If you’d like to be interviewed for this project or want to nominate someone, fill out this form.
In 1987, my grandmother died in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in her early 50s. Her youngest son was half a world away in Lancaster, Pa. That same year, my parents welcomed their first child, a son.
He came into the world after Nguyễn Thị Biền left.
When pressed, my parents note this timing. The circle of life can feel real.
This is almost everything I know about my father’s mother, save for a few details. Biền gave birth to nine children, and she would do anything for her family. I’ve studied her gentle face in photographs on many occasions, but there are no traces of her story in portraits. Only the living can relay my grandmother’s history. She will never tell me.
Women’s history has often been lost or gone unrecognized because of sexism. But history can fade for another reason: We don’t ask the living enough questions and record their answers for safekeeping.
That’s why, for Women’s History Month, I wanted to document lesser-known firsts. I asked women with more than a half-century under their belt, “What were you the first in your family to do?” I started in the Seattle-area, where I’m based, but there are still stories to tell. Fill out this form to nominate someone who should be interviewed for this project.
Helan Liu, 58, grew up surrounded by water in Beihai, a coastal city in Guangxi, China, and became a competitive swimmer at an early age. But by her late teens, she was considered “too old” to compete and had failed an exam to move on to university.
Then an opportunity presented itself: Windsurfing was gaining popularity around the world, and China wanted to develop a national team. Liu was all in — but she faced a steep learning curve.
“Nobody knew this new sport, even the coach,” she said through her daughter, Ming Luo, who doubled as an interpreter. “He just knew how to teach us to swim. Nobody knew how to stand and what poses could help you keep your balance.”
Her efforts paid off: Liu beat out men and women across China and became a member of the national team. In 1983, at 21, she traveled to Pattaya, Thailand, to participate in an international competition, where she placed second. Liu became the first person in her family to represent China on the world stage as an athlete. Her parents beamed with pride when popular newspapers wrote about their daughter, a winning windsurfer, Liu recalled.
After 10 years, Liu retired from windsurfing, but she continues to seek new challenges: Living in Seattle, she is learning English and working at the downtown YMCA, where she folds towels and teaches swimming lessons in Chinese. She still misses her windsurfing days, though: “If I have a chance before my body gets really bad, I want to try again.”
What are you most proud of? “Even though my body has changed, I can still swim.”
What advice do you have for older women? “You have to keep yourself healthy. Keep doing exercises every day. Keep doing what you like to do. At this age, we’re not really young. So we’ve already sacrificed for many things. Now, focus on yourself.”
Janet Jones Preston
At 17, Janet Jones found out she was pregnant, making her the first person in her family to become a teenage mother.
“In those days, your punishment for getting pregnant was you had to get married, so that was my punishment,” Jones Preston, 72, said. “The boy I married, he and I were both ill-prepared to be parents or be husbands and wives. We were kids with a baby.”
Jones Preston had to grow up alongside her son, she said, and the two remain close. Although he moved to Ghana 20 years ago, they communicate daily. In 2006, Jones Preston opened a school in Kasoa, Ghana, called the People’s School for Positive Education. Akili Mosi Secka, Jones Preston’s son, oversees 260 students there every year.
“I did something that Oprah did before she did it,” Jones Preston said, referring to Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, “and I only had a schoolworker’s salary. I didn’t have great wealth.”
While Jones Preston considers the school to be her legacy, being Secka’s mother preceded everything: “Being the founder of the school was important, but more important than that was being his mother.”
What are you most proud of? “A lot of people going through stress, pain, misfortune and disappointment, they lose their heart,” Jones Preston said. “I’ve been able to maintain my heart and love for people and a willingness to help people.”
Jones Preston continues to be an advocate in her hometown, where she has worked with the Black Prisoners’ Caucus and the Seattle Clemency Project.
What advice do you have for other women? “Never give up. Know that there’s no one on Earth who is any more or any less than you.”
In 1976, Laureen Nussbaum became the first person in her family to earn a doctorate.
Nussbaum, whose family left Germany for Amsterdam in 1936, came to the United States in the 1950s with her husband, Rudi, and their children. After stints in Indiana and California, the Nussbaums settled in Oregon, where Rudi worked as a physicist at Portland State University.
Laureen considered her academic ambitions: She thought about physics and social studies, but ultimately decided to pursue a doctorate in German language and literature. For years, Laureen commuted from Portland to Seattle to take classes at the University of Washington. Her routine included reading on the train, sleeping on her classmate’s floor and “speeding back to Portland,” where she taught night classes at PSU and cared for her family.
“That kept me plenty busy for 10 years,” Nussbaum, 92, said.
What are you most proud of? “I have about 50 publications to my name, and I think they’re honest to good contributions to the field,” said Nussbaum, who became a full-time professor at PSU. In recent years, she wrote “Shedding Our Stars: A Story of Hans Calmeyer and How He Saved Thousands of Families Like Mine” with Karen Kirtley and wrote the afterword for Anne Frank’s “Liebe Kitty.”
What advice do you have for other women? “If you have gut feelings that are strong, follow those feelings and somehow make them fall in place.”
After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 1969, Margaret Heldring did two things that were expected of her: She got married and began having children. But Heldring also made decisions that baffled her family and community in Sewickley, Pa.
“I was the first married woman in my family who worked outside the home,” Heldring, 72, said. “Who took steps to have an identity and a degree of independence and a degree of self-sufficiency apart from my husband.”
Heldring worked for Planned Parenthood in Minnesota and New York and began to realize “how narrow and limited my world had been.” In 1978, she made a decision that created “shock waves” in her family. Heldring left her marriage, packed up her belongings and took her 2- and 5-year-old sons to Vermillion, S.D., where she could live inexpensively while pursuing another family first: her doctorate in psychology.
Her mother disapproved and never took an interest in her career. Heldring’s then-husband didn’t understand. People in Sewickley, a small town outside of Pittsburgh, talked. Heldring absorbed the criticism.
“I felt a deep obligation to use my mind and to use my education,” she said. “It didn’t compute to be at home with all that I had been provided. … I think it seemed selfish to many others. But to me, it seemed a requirement to be a full self.”
As time passed, Heldring — and other women who came of age in the ’60s — became inspirations. “Later people said, ‘Good for Margaret,’” Heldring said. “There was a greater sense of approval and appreciation.”
What are you most proud of? “That I pulled it off. I have two wonderful sons in their 40s, and we’re close,” Heldring said. “At the same time, I’ve had and continue to have a great career that is very meaningful and purposeful.”
Heldring, a retired psychologist, runs Grandmothers Against Gun Violence, a nonprofit.
What advice do you have for other women? “Don’t be afraid to say yes. ‘Yes, I’ll try that. Yes, I think I can do that. Yes, that might be interesting. Yes, I could weather that change.’”
What about saying no? “Learning to say no is the flip side of the power to say yes. The real message is: I have power. I have rights. I will choose to say yes, or I will choose to say no.”
Phyllis Ratcliff Beaumonte
Phyllis Ratcliff Beaumonte was born in 1933, on the edge of the Great Depression.
“Nobody had any money, and that’s across ethnicity and race,” Ratcliff Beaumonte, 86, said. She, along with many of her classmates, were told to make plans that didn’t include college, a financial burden.
About two decades after finishing high school, Ratcliff Beaumonte found herself working in an administrative role at the University of Washington. As an employee, she could take some college courses for free. At 40, Ratcliff Beaumonte earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and editorial journalism. Her father, who didn’t go beyond middle school, witnessed his daughter become the first person in their family to graduate from university.
Ratcliff Beaumonte didn’t stop there: She got a teaching certificate, completed her master’s in public administration and a master’s in theology, and attended the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In 2012, when Ratcliff Beaumonte was in her 70s, she graduated with her doctor of ministry. She is an associate minister at the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, where she was baptized, and has spent her life advocating for civil rights and social justice.
What are you most proud of? Ratcliff Beaumonte reflected on how she was able to beat the odds: She earned multiple degrees and realized her gift for teaching despite facing social and political barriers.
What advice do you have for other women? “I would advise them to take Jesus Christ on their life’s journey, and they will be successful.”