I have observed that the legacies I’ve inherited from women in history and in my personal life are like important books: They present themselves to me when I least expect them and when I most need them.
Some years ago, I picked up a paperback titled In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker. This collection of essays reflected on a range of her experiences, from intimacy to nonviolent direct action. They were my literary introduction to women-centered political thinking, where the personal conveyed the political.
But what moved me immediately about the book, and has had a lasting effect on my understanding of myself within the realm of women's social and political legacies, was the title. The phrase "our mothers' gardens" came to me at a time when I was embarking on the process of finding myself and my purpose in the works of women who had come before me.
The gardens metaphor was clear. "Gardens" referenced the histories, experiences, achievements, valiant failures, lessons, love and wisdom accumulated by women of previous generations to enhance the fortunes and futures of all women.
I count among the yields from these gardens the coalition politics of 19th- and 20th-century suffragists and anti-racism activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Ida B Wells, as well as the eloquence and righteousness of Congresswomen Barbara Jordan and Shirley Chisholm in the 1960s and '70s.
But our gardens are also graced by the brilliance, power and humanity of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and the bravery and sense of justice embodied in the work of labor activist Dolores Huerta and women's rights and peace activist Bella Abzug.
Whether we claim feminist politics, Chicanisma, womanist theology, woman-of-color feminism or no feminist politics whatsoever, we all benefit from the pens and raised voices of poets and activists like Gloria Steinem, Gloria Anzaldúa and Arundhati Roy, who stand (and have stood) for justice.
Alas, not all of our legacies are famed, though they may be valorous. Many of us owe our very lives to the countless "nameless" women who have endured voluntary and involuntary dislocations; who undertook treacherous journeys; who suffered perils and indignities in the belly of slave ships or stowed away in cargo containers; who, as you read this column, cross dangerous borders to do thankless jobs that ensure the futures of their families. We live in times when women risk death to care for someone else's children—well and lovingly, in order to feed their own daughters and sons hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away. This is a shameful reality, but these women face it admirably, despite the headlines that disparage them.
Here's the thing, I believe women have a responsibility to the legacies we inherit, and to the legacies we leave behind, that demands we continue to work together to improve all of our futures as mothers, teachers, spouses, workers, activists, professional allies, mentors and friends. Though we women have accomplished a great deal throughout history, we still have many hurdles yet to leap.
When we, as women, are tempted to take our eyes off what still needs to be achieved by us and instead indulge our basest impulses in controversy, envy, arrogance, destructive politics and sabotage toward women allies, we are lost.
I ask instead for us to pause, confront our place in women's greatest legacies, and find ways to support one another across our differences. Just as we have sought our mothers' gardens, we are responsible to tend our daughters' gardens. Intentionally or not, we live by example. When our daughters seek our legacies, let them find our gardens nourishing, bountiful, beautiful and worthy of cherishing.
Andrea L Mays is a Santa Fean and an American Studies scholar, celebrating March as Women’s History Month with the rest of the nation. Weigh in on contemporary culture and politics by writing firstname.lastname@example.org