Friday, March 7, 2008

Jayne: Interview

Karen Phillo is a close friend of my family, and a dear friend of my mother's since childhood. Phillo was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and was the picture-perfect child. She hopes one day her parents will come to the accept this fact! Phillo is a happily married woman, working for the Sacramento Probation Office in California. However, her life's journey to this point has brought her through several instances where she was faced with inequality because she is female. Phillo, like many women, has not let her sex be something to hinder her. Every major challenge that she has been faced with, she has faced and made her own. Through her life she has exhibited a strong character and strong sense of identity. She has helped countless numbers of children through her career and has managed to cleverly change the minds of people that had once prided themselves on spreading the backlash of feminism. Throughout her life she has seen landmark moments in the feminist movement and continues to help promote equality through her personal efforts. Phillo is concerned in promoting feminist agenda and hopes to see the movement continue in attaining their goals. However Phillo, like many other feminists, is aware that inequality is not an idea or practice that will fade easily; and will require continuous efforts, thus, she has illuminated this idea throughout her life.

Phillo's first half of her childhood was spent growing up in Alabama. When she was a teenager, her father's job transferred him, and the family, to Atlanta, Georgia. The family settled in the suburbs, in the city of Dunwoody. In 1973 Karen applied to be a page in the United States Senate for the Senator of Alabama. Phillo's application was rejected. According to the senator, “ D.C was not a nice place for young ladies to be (sic)”. Phillo graduated high school and attended the American University in Washington D.C. Originally a political science major, Phillo found herself drawn to Administration of Justice, which eventually became her major and her degree. Phillo's college experience is one of creativity. Faced with out-of-state tuition and living expenses, Phillo worked full time and attended school at night. Her first job in Washington was working as a research assistant for the Anthropological Director of the Smithsonian. She lived with a family, where she provided babysitting services in exchange for room and board. With this busy schedule, she graduated only one semester late. She also was very involved in campus life, and was a member of the Student Government Association, College Democrats, and College Republicans. She left the College Democrats because at that moment in time, Republicans ran the majority in Washington. Karen hoped that by joining the College Republicans she would be given more opportunities to see how politics worked in the nation's capitol. At this time, the Equal Rights Amendment was a controversial subject, especially for her conservative College Republican peers. The club held votes over issues that were being debated in the real world. Phillo, exhibiting her wit and creativity knew that as a woman, if she said the phrase “Equal Rights Amendment” her club members, mostly male, would squirm in their seats and denounce the message. When it came time for the vote to be held over this amendment within her club, Phillo presented the vote. She changed the words to her advantage. Rather than saying the ill-fated three word combination, she stated the agenda of the Equal Rights Amendment. With a unanimous vote, her club passed the amendment. Once the vote was final, Phillo announced to the room, “Congratulations gentlemen, you have just passed the Equal Rights Amendment!”. The club members did not hold another vote over the amendment.

After graduating college, Phillo found that she could make more money working as a secretary rather than as a probation officer. Upon graduating from university, Phillo worked as a secretary for the Senator of Illinois, across the street from the White House. She married at the age of twenty-four to a Navy Jag who was fresh out of law school. Soon after their wedding, he was transferred to California, where the couple settled in Sacramento. Phillo recalls, “ Driving through Sacramento, it reminded me a lot of D.C., without the crime and crowds. That was July 4th of 1985. Now it has all the crime and traffic of D.C.”. While her husband began working as the Assistant District Attorney, Phillo began working part time, on-call, as a probation officer; assigned to the Juvenile department. During this time, Phillo suffered from two miscarriages. Phillo pursued a course of fertility drugs and was able to bring her third pregnancy to term; and gave birth to her son, John. During her pregnancies, Phillo was not allowed to work. After her delivery, she struggled to find an adequate schedule and maternity leave. She returned to work after her pregnancy and worked the graveyard shift. There was no daycare available. Her husband shirked his responsibilities of fatherhood. He did not care to be busied with the demands of a young infant son. His attention for his child only increased slightly as the child grew older, and more interesting. This, however, was short lived. While working a demanding job, keeping up with the demands of the household and taking care of her infant son, Phillo's husband informed Phillo that he was involved with another woman. Phillo, knowing the challenges she would face as a single mother, stood up for her pride and exhibited a great deal of self respect in leaving her husband.

Knowing that her current part-time night position would not be enough to support her son and herself, Phillo decided to pursue law school. The first year, she became very ill and had to drop out. The second year, Phillo did very well, but when exams came she was caught in a personal crisis. Her sister, who had been living in Atlanta, was murdered. The family, distraught over the sudden loss of their daughter, needed Phillo. The law school would not allow Phillo to leave during exams, so Phillo dropped out her second year; choosing family as the ultimate priority. Upon returning back to her probation work, Phillo worked extra hours on weekends in an attempt to make extra money. She would work as many day shifts and graveyard shifts as she could. She would grab only a few hours sleep after her graveyard shift before she would have to wake, care for her son, and return to work. Being part-time, her hours would run out in November. Phillo would then have to take unemployment. Her husband, taking a pay cut to become Sheriff, had decreased their son's child support from $1000 to $400 a month. In California they do not allow spousal support to go on for more than a three years, leaving Phillo truly on her own. During the times where she faced unemployment, there were times where the checks were not large enough; Phillo would go without food to be certain that her son had enough to eat. Phillo's situation eventually improved through continuous hard work and determination. Despite the fact that the cards were stacked against her because of her sex, Phillo acquired a full-time position, became very successful, and raised her son alone.

Knowingly or not, Phillo has been faced with several instances throughout her life where she has stood up as a feminist. She defines feminism as “having the power to do what you want, to do and to be able to make choices for yourself rather than those choices being made for you”. It was not Phillo's intention to become a feminist. In her youth, she feels she was more passionate about the subject, due in part to the fact that more she rejected frequently because of her sex. She feels other people would identify her as one, but she sees that she is just living her life as she chooses to live it, without societal restriction. Phillo sees feminism as a positive movement. “Women like Gloria Steinem, thank God for them! Otherwise I wouldn't be able to do what I do”.

As our conversation went on, I realized how close to home issues of inequality were coming, and that there has been significant progress made within the past twenty years. When Phillo began her job with the Probation office, female probation officers were not allowed to work with male children. Male probation officers dealt with male children, and as a result there was often confrontation. In 1985, women, for the first time, were allowed to work with male children. Progress occurred more rapidly, as “women did not get caught up in the testosterone contest”. Male children responded better to a female officer because they did not approach a child aggressively. In addition to this, Karen experienced inequality in her pay. At the time she first started working, women were paid $0.73 to the full $1.00 a man made. This difference has decreased over time, but it still has not been made fully equal. In addition, men were also given priority in scheduling. The women of her field were often times the caregivers to their own children, however the people that made the schedules worked to appease the demands of men first.

As we continued our interview we moved from the topic of inequality within the workplace to expectations of society. I asked Phillo questions that have been inspired from topics discussed in my Women's Studies course. We spoke about expectations society held for women and female children in regards to dress, marriage and motherhood. In her responses I noticed that there was a difference between expectations and behavior in the South compared to the Northeast and California. Women in the South, throughout Phillo's experience, often seemed more feminine and emotionally more soft when compared to women of other regions of the country. “The clothes are more feminine...the accent also helps...and men really like the southern accent, they find a soft southern accent desirable on a woman because it makes her seem more feminine”. Phillo revealed to me that she thought society placed too much emphasis on sex to young girls, through popular culture. “I'm not sure if I feel this way because I am old, but girl's that wear these tight, low cut outfits seem to keep causing problems for the boys I work with. The boys become distracted and are not as productive as they would be otherwise”. In addition, “young girls and boys feel a girl's value is about the body and not the brain; you're supposed to be super thin with perfect hair and skin. If you are not, then you're ugly. In high school a guy told me once that if I lost 5 lbs I'd be perfect, and I believed it. I was thin then but thought I was really fat”. Phillo also mentioned that “a child may find an article of clothing to be pretty and cute because it is fashionable, but a child molester will see it as sexy and appealing”.

When we discussed motherhood, Phillo said because of the miscarriages, she desperately wanted to have a baby. The benefit was that the child was truly wanted. “Babies create a lot of work, but it was the best thing I ever did. Society expects that as a mother, you should be able to work all day, come home at night and have a healthy dinner on the table and do all the housework. I brought home McDonald's a lot. After working all day I was tired. All the mental energy of keeping track wears you out. Women are pressured to carry the burden more than men when it comes to parenting. Raising a child is the most important job in the world, yet most men have trouble doing it”.

Despite the responsibilities of being a mother, we both felt there is a bigger pressure to be a career mother. “I used to be a stay-at-home mom. Most women I know would love to be able to stay home with their children and raise them, but you have to have a husband that can make a good salary to be able to do that. When a man decides he does not want to be married anymore, there is nothing you can do. By staying home, you're putting yourself in a dangerous position. He's going to take care of his career, and if he divorces you, you have the struggle to find a job after not working for a long time”. Stay at home moms put themselves at a greater risk. When Phillo and her husband were separated, she paid the bills with his pay check and then split the difference. It never occurred to her she should get more than him because she was supporting her life and the life of her child, while her husband was only looking after himself. She was shortchanging herself. Women are taught to shortchange themselves from a young age. By not meeting the physical standard, the societal expectations, or the demands of a husband, a woman finds herself lost, full of self doubt and questioning her self-worth. Shortchanging yourself is an expression of that pain that was created by society, and it can find no other outlet. I feel this is an overlooked issue within feminism, especially as the rate of divorce continues to increase. A mother may be rewarded with the children from a custody battle, but as a result she is often burdened because in many instances she feels she is partly at fault for not being able to provide more efficiently and more comfortably for her children, meanwhile the husband runs late on child support, if he pays it at all, and more often than not does not face legal consequence. This is a double bind that has not been discussed, and does not receive enough attention. Yet this plagues many women today, regardless of race, in this country.

Through the course of our interview, I asked Phillo about many of the issues that have been brought up in my Women's Studies course. Phillo gave an answer to most of my questions, but felt that issues behind Third Wave Feminism, such as racial inequality and the raising awareness about the varying experiences and opinions of women are not things that she has given much thought to; with that being said, she found that she was very interested in these ideas and would continue to learn about them. Our interview allowed us both to experience a level of consciousness raising. Phillo developed a more broad idea about current feminist issues. I came to have a greater appreciation and awareness of how women have fought for equality, yet still continue to struggle today due to a continuing presence of inequality that transcends race and lives through a gender barrier created by society.

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