The Conservative Feminist: Life Lessons from My Grandma I Want to Teach My Daughter

One of my great regrets in life is that I never really got to know my grandparents as an adult.

Technically, I was an adult at the end of their lives; they all passed away when I was in my mid-twenties, but I hadn’t yet learned the value of their life experiences. I lost out on the singular opportunity to question them, learn about their lives, and see the world through their eyes. When they died I was still viewing them through the grandparent prism and hadn’t realized them as the human beings that they were.

It is only now, after I’ve become a mother, that I can look back on their lives, my paternal grandmother’s in particular, and realize what an amazing woman she was. Ethel Louise Gelpke Butler experienced great adversity and yet she persevered, managing to turn an often troubled life into an adventure during which she never stopped learning and enriching herself.

She was a well-educated professional in the 1940s, working as a hospital dietitian when she met a man who told her he was widowed when he was actually married. When she became pregnant he tried to get her to have an abortion. When she refused he took off and she never saw him again. When her father learned of the pregnancy he banished her from the family home.

Despite her dad and even though it was scandalous and rare at this time for a single woman to become pregnant and raise a child on her own, she had the baby and bravely struck out west to find a job. She ended up in Utah, where I was eventually born. Her early years in Utah were not easy ones. She endured a ferociously abusive marriage that she escaped with her five sons so she could live life on her own terms.

I never knew these things about her while she was alive. It is only now, years after her death following a courageous battle with Alzheimer’s, that I realize just how tough my sweet, little grandma really was. As I’ve pieced together her life story, I’ve come away with these life lessons from my grandma that I will pass on to my own beautiful daughter.

Here they are:

  • Ethel Louise Gelpke Butler 1 of 7
    grandma collage

    1923-2004

  • Independence 2 of 7
    ethel-02

    She never shied away from a challenge. Whether it was taking on single-motherhood at a time when it was almost unheard of, striking out for the west with a small boy after being born and raised in Massachusetts, or leaving an abusive alcoholic to carve out a better life for herself and her five sons, Grandma got it done with steely resolve. In her own era and in her own way, she was a feminist before the word was even around. She was the first female president of her high school student body and, when all the men in her life failed her, she stood strong, ultimately raising five boys on her own by becoming an elementary school teacher. Those five boys all turned out to be outstanding, intelligent, kind, family men. After leaving her husband (who ultimately died of alcoholism), Grandma never loved again, believing she had poor taste in men.

     

    Life lesson: You can do anything on your own. Don't rely on someone else for your happiness; you don't need a man to lead a full, content life. But if you do decide to partner up with someone, choose wisely. Don't jump into something with someone because of looks or charm; look deep into who they really are by learning their history, observing how they treat their mother, and finding out what their goals are. This person isn't just your life mate — this person will be the father of your children.

  • Education 3 of 7
    ethel-06

    Grandma was unusually educated for her time. She was the valedictorian of her high school and went on to earn a BA in dietetics from Simmons College in Boston. She continued her education at the University of Michigan where she obtained an advanced degree. She served a dietetic internship at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan and worked as a community nutritionist and hospital dietician in Massachusetts and New York before leaving with her son to seek her fortune out west. A serious reader, every year on my birthday she would present me with a book in which she wrote an inscription.

     

    Life lesson: I am an avid reader. Reading has made me who I am today, and I firmly believe I would be nowhere without that great love of reading. I make sure my daughter is surrounded by books, and I read them to her as often as I can. Reading not only transports you to other times and places, but it also gives you the vocabulary to describe the world around you, to articulate your feelings, and to communicate with your friends, family, and the world at large. It is the key to opening the door on a lifetime of success no matter what you choose to do.

  • Entrepreneur 4 of 7
    ethel

    Grandma wasn't afraid to take risks. Before her husband began drinking, during the first five years of their marriage, she inspired him to leave his job as a railroad clerk and to become an entrepreneur, first as a chinchilla rancher. She used her diet and nutrition skills to create the first multi-element, multi-vitamin pellet for chinchillas, which sold nationally. She invented a candy bar, called Vita-Lunch (one of the first granola bars), that had 1/3 of the average daily requirement of nutrients. Then she and her husband (my grandpa, who died before I was born) bought a restaurant. She designed the menu and the wait-staff uniforms (all Swiss-themed), and it was successful for about four years. Then her husband started drinking and abusing her and the kids before running the businesses into the ground.

     

    Life lesson: Don't be afraid to take risks and try new things. Life is short! Don't settle for a boring office job if it isn't making you happy. Use your brain and make things happen for yourself. And don't ever let anyone verbally or physically abuse you. Get help. If not for yourself, for your children.

  • Environment 5 of 7
    ethel-03

    Grandma was a nature lover and, as described by my uncle, "a closet environmentalist." She was a serious birdwatcher and loved nothing more than going on long hikes with a pair of binoculars so that she could identify birds she spotted. She was a member of the Utah Nature Study Society and was appointed to the beautification committee for her town during the eighties. She hiked, camped, walked, and lived on her own from age 40 until her death at 81.

     

    Life lesson: Get out there and grab a handful of life. Don't sit inside watching TV or staring at some silly video game. The world is a beautiful place, and you should learn as much about it as possible. It's also our responsibility as citizens of the earth to keep it as clean as possible.

  • Travel 6 of 7
    ethel-04

    Some people are born, raised, and die in the same town. Not Grandma. From moving to different states for college to working in New York City before trying for a job in Colorado and later Utah, Grandma went everywhere. She retired from teaching elementary school in 1985 and served a mission for the Mormon Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, then traveled to Europe and the Holy Land. One of my strongest memories of Grandma is receiving postcards in the mail from her while she was on one of her adventures. 

     

    Life lesson: See the world! There is so much to see that you could spend the rest of your life traveling and never see enough. Understanding and respecting other cultures is an important part of humanity. If this diminutive, elderly woman can travel the world on her own, anyone can!

  • Family 7 of 7
    ethel-05

    That's Grandma with her first son, my awesome uncle. The son she refused to give up even though it was very uncommon to keep a child conceived out of wedlock. Grandma was a devoted mom who worked hard to take care of her sons and eventually went out of her way to keep in contact with all of us grandchildren. She had a keen interest in genealogy and loved learning about her ancestors. It's something she passed on to me, as well. I spend hours researching my family tree on Ancestry.com. It's important to learn who you are in the grand scheme of things and to feel connected with those who came before.

     

    Life lesson: Taking care of your family and raising smart, kind, conscientious children is one of the most important things you can do in this life.

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