Her Story

  • Published
  • By Maj. Andrea Hunwick, 426th Air Base Squadron deputy squadron commander and staff judge advocate,

“You’re the first woman in this job.”  This was the greeting from one of my now dearest employees when I took over as the Deputy Commander and Staff Judge Advocate of the 426th Air Base Squadron in Stavanger, Norway.  He did not mean it in any judgmental or condescending way—just matter of fact.  He has been with the squadron since its inception in 1996, and in all that time he never worked for a woman.  But his comment doesn’t shake me, I was born for this. 

My story begins in a Detroit grocery store in 1979—three years before my birthday.  The nightshift manager was a young, ambitious woman whose presence stood at least ten feet taller than her barely five-foot frame.  She was a woman in charge of a bunch of men, rare in those times.  They often called her “bossy,” but she was the first one they called when they needed to get things done.

Her story began on a Detroit night in 1968, when her father died suddenly of a heart attack leaving behind a wife and five children.  She went from child to provider overnight.  There was no “man of the house,” just a ten-year-old girl who took charge because someone had to.  She had her first job at ten, cooked her first Thanksgiving meal at thirteen, and beat out several older men for a coveted management position by the time she was twenty-one.

Her mother’s story began in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1922—newly born to Italian immigrants; she was known for her trademark smile and sassy attitude.  The Great Depression thrust her into the workforce as a kid to help provide for the family. If it taught her anything, it was how to take care of herself.  When she hit the traditional marrying age, all of the eligible men in her town were off fighting a war.  Not a problem; she was in no hurry to get married and you better believe when she did (IF she did), she was not relinquishing any of her independence.  One day a man saw her pass by the window of a barber shop.  He said he wanted to marry her.  She said marriage to her came with some terms.  They were married by thirty.  When he died at forty-five, it was hard for an olive-skinned Italian woman with five kids to find work.  So she went door-to-door looking for enough houses to clean to put food on the table.  This was her life’s work well into her seventies.  She never remarried.  Her daughter kept her company.    

That daughter became a manager at a Detroit grocery store, and married a man who stocked shelves.  He wasn’t intimidated by her position.  He respected it—and her.  In fact, when they had two daughters of their own, he used to take them to the store to see her in action, “Look at your mom—she’s the boss!”  When the grocery store went out of business, leaving them both unemployed, they pooled their resources together to send her to college.  In their home there was no “man’s place” or “woman’s place.”  There was simply a partnership, centered on two little girls. 

This is my story.

At eight-years-old, I attended my mother’s college graduation, seated between my dad and my little sister.  It was my mom’s achievement, but it was a milestone for the entire family.  Her mother—my nana—was also with us that day.  I can’t imagine how proud she was to see my mom walk across that stage.  Let people think cleaning houses was low-class, look at what scrubbing floors on her hands and knees allowed her to provide her daughter.  And my nana didn’t quite care what people thought of her anyway. 

My mom was the first college graduate in both her and my dad’s blue collar Italian families.  For me, the culmination of her graduation was by far my most formative experience.  I watched her balance children, a marriage, a job, a mortgage, and a full-time school schedule—all before she was thirty.  And through it all she barely missed a gym day.  I remember the morning she left the house for her very last final exams, she was covered in hives because the fate of our entire family hung in the balance.  Early on I knew women could do anything because I saw her do everything.

Last year my mother retired as a partner from the seventh largest public accounting network in the world.  Her portfolio spread from Detroit to Brazil to Milan to Prague.  She earned a living that allowed my sister and me to go away to college full time, and to eventually become the primary breadwinners in our own homes.  At her retirement, employee-after-employee raved about her as a leader.  She credited everything she knew about taking charge to her mother.  I stood in awe of the extraordinary women who came before me. 

“You’re the first woman in this job.” 

That may be true, but it was generations of women who carried me here.