Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Interview with Sheryl Fair

Throughout history women have been suffering from and faced with many problems. Some of these involve having equal rights as men or being treated as an equal to a man, fighting to be allowed to work outside of the household where they can have a fulfilling life, or having to conform to a “normal” and respectable identity. Feminists throughout time have worked hard to fight against these problems and correct the wrongdoings to women and human kind as a whole. On Friday morning, February 28, 2008, I interviewed Sheryl Fair, a woman who identifies herself as a second wave feminist because she believes “women should have equal rights and should be able to do what men can [do].” This interview illustrated Sheryl’s beliefs and life experiences that have led to her feminist beliefs, as well provided insight into her feelings on some of the prominent topics dealt with daily by feminists.

After numerous unanswered calls, voicemails and a couple of days of phone tag I was able to find a time appropriate for both me and Sheryl to each sit down over the phone and conduct an interview. When the interview began both me and Sheryl were a little nervous, she did not know what to expect from the questions I was going to ask her and I was not sure what information I was going to learn. Sheryl, 58, is currently working as a hostess at a restaurant, a part-time job, after recently retiring from education and teaching fourth graders for 30 years. As a child, Sheryl, experienced what I believe a lot of girls growing up in the second wave experienced. As a young girl, Sheryl wanted to be a fireman, but was told by people around her that she could not be a fireman because it was a “mans” job. When I asked Sheryl about any experiences in her past that have shaped her feminist beliefs, this is the event that she recalled. Sheryl attended Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, directly out of high school, where she received her degree in education. Sheryl told me that she went into this field of study because it was considered a “respectable” job for a woman and she was never actually expected to have to use her degree. A degree was only a backup plan, in the case that something happened to her husband. If that situation ever arose she would have something to fall back on in order to support herself. After the birth of Sheryl’s daughter, Meredith, she stayed at home and worked as a stay-at-home mom. Sheryl commented during the interview that staying at home to raise her daughter was unfulfilling, a statement that goes back to the ideas discussed by Betty Friedan in a chapter of her book, The Feminine Mystique, entitled “The Problem that Has No Name” (Friedan). She told me that she often had nothing interesting to tell people about her day. When her husband would come home from work or neighbors would visit, the only types of things she had to tell at the end of the day was “I pushed Meredith on the swing today, and we had a picnic.”

When I questioned Sheryl about whether she had ever experienced any backlash in her past due to her feminist beliefs she informed me that she had only been met with arguments about women’s proper roles, by people saying “women are this and women are that, or women should do this, or should do that.” She also said that as a teacher she encountered many boys who would openly say they thought men should make the most money. She would then proceed to ask the boys why they did not want their wives to make as much or more money than themselves so they could have the most comfortable life possible. They often replied by saying they had never thought about it like that; they had only ever been exposed to the ideas presented to them by their fathers.

I continued the interview by asking Sheryl about some of the prominent issues feminist deal with. I inquired about Sheryl’s feelings on the idea of “sex vs. gender.” After explaining to her what the sex vs. gender idea entails, she told me her thoughts. Sheryl told me she “believes girls are more destined to play with dolls and boys with trucks.” She followed this statement by telling me about a personal experience that leads her to feel this way. When Sheryl’s daughter, Meredith, was young she would take her to the store to buy toys to play with in the sand, such as trucks and shovels and buckets but, her daughter would always prefer to look at the teapots and Barbie dolls, instead of “boy” type toys. However, through teaching, Sheryl saw boys who she knew were raised by single mothers and often noticed that these boys seemed to be wimpier, as well as more feminine and not quite as into “boyish” activities. Sheryl and I also discussed what she felt was the most important accomplishment of the women’s movement to date and she said it is “the opportunity for the best person to do the job, not just a man” and the ability for women to be and do what they want. I told Sheryl about the media analyst we did on the Pussycat Dolls and I asked her opinion on them and she responded by telling me that she felt the Pussycat Dolls did not convey feminism to young girls, that they are just “trashy” and little girls are “too young” to try to look, behave and look up to them.

I was curious as to what Sheryl thought was the biggest problems that women face in today’s society and the answer I received was not anything I had ever thought about before. Sheryl feels that the biggest problem facing women currently is the fact that in a divorce the woman is almost always left with the children and has to be the “whole family.” The woman must balance work, home, and some semblance of a social life. Sheryl views it as unfair that in a divorce situation, the man is allowed to have a social life and can have women over to stay the night; however, if a woman, the main caretaker of the children, has a male guest stay over, it is deemed inappropriate and the woman is often viewed as a bad mother. This is a double bind set up by society. After a divorce women are forced to miss out on part of their freedom and social life, while the male, who usually only has the children a couple of times a month, is free to do whatever he desires, regardless whether the divorce is his idea or fault. Further, Sheryl feels there is a big problem with men not marrying or taking responsibility for the women whom they get pregnant. She voiced, however, that she felt this was a bigger problem with African American men and the women they impregnate. Sheryl shared with me as well that she misses the chivalry men show when they open doors for women and allow them to be seated and order their food first. Sheryl felt this was “a slide in the wrong direction” for all of us and feels men should treat women with respect and a way in which men can actively do this is by being chivalrous.

I proceeded by asking Sheryl about her participation as a feminist. When I questioned her on whether she is currently or has in the past worked as a feminist activist, she told me that she has never participated in any type of feminist activism. I also inquired about the frequency in which she visits, reads, or posts on feminist blogs or reads feminist magazines. She told me that she did not actively participate in those types of activities. However, when I asked Sheryl who her favorite feminist author is she told me that her favorite is Gloria Steinem, in spite of this, she does not have a favorite feminist work by Steinem or any other feminist writer. She discussed with me how she likes and agrees with many of the ideas that Steinem presents and she feels that Steinem is a better spokesperson for feminism than women such as Betty Friedan, due to Steinem’s more attractive physical appearance. She thinks that through Steinem’s seemingly more feminine appearance, than that of many other feminist authors, “Steinem makes a better case for feminism than an unattractive woman.” After finding about her liking for Steinem I questioned Sheryl about whether or not she has ever read The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan, the premiere work of the second wave of feminism, to which she replied that she has not.

During mine and Sheryl’s interview I often saw some contradictions between what Sheryl said during one part of the interview and what she told me in a later part. There are also slight contradictions between Sheryl’s views and those commonly held by feminists. While I know that no two feminists have the exact same views on all issues, I do feel as though they agree on some of the most basic beliefs. One example of such a contradiction comes from Sheryl’s discussion on the idea of sex vs. gender. Sheryl explained to me that she thought children were destined from birth to behave a certain way and display certain gender characteristics, an essentialist view. However, she then went on to tell me how throughout her teaching career she saw boys, who were raised by single mothers, act less masculine and have more feminine attributes, showing a more standpoint view on the subject. Further, Sheryl’s view on men’s chivalry varies from the common view of feminists. While Sheryl thinks men should do more for women, like pulling out chairs and opening doors, many feminists see this “chivalry” as type of oppression of women, as discussed in Marilyn Frye’s 1983 piece called Oppression (Frye).

By conducting this interview I gained a lot of perspective into the lives of women in the past. The women of today’s generation do not have to deal with as many prejudices as those women growing up forty or fifty years ago. My eyes have been opened to the fact that women have not always been able to pursue any job they pleased. While today’s women still have barriers to overcome to be complete equals to the male sex, a lot has been accomplished through the hard work of the women who have come before us. I have never before had the opportunity to have a conversation about women’s rights and the fights women in the past fought and it is incredibly enlightening and rewarding to have a discussion about the experiences and situations women have encountered in throughout their lives.

Works Cited
Friedan, Betty. “The Problem That Has No Name.” The Feminine Mystique. By Betty Friedan. N.p.: n.p., 1964.
Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression.” The Politics of Reality. 1983. By Marilyn Frye. N.p.: n.p., 1983. 16.

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