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How I came to realize my mother, grandmother and the women before are 'giants'

Posted February 3

When I was a child, I dreamed about becoming a scientist.

My goal was to create a formula to make paper out of straw and save the world’s trees. Some days, I dreamed about becoming an astronaut. Other days, I dreamed about writing children’s books. There was no limit to the things I dreamed about doing.

As a child, I was already standing on the shoulders of giants and I didn’t even know it.

I learned something about that phrase later in life when I lived in England and handled a coin worth 2 pounds. There, running along the golden edge of the bimetal coin, were the words, “Standing on the shoulders of giants.”

It was a phrase Sir Isaac Newton wrote in a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke in 1676, as he paid homage to the scientists who had gone before him, according to the Royal Mint, which publishes the coins.

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” Newton wrote. The man who discovered gravity was also the master of the Royal Mint from 1699 to 1727, so the quote had heavy significance before it found itself wrapped around money in 1998.

In 2015, the Royal Mint changed the design of the coin and dropped the inscription, but I have kept mine, and lately, I think about those words more and more.

Nobody told me I wasn’t allowed to learn to read and write when I was a child. I had the freedom to ride my bike around my neighborhood all by myself. My parents urged me to attend college. I traveled around the world with a passport to satisfy my wanderlust. I felt free to choose a major and career path of my preference. Nobody ever told me I wasn’t allowed to be this or that, to drive or to vote.

Of course, there were other things that told me my experience as a woman in this world, as shared by throngs of other females, would be unique in its challenges. We still have distance to travel in giving women equitable respect and dignity. But today, standing on the shoulders of giants isn’t about how far we have to go; it’s about how far we’ve come.

I look to my mother, who graduated with a master’s degree in the '60s and found a way to support our family when economic crises struck. I was prepared to roll up my sleeves and get to work from the day I was old enough to baby-sit the babies in the neighborhood. My view broadened as I stood on her shoulders and saw a future I could choose for myself.

My grandmother Fleeta’s shoulders were broad enough to allow me to see the value of education, motherhood and breaking barriers. She was 22 when she graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 1933. The earliest records of statistics of women age 20-24 who attended college begin in 1940, and at that time, only 5 percent were enrolled in school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Did she know why she was going to college? Did she know the power of that education, and the master’s degree she later earned just a few years before she died?

“It is believed the most effectual means of preventing (tyranny) would be to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth … that they may be enabled to know,” Thomas Jefferson said in the "Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge" in 1779, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Did my grandmother know how important it would be to gain that knowledge and instill in her son a thirst for knowledge that would one day take root in his daughter, whom she would never meet?

Or was my grandmother influenced by the work of the women who came before her? She must have seen farther when she was 10 years old and women were granted the right to vote. She stood on the shoulders of decades of women before.

I didn’t realize it when I was a child, but I was already standing on a foundation of sacrifice, love and power that has lifted me every day of my life. I don’t know what my daughter will see when she gets older, but I’m going to make sure my shoulders are strong — as strong as the women before me.

I hope her view will be glorious.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother Fleeta.

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