Friday, March 7, 2008

Grove: Interview

The Value of Femininity

I chose to interview my maternal grandmother, Gayle Elliott, because I have always viewed her as a strong, independent woman. She is 71 years old and has spent the majority of her life living in New Jersey. She values her autonomy and taught my mother the importance of being financially and emotionally independent of others who in turn demonstrated such values to me. I therefore attribute much of my own beliefs and the way I act to these ideas learned from both my mother and grandmother. Additionally, I decided to interview my grandmother because I wanted to see how her divorce played a part in the way she currently views herself and other women. Furthermore, she is a devout Catholic and I felt that it would be interesting to see how her religious beliefs, life experiences, and independent lifestyle, have all interacted to influence her present perception of women and their place in society.
I began the interview by asking my grandmother to define a feminist. She described as a feminist as someone who is self-confidant, self-assured, and independent of others. I therefore immediately assumed that she would identify as a feminist because these characteristics also described her. However, when asked if she would consider herself a feminist she responded that at one time she might have, but “the feminists of today are too angry and overly concerned with ridding themselves of men.” She then proceeded to go into a lengthy discussion about the many negative characteristics of feminism and expressed that she felt that “the feminists of today are so extreme and radical because they were attempting to make up for shortcomings of the past.” She also stated that she felt that the reason why many men identified as homosexuals is because a great number of women have lost their femininity and therefore are no longer appealing to men and these men would rather have a man who acted feminine than a woman who did not. This statement was especially interesting to me because it demonstrates how much value she believes femininity to have because according to her, the lack of femininity is significant enough to change the sexual orientation of men. I then asked her if she thought femininity is an intrinsic characteristic of a woman or if it is an idea forced upon woman by society. She firmly stated that femininity is “part of the true nature of a woman.” Furthermore, even though she fit her initial description of a feminist, her negative associations concerning feminism and the belief that many feminists no longer value their femininity kept her from identifying as one.
Additionally, I asked my grandmother what woman she looked up to and why and she stated that she admired Lynn Cheney because she is a woman with a respectable balance between a successful career and a family. She then began emphasizing the extreme importance of finding a balance between a woman’s home life and professional life. She said that she thought it was very important for a woman to have a career and be financially independent but in doing so, she must not neglect her responsibilities as a mother and wife. Additionally, she shared some of her own personal experiences about the amount of joy her own children had brought to her during her life. After she had repeatedly explained to me the importance of having a “balance”, I asked her if she felt it was possible to be happy without a family and she affirmed that a woman could find a significant amount of satisfaction in her career but she would not be completely fulfilled without a family. I thought this opinion was interesting because in contrast to the time in which my grandmother lived the majority of her life, in today’s society there are many single career-oriented females without families that would describe themselves as being satisfied. Such a woman in becoming less of a rarity and consequently the choice to not have a family is less unusual or seemingly problematic. However, the vast majority of women during my grandmother’s time were mothers and she therefore perceives women who do choose to focus solely on their careers as unwell and unbalanced. Additionally, I believe that she had stressed the importance of having both a career and a family is because she views raising a family as an essential part of femininity and therefore an essential part of being a woman.
Furthermore, my grandmother explained to me that she initially became aware of the fact that women were treated unequally in society after her divorce from her former husband. She narrated her experience of attempting to get a loan from the bank after the divorce. The loan officer asked her many personal questions concerning things such as her personal spending and dating habits. Such questions were not asked of her former husband when he was trying to get a loan from the same bank. I asked her whether she thought this was acceptable or if she recognized a need for change in this situation. She explained to me that she definitely felt that there was an unnecessary discrimination due to her gender and but felt that at that time, nothing would change and such discrimination would continue to take place. She remembered thinking that if women became more educated and could therefore obtain better jobs, they would be more respected by men and consequently not encounter as much difficulty when attempting to do something not typical of women, such as requesting a loan.
Despite my grandmother’s account of her experience with gender discrimination, I recognized that she still held somewhat traditional ideas concerning a woman’s role in society. I therefore was curious to see if she agreed with some of the ideas of backlash as discussed in Susan Faludi’s “Blame it on Feminism.” I explained to her some of the problems faced by working, single women mentioned in this piece such as anxiety, unhappiness, and health problems and asked her whether she thought such troubles were the fault of the feminist movement or if these claims were just an attempt by those opposed to the movement to take away from the accomplishments of women. My grandmother felt very strongly that these problems were the result of women denying their femininity and attempting to isolate themselves from men. I found this statement interesting because I know that my grandmother prides herself on being independent but then still finds fault in other women who attempt to be satisfied without a relationship with a man. I think this discrepancy results from the fact that she values her own independence because of her ability to provide for herself after her divorce but because of the expectations of women in society during the majority of her life, she still condemns other women who chose to focus on their careers and not to have a relationship with a man.
Additionally, I explained to my grandmother the concept of the “double-bind” situation as described by Marilyn Frye and how women sometimes experienced this bind in terms of their sexuality. My grandmother did not see the problem with the double-bind in this situation because she felt that “women who are not in a committed relationship should not be expressing themselves sexually even if men can do so with less condemnation.” She stated that although this was unfair, things would not change any time soon and this does not make it right for women to act as “whores.” I feel that this opinion can be attributed to my grandmother’s strict Catholic values and this proved how her religious beliefs influenced her perception of a discrepancy between men and women’s freedom to express their sexuality as a need for women to suppress their sexuality even more because of men’s natural inability to do so.
Later on in the interview, I explained to my grandmother the differences between liberal feminists and radical feminists. I told her about how many radical feminists feel that it is necessary to complete dissociate from men in order to make progress in the women’s rights movement. My grandmother then stated that this dislike of men was why she did not agree with feminists. She then said she would classify herself as a liberal feminist. This statement was interesting to me because up until this point in the interview, my grandmother has repeatedly discussed why she did not like feminists but after realizing that there is disagreement among feminists, she felt more comfortable identifying as one. I think this is very important to consider because it demonstrates how many people misunderstand the goals of feminists and classify them as “man-haters.” During my interview with my grandmother, I found that she supported the idea of women obtaining an education and a meaningful career. However, despite her strong feelings concerning women in the workforce, she still had very negative associations of feminists and therefore many misconceptions concerning feminists and their work. I think this part of the interview proved that feminists still face a great amount of opposition even from those who support the advancement of women in society.
Finally, because my grandmother had demonstrated her support for women obtaining an education and a respectable career but disagreed with other ideas of feminism, I asked her if she felt that women had accomplished their goal of equality in society. She stated that there were probably still some discrepancies among salaries between men and women, but the for the most part, women were equal to men in society. She affirmed that 90% of the fight for equality for women in society had been accomplished and that “feminism started off as a noble movement from which society has benefited greatly but the feminist agenda is now getting side tracked with the desires of radical feminists.” I think this statement is an accurate summary of my grandmother’s views towards women and their place in society. She recognizes the importance of women’s choice to want a career. However because of the great value she places in the “true nature of a woman,” she did not like that some women were choosing not to express their femininity and were therefore no longer “appealing” to men.
Interviewing my grandmother proved to be a learning experience about how different aspects of an individual’s life along with their personal beliefs can influence the way they view society. Many people see women’s more aggressive attitudes as a positive outcome of the work of feminists. Additionally, the fact the many women are not concerning themselves with trying to be pleasing to men can also be view as a benefit of women’s movements. To my grandmother however, such acts are not appropriate for women because to do so is “denying one’s femininity” and therefore “denying one’s true nature.” I personally feel that the women’s rights movement still has many goals to be reached concerning women’s equality and that the fight for equality is much less than 90% finished. However, what I deem to be of value for women is much different than what my grandmother found important for women and we therefore have a difference in opinion about how much is yet to be accomplished by women in society. I believe this is a very important idea to consider when reflecting upon the opposition feminists face because as I have learned through this interview, just because a woman believes in equality for women does not mean she will support all aspects of equality that are being promoted by the feminist agenda.

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