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We Stand on the Shoulders of Giants: Lessons from the Women in our Lives

Updated: Mar 1

In March, we celebrate the women who have made history in the world and in our lives. The short essays that follow represent efforts to honor the women in our lives, what we have learned and how we have grown because of their lessons and example. You are also invited and encouraged to think about women in your lives who have brought you to where you are now, and on whose shoulders you now stand.


How does one acknowledge and honor the women who have made us who we are? It can be easy to remember accomplishments and awards. It is harder to look at faults and mistakes. Yet all of this—accomplishments, awards, faults, and mistakes—have helped to create us, to put us on a path to be curious, empathetic, understanding, and wise. I know my mother was smart, always eager to learn and to share her knowledge. She read every book we brought home from school. Luckily, she was a fast reader, so we were able to retrieve the books in time to complete assignments. She was funny, often mimicking statements and behaviors so that we laughed rather than argued or cried. She loved music and dance and taught us to appreciate it and to sing and dance along with the records, the radio, and the TV. She once broke bones in her foot dancing across the living room.


And she smoked cigarettes. At first, I thought it was cool—she certainly looked cool when she smoked, like all the cool looking people on television. And then she found out she had lung cancer, the day before she was scheduled to leave on a long dreamt of European tour.  By that time, I had come to realize that cigarettes were not cool; they were killers. We had encouraged, cajoled, argued, begged, her to stop. But, in September 1990, it was too late. A year later, her avid curiosity, her sense of humor, her singing and dancing, were gone.


I still have the memories and the love of singing and dancing (to the mortification sometimes of my son, when it occurs in a public place like the grocery store); and the love of knowledge and reading. I also have the lessons of empathy and caring—my bleeding heart—that she left me. And I am grateful for all of it. I just wish she had been around longer.


~ Pat



Hilda Cloud, my mother, has been the greatest influence on my life. She was a single mom (though she hated the word “mom,” and had me call her Hilda from my youngest age). She wanted me to be her equal, and as a result I had a fairly independent childhood. She followed Dr. Spock but went beyond him in the extent of freedom she allowed me. At the same time, she was always my role model. Fiercely independent herself, she aligned herself with the downtrodden and dispossessed, not only as a fervent socialist, but also in her choice of profession as a tenant-rights advocate in Washington, D.C. Later in life, she joined the Gray Panthers and testified before Congress. She was also a strong atheist and did not attempt to hide it. She felt the entire realm of spirituality was bogus, that religion was indeed the opium of the people, and that human morality should be based on fairness not on faith. Her heroes were Susan B. Anthony, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks, and she made sure I knew their stories. As I look back, it was the foundation of humanism and social justice that she bequeathed to me, though she understood my true passion was for the environment. I’m not sure she fully understood the connection between the two, but she understood oppression, and social injustice, and stood up against them wherever and whenever she could.


And I almost forgot to mention the thing that most surprises people — My mother was a spy: during the late 1930s she worked undercover for the FBI investigating and helping to stop the importation of pro-Nazi literature into the U.S.

~ Jonathan



My mom was schizophrenic. She was also a woman who found a wise woman psychologist to help her understand herself and her world and stayed with her for much of my growing up years. 


Her willingness and openness to seek support was a profound model for me as I moved into adulthood. Her own mental struggles and her reaching out helped me stick with my own confusion, finding, and sticking with the work of self-inquiry and meditation practice all these forty plus years. Women have been my most significant teachers.


My deeply personal work began with my therapist Sarah Pines, years ago. She was soon followed by Toni Packer, who taught me the meaning of self-inquiry, and in recent years, Elizabeth Mattis Namgyal, who presents Buddhist teachings about the heart/mind with brilliant clarity and continues to stimulate growth and understanding. 


Gratitude, gratitude, gratitude to my mom, and all the women in my life for living the way they have, and showing me the way, by living their longing to be the best and happiest they can be. 


~ Padme


My high school history teacher was an inspiration to me. She stood in the middle of the hallway as we walked (or ran) between high school classes, her ramrod-straight posture, mid-life lumpy but girdled midsection and clingy-knit dresses, smiling and prodding students as they passed, chatting over the tumult with Mr. Zapata, the next teacher down (they were close friends; I had a crush on him and only realized that he was gay, years later). Mrs. Horan was open-minded, smart, supremely knowledgeable, ethical, strong-willed, straight-talking, demanding and challenged us at every turn to be our best. When she was my Advanced Placement (AP) History teacher I worked harder than I’ve ever worked—college was a breeze by comparison! What I took away: I wanted to be as passionately satisfied with my life as she was with hers, making the difference I came here to make.

~ Victoria 


In my earlier years I did not have a positive opinion of my mother, seeing her tendency to over-invest in the lives of her adult children as codependence and thus being controlling and often reactive in many situations.  But as I became aware of these same tendencies in myself, and got into 12 step recovery, I began to see the beauty in my mother, and her resilience as she moved through many hardships in her life.   I came to appreciate her openness to grow and see the goodness in people all around her, and express gratitude for the many ways she was being blessed (even in her last years in the hospital).  She was a role model of growing old gracefully.  Her faith and inner strength inspired me to follow her path of personal growth and being a positive presence of gratitude—and how she made family connections a priority.


I received the same inspiration and lessons about resilience from the women I met at Sojourner House, as they reunited with their children after being in jail or chemical dependency treatment, and learned skills to be sober, responsible, strong women. Their inner strength allowed them to move through challenges and claim their gifts to be a positive presence in the world.


~ Sue



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