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I see the bones of my hand moving under my skin like waves under a frozen lake. My metacarpals glide with intention, wanting to do more, more, more. I think about the vessels and veins that carry my blood, and I consider if that blood is completely mine. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down through maternal inheritance; I received my mDNA from my mother, who inherited hers from her mother (my grandmother), who inherited hers from her mother (my great-grandmother). I think about this a lot: the chain of women whom I’m related to, who have passed down this mDNA to me.
I will never learn the names of all the women I’m related to; they will never know that I exist. We are destined to share only genetic history — not hobbies, memories, or time spent together. Still, I wonder: Would they like me?
Just how much of them is in me? When I look at myself in the mirror, am I actually looking at pieces of them? Is there a pastiche of features from women whom I don’t recognize within my own face?
History has not been kind to women. When I think about the past that my female ancestors lived during, I wonder how they were able to summon the persistence and bravery to live through difficult times. As someone currently living through a pandemic and political turbulence, I have realized that living through history is primarily just challenging. We often think that history is abstract, something that happens to other people — other generations — until we find ourselves amidst new events that make us scared for the future. How were my female ancestors able to quell their fears enough to strive in the face of an uncertain future? How were they able to keep going despite not fully knowing what the future might hold for women, for their granddaughters? Women today have more rights than women in previous generations, but there was no guarantee for the women of my past that this would eventually be the case.
Yet, they kept persisting. In the face of a world that did not care for them, did not extend support or sympathy or grace to them, did not effectively compensate them for labor (inside or outside the home), they kept moving forward. How brave did they have to be to look an uncertain future and hostile world in the eyes and declare that it wouldn’t break them? How titanium must their spines have been to decide that their granddaughters should have better lives than them? How drivenly optimistic did they have to be to protest, advocate, and fight for the rights of women who would come after them?
As I walk around campus, I’m frequently reminded of the history of this place, of Radcliffe College and the women who studied there. I’m a Harvard student, but my place here belies the collective ongoing struggle of women who seek higher education, particularly women of color.
I benefit from the sacrifices of nameless women. I have been told that I can be anything I want and do whatever I want to do. I can move through life with relative ease compared to women of the past — especially those disproportionately impacted by cruelty for being women of color, poor, or both. This freedom was not afforded to them. But I have it, and with it, I must continue the tradition of persistence.
How do you make sure the sacrifices of women who came before aren’t in vain? Tangibly support women now. That means decreasing the maternal mortality rate, protecting our trans sisters, ensuring that sex workers are not unfairly criminalized, increasing access to childcare, safeguarding the rights of BGLTQ women, actively practicing intersectionality, closing the racial and gender pay gaps, eliminating racial and gender bias in medicine, protecting voting rights, ensuring women can make their own healthcare decisions, and supporting women of color entrepeneurs, among so many other actions we can take to ensure women now and in the future can live better lives.
You care about women? Show up for them. Make space for them. Believe and protect them when they’re hurt by systems you’re part of.
I want my future daughters’ and granddaughters’ lives to be significantly better than mine; I want them to accomplish more than I ever will. I want them to know that all the women who came before them cared deeply for their ability to lead long, joy-filled lives. I’m sure that the long chain of my female ancestors would have wanted the exact same thing for me.
I’m thankful to my mDNA for connecting me through time with so many persistent, steel-willed women. I’m especially grateful for the women themselves, striving amidst darkness so that I — and all the women who will come after me — can have only light.
Shanivi Srikonda ’24, an Associate Editorial editor, is a Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology concentrator in Quincy House.
This piece is a part of a focus on Women’s History Month.
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