Friday, March 7, 2008

Holloway: Interview

“Every generation always says the same thing, Susie—that people’s values have changed.” This was my aunt’s response when I asked her if she thought women today were still expected to stay at home and raise their children. This assertion immediately struck me as being very truthful. I thought back to countless arguments I had had with my parents where my defense had been “But it IS okay for me to do that, things have changed since you were kids!” Not that this claim usually went too far with my parents, but I can definitely see the accuracy in it. So is it progress that is forever changing our values? I suppose this turned out to be one question on my mind while I chatted with my aunt about feminism. Her viewpoints on various issues, from Gloria Steinem to women in the Bible, continued to strike me throughout the interview with varying degrees of emotion. Overall, I would say that my aunt holds somewhat ambiguous stances on many feminist issues. ‘Contradictory’ is the word that initially comes to mind, but that doesn’t really express what I mean. In essence, the interview with my aunt solidified my previous notions about feminism as being a completely personal and unique experience for each individual, for many reasons.
My aunt Carol was the first woman I thought of when I learned I needed to interview someone for a feminist piece. The reasons were many: She was a young woman during the 60s and 70s, she has always been someone I consider very candid, and, frankly, I didn’t know all that much about her and was interested in her viewpoints on the subject matter. A little background information about my aunt is probably important here. Carol was born in Decatur, Georgia in 1939. She was the only child her parents ever had. Carol attended high school in Decatur and then moved to Florida for college. She double majored in sociology and criminology, graduating in 1961. She married my dad’s brother, who was considerably older than my father, so she has been a part of my family for a long time. After they were married, she and my uncle moved to Boston for a short period. From what she told me in the interview, I gathered that Boston was a pretty uneventful time for the two of them and they settled in Atlanta soon after. In Atlanta, Carol worked as a juvenile probation officer for three years before my first cousin was born. After Parker’s birth, my aunt stopped working for a while and just focused on raising their three sons. Eventually, in 1987, she went back to work at Open Campus, where she was a discipline principal secretary. She retired in 2006. My uncle passed away in 2004, and Carol has been living alone a few miles from my parents ever since. Like many people I know, Carol seemed to be relatively opinionated about some feminist issues but also open to some new ideas that I presented her with. Overall, I would say that my aunt has very moderate sentiments about these issues.
Given her background, it didn’t really surprise me that Carol had such a temperate view on feminism. Having grown up in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, her skin color had automatically put her in a privileged position relative to the times. Being white had already exempt her from some definite levels of social oppression that existed during her adolescent and adult years. As detailed in Marilyn Frye’s “Oppression” piece, it was probably easy for my aunt to notice the subjugation of black people while not realizing her own privilege as a white person. Also, as an only child, Carol said her parents (her father especially), always encouraged her to “be whatever she wanted to be.” She said that as a child, being female actually made her feel more special. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fact that women often have more to overcome than men, and thus it is somewhat of a “bigger deal” when they achieve lofty career goals. Regardless, Carol said that she did not feel any direct effects of oppression when she was growing up, and as stated, her background sort of explains why. Still, she was a young woman at the height of feminism’s second wave and her unawareness of many of their ideals somewhat startled me. Carol did not read “The Feminine Mystique” when it was published (nor did she later on), and all she really knew of Betty Friedan was that she was “a big deal for feminists.” She thought that Gloria Steinem was “gorgeous” and thus a great spokeswoman for the cause. Throughout this portion of the interview, I almost started to develop the sinking feeling that my aunt was “one of those people” who thought that feminists were a bunch of bra-burning lesbians. It just didn’t seem like she cared to identify with them for a number of reasons. Of course, third wave feminists would say that Carol IS a feminist simply by being a woman, but I decided to ask her anyway if she identified as one. She thought long and hard before answering both yes and no. I wondered aloud if her including “no” in her answer had anything to do with the stereotypes often attributed to feminists. She said she thought that feminists had sort of a “bad rap” twenty years ago, but that was just because they were working so hard to get somebody’s ear. Nowadays, she said, people listen to women. I would probably agree that this is true. Certainly not on a global scale, but here in the United States I think women are more or less able to speak their minds. This is beginning to sound like a postmodern feminist argument that claims there is no official need for feminism, which I don’t agree with. I’m just hoping to emphasize my aunt’s middle-of-the-road approach to feminism.
My aunt did have some pretty interesting ideas herself on why she has never really personally felt affected by sexism. She claims that it has a lot to do with the men in your life. Knowing that my uncle was always a very supportive husband helped me understand this. Even though it had been my aunt, and not my uncle, who was the homemaker in the relationship, I am confident that this wasn’t because my uncle insisted on that arrangement. She also reiterated how encouraging her father had been—he told her once when she was young that she could be the first woman in the Supreme Court if she wanted to be. Carol’s willingness to credit men with her unhindered life as a woman was pretty surprising to me. I understand where she’s coming from—but I also know that some people (almost certainly feminists) would call that a very ANTIfeminist viewpoint. That being said, my aunt proved to me that she does hold to many of the “traditional” feminist ideals that typically come to mind when one thinks about feminism. She is pro-choice, she believes a woman can/should be president of the United States (“Maybe not Hillary…I’m sure she’s very brilliant…Some other woman though for sure”), she wholeheartedly supports women having careers, and she definitely thinks women should serve in the military. Carol feels that women are always judged more than men for their appearance, and she finds this a tiring characteristic of society. She absolutely agrees that women have historically been repressed. Perhaps it is easy to see now why I initially referred to my aunt as having a somewhat ambiguous stance on feminism—though she has never personally felt like she has been oppressed for being female, and thus holds that ‘the fight’ is pretty much over, she does concede that other women are totally justified in feeling like our society doesn’t give them enough choices. All in all, feminism is defined uniquely for each individual, and a person’s experiences and feelings can never be discredited nor labeled as right or wrong. As our interview was winding down, I asked my aunt if she had anything else she wanted to add. Carol thought for a second and then told me a story I found very touching. A few months ago, two of her close girlfriends from high school had come into town to visit. Both of these women were breast cancer survivors who had each been through extensive breast reconstruction surgery. Carol said that they were very open with each other, and being together made them feel young and “girlish” again. The three of them were laughing and joking and decided to compare how their breasts looked. She described the experience as “so open, so respectful…so female and so totally lacking in modesty.” She laughed, thinking about three women in their late sixties with their shirts off. Then my aunt became reflective and said, “You know, women are real strong. They’re made of good stuff.” She paused. “Women are survivors.” Aunt Carol, I totally agree.

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