My great grandmother was the first woman in her Pennsylvania town to drive a car. She was also a businessperson, running a small dress shop, and at one point, she was the sole breadwinner in her family — and that was in the 1920s. I never met her, but I have always loved hearing about her. I imagined her zipping around in a gold convertible, her hair pulled back, her eyes shielded by big sunglasses, a streak of red lipstick on her mouth, and term sheets and adding machines on the passenger seat.
Later in life, someone asked if I wanted to see a photo of her, and I declined. I already had her picture in my head. I already felt her genes inside me. I was descended from a trailblazer and I would be just like her — or at least just like the image of her I had created in my mind.
Whenever I encountered a strong woman, I’d hear my great grandmother’s spirit whisper, “Now THAT’s an interesting lady. I wonder what HER story is.” And I leaned in. I was lucky enough to be surrounded by strong women. I watched my grandmother fix our roof by fearlessly climbing a tall ladder and crawling around, looking for the leaks. I witnessed my mother push forward when at age 58, she lost my dad and had to go on with barely anything in her savings account.
The women who came before me had simple lives, but they were my role models and my sources of inspiration. So, when my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Place, asked me whether I was strong enough to memorize the Gettysburg Address and recite it in front of the school, I said I could do it. When Gloria Steinem came to Boston, I soaked up her every word. When Anne Jardim and Margaret Hennig wrote “The Managerial Woman,” just as I was graduating from business school, I was convinced they had written the most profound leadership book of all time, which motivated thousands of us to reach for the stars. Now I get to watch my great grandmother’s genes flowing through my daughters Lindsay and Amanda as they face their own challenges with courage and boldness.
As women, this may be our time: to speak up, to fight for equal pay, to start and lead big companies, to serve on boards, and to run for office. This is what International Women’s Day is about. Celebrated around the world, the day brings attention to issues like gender parity, and it also recognizes women’s accomplishments in a range of fields, with special emphasis on women in tech, sports, entrepreneurship, health, creative fields, and at work in general. It’s a day to take stock, and to reflect on our progress.
It should also be the time when we think about the legacy we want to leave for the next generations. What do we want our great granddaughters to say about us? When we march, when we go to the State House to fight for fairness, when we sit with women who vote differently than we do, we do it so that our daughters and their daughters will be able to stand on our shoulders and tell our stories. We celebrate today so that our lives matter tomorrow.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, Chairman of C Space, board director, and Boston Globe contributing columnist.