This month, we rightly honor what women have done to create the most extraordinary, humane, and liberating nation the world has ever known. I celebrate as the daughter of a courageous woman who entered the world as the subject of a king but was born an American in spirit, and later became one in fact. She taught me what being American means.
Sarah Margaret Badley, known as Peggy, grew up in northern England. The traumas her father had suffered as a captured British soldier in World War I estranged him from his wife and baby daughter. Peggy was raised by her mother, Nan, with scant material resources, but with abundant love and a deep sense of dignity, responsibility, and charity. Nan refused second-hand boots for her little girl at the village school, but she made sure to give a few pence to others in need whenever she could.
While Nan worked as a housekeeper, Peggy, a gifted student, attended a superb high school on scholarship. Lacking the money for a baccalaureate degree, she became a secretary to help support herself and her mother. Drafted into the British army in 1941, she served until Victory as a clerk in the underground headquarters in London and witnessed first-hand the reports of battle and Nazi occupation. When V-1 bombs buzzed overhead, indomitable Peggy was unfazed.
After the war, when Peggy’s boss rudely ordered her to get coffee, this veteran of the front lines for her country tendered her resignation on the spot. Through sheer grit, my mother was “women’s liberation” personified.
When her mother died in 1948, Peggy saw in England a plodding economy and a culture that thwarted ambition and initiative. The United States was the future, dynamic and rich with possibilities. She sailed here alone on the Queen Mary, and within a month she had her own lodgings and a job as a medical secretary.
Peggy enthusiastically became a citizen of her new country. In 1950 she met a fellow veteran, of the U.S. army, and they married. They named their only daughter after Peggy’s beloved mother, and Peggy devoted the rest of her life to assuring that her Nan would be able to realize the unique blessings of being American.
I write this as a woman who has indeed been enormously blessed. I’ve had a career in medicine, I’ve had fascinating jobs in business, and I’ve been able to raise my own family in prosperity and comfort. In 2010, this namesake of a grandmother whose life was marked by hardship and toil in a rigid and limited society an ocean away, stood proudly among 89 other fellow citizens elected as freshmen to the new majority in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Only in America” has perhaps become a cliché, but not to me, whose success was made possible by a remarkable woman who chose this country because it offered the greatest opportunity to move beyond class and origins and fulfill the promise of our gifts on our own terms.
My mother’s role during most of her American life was the same as that of the majority of women of her generation: homemaker. She took enormous delight in her daughter’s accomplishments, and they are indeed as much hers as mine. And she’d be proud indeed that today I have the privilege of working on the team of a President dedicated to pursuing exactly the kind of liberating policies — fostering and rewarding our citizens’ enterprise and initiative — that first drew her here.
Women’s History Month honors many women whose achievements have brought stature and recognition — thanks to the foresight, determination, perseverance, and love of our anything-but-everyday heroines, like Peggy, who made possible the miracles that combined form the American dream.