Reflection: An interview with my Grandmother

This reflection fulfills the following SUMMIT 400 Learning Outcomes: 1) Interpret quantitative information or demonstrate the methods of inquiry appropriate for investigating the natural world, 2) Analyze human behavior or social relations, 3) Critically examine the relationship between dominant and marginalized cultures, subcultures or groups, 4) Communicate effectively through writing and speaking, especially across cultural or linguistic differences

This reflection fulfills the following Women’s Studies Program Learning Outcomes: 1) demonstrate understanding of the relationship between feminist practice and feminist theory, 2) demonstrate knowledge of basic feminist ideas/analyses, which necessarily includes analysis of not only gender, but race/ethnicity, class, sexuality, nationality, and ability, 3) demonstrate advanced knowledge in Women’s Studies.

 

 

 

“As we move toward creating a society within which we can each flourish, ageism is another distortion of relationship which interferes without vision. By ignoring the past, we are encouraged to repeat its mistakes. The ‘generation gap’ is an important social tool for any repressive society. If the younger members of a community view the older members as contemptible or suspect or excess, they will never be able to join hands and examine the living memories of the community, nor ask the all-important question, ‘Why?’ This gives rise to a historical amnesia that keeps us working to invent the wheel every time we have to go to the store for bread.” – Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1984)

 

As Lorde points out, the generation gap is a tool of repression. Slim communications between generations contribute to a fragmented picture of our histories. Causing every generation to face the same challenges, or a Lorde puts it “reinventing the wheel”. In this paper, I will try to bridge that gap by interviewing my grandmother, Marian Vita, and analyzing our conversation. The interview covered gender roles, gendered messages, family, education, health, religion, media and work. Marian is a retired nurse, graduate from Yale University, and mother of six. She grew up in upstate New York in the ’40s and was raised in an Irish-Catholic family. She now resides in Ohio and has enjoyed a long retirement. The interview puts into perspective some of the important topics covered in my classes, like the United States Fluctuating Wealth inequality and gains in the women’s movement regarding job opportunities and birth control.  

Women’s Issues

The top things Marian thinks of as women’s issues are unequal pay and sexual harassment. Overtime she has become more concerned about equal pay since more women are supporting families by themselves. When speaking about harassment she is also focused on the workplace stating: “Women undergo harassment at work that seldom affect men in the same way.” The interviewee’s concerns about women’s wages and the more common occurrence echoed a sentiment in Dill’s Our Mother’s Grief: “The rise in female-headed households, therefore, reflects the instabilities and insecurities introduced into women’s lives as a result of the changing social organization of work.” (Dill 302)  Our economic and social organization has evolved and changed over the years; the interviewee experienced the cult of domesticity, waves of feminism, and rising divorce rates. The role of women has been constantly changing from a secure the but docile homemaker to independent women.

The interviewee believes that boys and girls should be raised identically because they are being prepared for the same world. When she thinks of feminism, she thinks it is too focused on women’s problems and too militant, although she does believe there still needs to be a women’s movement specifically to address sexual harassment so that women feel free to report complaints without waiting years. Marian has noticed so many changes over her life for women, but most prominently the number of women in office. She still sees that there are obstacles like the glass ceiling but is impressed by the work of Hillary Clinton.

Gender Roles

The interviewee self-describes as living in a home with strict gender roles but notices the ways in which her chores fall outside of those lines. As a child, her father was the head of the household. Marian’s Mother and Grandmother were the only ones allowed to cook, and her older sister did the dishes. The interviewee referred to herself as the ‘boy of the family’ because she was delegated tasks like taking the ash out from the furnace and shoveling snow. These ‘boy’ tasks are more dirty and physical than those of her other family members. In the kitchen, she was only allowed to dry the dishes. When asked to compare her experience to male peers, she could not, saying she did not spend much time with boys or even think of them until high school. Even without contact with young males as a child, the subject was able to recognize that some chores she completed were more on the ‘boyish’ side. This shows that there were ideas of how each gender was expected to contribute to the family in terms of chores, tasks, and financial contributions.    

Work

As a 14 year old Marian had her first job wrapping up china at the department store where her father worked. For this labor, she was paid $0.35 per hour. During the summers she worked as a lifeguard and after turning 18, she taught swim lessons. These summer jobs are still common ways for teenagers to earn money over the summer. The biggest difference is pay, which has changed in relation to inflations. In the interviewee’s time, a girl was expected to get a job after high school or go to college if her family could afford it. Marian graduated from college magna cum laude and found a job shortly after in the filing department of a company. At this job she felt confined to a position in the filing department while male peers who were less successful in college were promoted. She describes this treatment as her most prominent experience with sexism.  

Marian developed an interest in nursing during college, and shortly after her first post-graduate job, she went to nursing school. Upon completion of nursing school, the interviewee was appointed assistant head nurse in the infectious disease ward. She dealt mostly with child polio and other illnesses that are now preventable through vaccines. The professional options available to her were limited, nursing being one of the most prestigious. It was, at the time, almost exclusively female. While today it remains a stereotypically feminine career, there are more representations of male nurses. Nurse is labeled feminine since it is a care-centered job, and historically the labor of care has fallen on women.

For most of her child-rearing years she did not work, it was not until her eldest sons got to high school that she began to work again. She became the school nurse and stayed in that position until the football coach asked that the nurse be at football practice after school. This would prevent her from being home when her youngest daughter got out of school at 3:15pm, so she left this job. From this it seems that her job came second to childcare duties, but whether on or off the clock she was attending to the wellbeing of children.

Education

Many women would go to secretarial school or finishing school. Some of her peers would attend four-year colleges in the hopes of finding a husband. Marian values education greatly and says she inherited this trait from her father who read often. Her father stopped attending school after grade 6, when he had to start working to help his family. Her mother stopped going to high school after 10th grade then began secretarial school. Even though both of the interviewee’s parents did not graduate from high school they still believed education was very important. Marian still believes this and thinks that it is becoming even more important. When she was in college there were many World War II veterans enrolled in school because the military was paying for their education and she admired their dedication. Now she believes it is even more important for young people to be educated, even beyond college.  

After this, she enrolled in Yale to pursue nursing. Many of the other students were women who had been rejected from medical school just for being women. At this point in the conversation, she recalls there were two black students referred to as “tokens”. This was different from when her son applied to Yale in the ’80s when she noticed the school actively recruiting black women. Over the course of her lifetime, she has seen many more opportunities open up for women. Specifically mentioned careers were medicine, law, and politics. Now she has a granddaughter applying for engineering school, a field that women of her time would even think to apply to.

Family

At her nursing job, she met Dr. Martin Vita, her eventual husband. The interviewee married at age 24, which she considered late. According to the U.S census from 1950, this was a little later than the average of 20 years old, today the average is 27.  At that age, she worried she would never find someone as her friends had gotten married right after college. Her first child was born a little less than a year after marriage. Among the interviewees peers, six or seven was an average number to have. When prompted, Marian defined a family as two parents with two or three children, indicating a shift in desired family size from when she started having children to now. 

Body Image

Since Marian grew up during World War II, under strict rationing, there was not much of a focus on beauty and fashion as there is today. The one memory that sticks out is having to paint her legs to make it look like she was wearing stockings because nylon was not available. It was considered indecent to not wear tights, but with limited resources, painting them on became just as good. This was the most shocking part of the interview for me, I can only compare it to getting a spray tan or other types of modern body make-up. The interviewee did not have much interest in beauty and fashion but notes that blonde was the most popular hair color. She never tried to bleach her hair, so there was not much pressure to conform. Marian does not approve of modern fashion, she believes women should dress more chastely, especially in the media. She is astounded by how much skin women show on TV. This opinion is backed up the recent slip-dress trend, where it has become fashionable to wear a slip as a dress which to Marian was quite literally underwear.

Health

As a child, she never received a sex talk, and there was no talk of hormonal birth control because it had yet to be invented. She points out this is very different now because children get taught in school in 5th grade about sex. The interviewee remembers first hearing about the birth control pill when her daughters were teenagers in the ’60s, meaning that the only birth control option introduced to her was abstinence. She also remembers the Roe v. Wade decision and mentions that it was controversial because the women eventually changed her mind. She states that despite her Catholic beliefs, she does not think all abortions are bad. In the previous questions about sexual health the subject treats the topic just as a neutral health topic, but when talking about abortion the interviewee is conflicted between her social and religious beliefs. Marian first went to the gynecologist after getting married and felt she had exceptional health care because she was at Yale. She notes that other women of her generation might not have had the same experience.

Spirituality

As previously mentioned, the subject sees her abortion views as contrary to her religious beliefs but finds common ground between the two in supporting women. Religion is something that the interviewee learned from her mother and believes it helped shape her as a woman. She attended church and Sunday school. Religion affected her life in other ways because the church would put out its own ratings of movies and this would dictate what she was allowed to watch. She lists Mary, Mother of Christ as her role model.

Conclusion

This interview has put into perspective how quickly some of the societal changes I have studied for my major have come about, how drastically the social position of women has evolved, and the great number of opportunities which opened up for women. The interviewee has strong opinions about two of the most publicized issues: sexual harassment and equal pay. While she grew up in a home with strict gender roles she now believes that boys and girls should be raised identically. Marian came of age during the ‘rosie the Riveter’ years so the idea of women working has always been a constant for her but the jobs available have expanded greatly. Education was highly valued in the interviewee’s house hold, and continues to be important to her today. But what has changed is the level of education needed to get a job. The average family size has changed, and the interview demonstrates this trend. Women are presented in the media wearing less than ever before, but along with this have come stricter beauty standards. In Marian’s tim,e the only makeup she remembers using is stocking paint, while now many teen girls wear lots of face makeup just to feel comfortable in school. The interviewee has a privileged experience with access to health care, and notes developments in health education. Religion has always been important to the subject, and she must balance her beliefs with more liberal ideas about bodily autonomy. Communicating histories like this between generations is vital to understanding the history of the position of women and the women’s movement. This prevents what Lorde warns when she says: “we find ourselves having to repeat and relearn the same old lessons over and over that our mothers did because we do not pass on what we have learned, or because we are unable to listen” (Lorde, p. 117). A women’s studies class is incomplete if it does not include personal stories and intergenerational communication. This kind of sharing contextualizes theory and provides a framework for understanding the recent history of the women’s movement.  

 

References:

Lorde, Audre (1984) “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Freedom, CA: Crossing Press

Thornton Dill, Bonnie. Our Mother’s Grief: Racial-Ethnic Women and the Maintenance of Families In Andersen, Margaret L. & Collins, Patricia Hill (2016). Race, Class, & Gender: An Anthology 9th Edition. Boston: Cengage Learning

U.S. Census Bureau, Decennial Censuses, 1950 to 1990, and Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplements, 1993 to 2018.

 

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