Friday, February 29, 2008

Stukes: Interview

Spiced Up Her Life

My “Ama,” Mary Fuller McDill, has lived a typical Southern life: she was a small-town, family-oriented girl who always cleaned her plate of fried chicken and fried okra before she jumped in Pa’s pick-up to go church every Sunday. Because of her seemingly traditional lifestyle and prim and proper, “womanly” demeanor, I believed that the more liberal topics we have discussed in my women’s studies class would be completely foreign and somewhat unspeakable to her.  However, after talking with Ama, I learned that she has added her fair share of spice to the Southern way of life. She has something to say about the issue of women’s rights, as she has been a perfect example of independence from a very young age.

Ama has always lived in a small town in South Carolina. She solidified the stereotype that Southerners are “buried in their way of thinking” (more so back then than now, she says), and this affected the way she grew up in many ways.  She told me that figures in her childhood taught her to “wear dresses, talk sweetly, and keep her legs crossed in order to be a proper lady.” She always followed suit in order to do well through young adulthood and to appease her mother. Much sooner than expected, though, Ama had to abandon her idea of perfect womanhood and take on more responsibilities than she could have ever imagined.
Her family was never well off financially, but they were always able to make ends meet, even through the Great Depression. She graduated near the top of her class and a year early from high school, and she proceeded to be the first person in her family to attend college at Lander University. Two years into her schooling, her father died, leaving her mother, younger sister, and she emotionally and financially devastated. At the age of 19, Ama began working odd jobs and soon became a teacher, making little to no money, in order to support her family nearly single-handedly. In our interview, she told me how she knew that her younger sister Betty had to go to college seeing as to that she had gotten the opportunity and how she knew that her “Mama needed a new refrigerator instead of an old ice box.” To make a long story short, she stretched her measly salary far enough to accomplish both of her goals and more.  While working eight hours a day, she put her younger sister and herself through college; she bought her mother that new refrigerator that she wanted; and she came up with the funds for her family to put food on the table and to keep the electricity bill paid. Even she agreed with me in that she didn’t know how in the world she made it work.

After she explained some of the details and the struggles of her life, I started asking Ama about the feminist movement she experienced so many years ago. She said that she could remember some feminist activity, but it was hard for her to gauge how much activity really went on due to the fact that news didn’t spread as quickly as it does now and the following of the women’s rights movement was much smaller back then. She believed that “women should be in the forefront,” so in that respect, she liked the fact that women were being proactive about claiming their rights. However she did not approve of the women that would speak about women’s rights in “inappropriate places like church.” She said that this turned people against their cause by offending them.

Her description of feminism when she was younger paints a picture of first- wave feminists. She realized the following of the women’s rights movement was relatively small back in the 1920s and 1930s, but she had heard of their cause. This shows how first-wave feminists made their mark on the world despite their lack of numbers and the short time period in which they worked their magic. The movement appealed to my grandma in that they were fighting for something that needed to be fought for, but the fact that they were so upfront about their cause steered her away from naming herself a “feminist” or involving herself in any of their activism.  Ama declared herself “inactive but still active” – a more third-wave feminist way of thinking.
Soon enough, Ama and my grandfather, Papa, started a family. They had four kids. Ama chose to stay home with her first two children and be a typical housewife – she cooked and cleaned and took care of matters at home. Before her third and fourth children were born, she hired help at home and started back to work as a history teacher because she wanted to help out with the financial situation of the family and prepare for her children to go to college.  She said she did not regret her decision to go back to work because it was necessary and because she was still able to be a mother to her last two children.  By that point in her life, she had already gotten used to supporting herself, so to have a partner to help financially was just a perk. She was not at all upset to have to go back to work, for she realized that a marriage is equal and that “not all men can do it themselves.”

My grandma showed strength and independence during times when women were not expected to. She showed these qualities in a time when women were actually discouraged from being strong and independent. In this way, I think she showed definite signs of feminism by doing just what she said, being “inactive but active.” She set an example for her friends, her younger sister, and her children, just to name a few, and this in and of itself is activism.

Being an American history teacher, I was curious as to what Ama thought about why women were predominantly left out of history textbooks. She told me about how she thought it was mainly due to the fact “women didn’t come forth in society until the time of Susan B. Anthony”, and even then society didn’t acknowledge women. She stated in a negative way, “women were kept in the background for a long time.” Later in the interview, she also remarked on how women were coming more to the surface of society, and therefore they would
probably be and should be mentioned more in textbooks to come.

Finally, I asked what my grandmother’s feelings on some issues of the current day were. I will admit that I was a little nervous to step into this territory for fear of getting a lecture on how I should think more conservatively. Much to my surprise though, I instead found similarities between the two of us.  Abortion – a hotly contested topic, a new-age medical term, and my first question. My grandma, though she herself has birthed four kids, identified herself as a pro-choice advocate.  She went on to talk about how the context of the pregnancy matters more than anything, a strong reference to Allison Crew’s And So I Chose. She said that she has always thought that it should be the woman’s choice despite her conservative Southern upbringing and the fact that she never chose to have an abortion. Secondly, I questioned Ama on her thoughts on calling a husband or wife a “partner,” for my women’s studies professor introduced me to this idea. Her first impression was to question the reasons behind it, but once I explained my professor’s justifications behind the practice, Ama came around. She even went as far as to say that she thought it would be better if everyone were to call their spouses “partners.” Ama’s seemingly conservative exterior turned out to be entirely deceiving when it came to women’s rights.

I chose to talk to my grandma because she has lived her life in a much different time than I have lived mine (She just stopped complaining about her 89th birthday.); she has witnessed each of the mainstream feminist movements, and I previously believed that we had opposing viewpoints on most debated topics. Our talk opened my eyes to how just two generations ago (at least in my family), women’s rights were barely talked about. I have always had so much respect for my grandma, but now, more than ever, I realize that she has been through a lot in her life and has gone against the norm to set an example for women of today.

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