Friday, March 7, 2008

Schmidt: Interview

Maybe a Feminist After All

Some things we learn from school, others from our friends, but our most important teacher is our parents. As I have grown older the education that comes from my parents has changed significantly, especially when it comes to my mother. It used to be a top down model, in with my mom would tell me things that I needed to know and I would listen. Now our conversations are more equitable, openly sharing our ideas with each other. We both teach each other and learn from our experiences. When this assignment was presented I thought that this would be a great opportunity to learn more about my mom. Although we have talked a lot, we have never talked about her views on women’s rights or feminism.

At the start of the interview I asked whether or not she considered herself a feminist. I was surprised when she quickly responded enthusiastically, “No!” Instead of jumping to conclusions I asked who was a feminist or what the qualifications of a feminist are. The feminist that she described was a first or a second wave feminist. The adjective that was repeated over and over in her answer was “independence.” According to Nancy, a feminist is someone who puts her career before her family and believes that men and woman should be equal. Her answer reminded me of the old equal pay for equal work slogan. After reflecting on her answer, she said that she believed in equality for men and women and that it was an important goal. She said “maybe I am a feminist after all.” Because of the slippery definition of feminism, especially for people one or two generations above myself, there are many feminists who do not know that they are feminists. Nancy’s experiences may have her believe that she is not a feminist because she has chosen her family over a career, but upon further reflection her belief in equal rights may make her a feminist after all.

I believe that in order to understand anyone’s view point it is important to understand where they come from. Nancy was born into a Jewish family in the 50s. She was the third (of four) children, two older brothers and one younger brother. Her parents raised her in the tradition of their parents, which did not leave a lot of room for feminism. She told me in her interview that she was raised to believe that men should be the bread winners and that women should support the men.

Judaism of the time allows us to further understand how prevalent this belief was. In Judaism there is a tradition that men go through called a barmitzah. Men around the age of thirteen assume the responsibilities of “manhood.” There is a less commonly practiced ceremony that is for women called a batmitzah. It is roughly the same ceremony for both men and women, but my mother was never expected to become a batmitzah. Her brothers, on the other hand, were and to this day my mom has not gone through the ritual. These restrictions and beliefs have evolved some since my mom was thirteen. Reformed synagogues recommend that both men and women go through this ceremony and women are often in positions of power. The synagogue that my parents and I attend has had a female canter and currently has a female Rabbi, the highest position in a Jewish synagogue. But Judaism has a long way to go. In some conservative and orthodox synagogues women are not allowed to read from the torah and have to sit in separate areas than men. This discussion is reminiscent of the Chicano movement. The argument made from the “anti-feminist” side that it destroys the Chicano culture, is very similar to the argument made in Jewish circles. For example, at the Western Wall, one of the most sacred places for the Jewish people, men and women are not allowed to pray together. Those who argue that we should integrate say it breaks thousands of years of tradition. The same is true of women reading torah or even being spiritual leaders. My mom was able to recognize the great strides that Judaism, particularly the reformed movement, has made in the area of women’s rights.

The next part of Mrs. Schmidt’s life that we discussed was her brief period in the work force. She got a degree in teaching from the University of Illinois, but took jobs at the American Bar Association in Chicago and Carter and Associates where she did work in their personnel department. She alluded to the idea that teaching was thought of as “women’s work” at the time that she was in college, but I gathered that was not the reason she chose for her degree. When asked whether she could remember instances of sexual discrimination, she replied after a long pause that she could not. But she did remember that all of her bosses were men. At the time it must have been common place because she did not seemed bothered by her own response.

Soon after work she got pregnant and chose to drop out of the work force in order to be a stay at home mom, a decision that I will be eternally grateful for. She said that she believes that if women chose to have children that it is the responsibility of one of the parents to stay home as long as one of the parent’s jobs is able to sustain the family. This belief in choice is the foundation of third wave feminism. As we discussed in class, one of the big criticisms of the second wave was that the second wave believed that women should be what my mom thought of when she thought of as a feminist. The belief that women should go out and be independent women and that the family structure should not be upheld because it is down grading to women restricted women. What if they wanted to have children, or stay at home? The third wave allowed and encouraged that choice.

Knowing that my mom is an intelligent women, I inquired as to the women’s rights issues that she felt passionate about, if any. Her immediate answer to this question was a little disheartening. She fells that there has been so much progress that has been made on that issue domestically. She alluded to Hillary’s run for the president and the increase in women’s rights over her life time. The more pressing matter, according to her, was the atrocities happening to women across the globe. Trying her best to be politically correct, she said that those cultures that allow things like female genital mutilation are wrong. The article “Bringing the Global Home” by Charlotte Bunch has a similar view to my mom’s. The idea is that we should learn from other cultures and should work to increase feminism and women’s rights globally. The article says that we should learn from other cultures and allow it to inform feminism. The truth is that there are certain things that should never be allowed and female genital mutilation is not one of them.

Nancy Schmidt has all of these views on equality, freedom of choice, and a respect of women’s rights; how can she or we say that she is not a feminist? If feminism is based on the belief of equality of the sexes, then I believe that every person who believes that is a feminist. After the official interview was over I was talking to my mom, and she decided that she is a feminist. Not only do I believe her, but I believe that this case shows us something about feminism. There are a lot of misconceptions about feminism, maybe because the term has negative connotations or because some people do not fully understand their beliefs on a certain issue. But I believe that most women are feminists, even if there is some residual sexism because of their upbringing, because they believe in equality at some fundamental level. We should recognize the basic belief in equality is what binds all strands of feminism and feminist, whether they know it or not, together.

No comments: