I attempt to practice a feminism rooted essentially in intersectionality. As a woman who has had the privilege of studying feminist theory that illuminates the nuances of women’s lived experience, when I grapple with integrating different feminisms across classes, races, gender identifications and education levels, I might be missing a section. Last year, as holiday anxiety was mounting, I thought to experiment with listening better to women who reject or simply do not heed feminist identification, and reserving my impulse to proselytize. From interviewing women in my family over email and in person, I learned that storytelling and story-sharing between women fortifies us in our politicized bodies and helps us to see those stories anew, together, and in some cases to re-vision them, to use Adrienne Rich’s concept. By turning the zeal I would normally use to criticize my relatives’ feminist shortcomings towards understanding and celebrating the ways in which they have consciously or unconsciously practiced feminism, I found that many of our beliefs and efforts concerning women’s rights were unified.
To be clear, it should be acknowledged that many women who reject feminism and act on internalized misogyny to thwart the empowerment and well-being of women should absolutely be challenged and combated. The demographic I’m interested in reaching better are people who have lived feminism across generations in complex — sometimes contradictory, inconsistent, and compromised — ways without having access to the theories, vocabulary, role-models, and activist methods to which I’ve been privy.
Shortly before the publication of this piece, my great-grandmother Etta — whom, you will see, worked tirelessly against great odds to gain independence for herself and her daughter — passed away at the age of 89. I cherish our last and only really substantial adult conversation. The other family members interviewed were my grandmother, my mother, and my sister. All of them were born in the southern United States, where they still reside; some of the women interviewed have lived well below the poverty line at some points, and most of them would have been defined as middle class at other points. My 89 year-old paternal great-grandmother was white; my 71 year old paternal grandmother is white; my 52 year-old mother is Mexican-American, and my 15 year old sister identifies as biracial.
1. What were the economic circumstances under which you grew up / are growing up? How did your household divide paid and unpaid labor, and who earned income away from the house?
Great-grandmother, Etta, 88: I was born in 1926, the 6th child of 10. My father was an oilfield worker. The women did housework, farm work, and picked cotton.
Grandmother, Judy, 71: I was born in November, 1943, to an unmarried 17 year old girl. We went home from the hospital to my grandparents, and I lived with my grandparents for six years. My mother worked in another town and my grandfather was an oilfield worker. We were poor, lived on farmland, and when I was 4, we moved into town and my mother (Etta) came to live with us. At age six, my mother married and we moved to another town. My step-father could not keep a job and we moved several times a year to various places in Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas.
Mother, Deanne, 52: I grew up as the last of 12 children, but like an only child since my siblings were much older. We were very low middle class. For most of my parents’ marriage my father was the sole income-earner; however my mother worked later in life as a caretaker of the elderly with a government program called Girling Health Care. The unpaid labor of the household was done by my mother.
Younger sister, Noble, 15: I am growing up in a middle-class household with 6 other siblings (5 of whom live on their own) and two working parents. Chores aren’t specifically assigned in my house, but one is expected to be doing something “helpful” constantly or they are considered “unproductive.” Allowance is never given, but hard work is appreciated.
2. In school, did/do men and women have equal opportunities to take classes, play sports and enjoy extracurricular activities? Please explain.
88: I stopped going to school in about 7th grade. Only one of my 10 siblings graduated from high school — one of my sisters. I participated in basketball in Junior High.
71: It was difficult to participate in school activities when I averaged 4 or 5 schools a year. Being the new kid in school was hard. In elementary school I eventually adjusted; I was teacher’s pet a lot. Since I was a cute kid, it was easier to make boy friends than girl friends. In my early teen years I did run track, play tennis, and I tried basketball…for a few days!
52:Yes, during high school and college both men and women were able to take classes, play sports, and enjoy extracurricular activities.
15: At my high school in south Texas, a great effort is exerted to make sure that both girls and boys have equal opportunities to participate in the same extracurricular activities. Both genders have the same number of sports and classes available to each, and the only unfair circumstance is which sport is favored more. In high school, the championship winning football team is exhibited highest on my school’s sports podium. Therefore, more time, effort, and money is put into preserving that tradition. Because of this, girl sports such as volleyball have built separate booster clubs to ensure that the sport has access to money, and that girl’s sports aren’t given lower priority.
3. Were you directly or indirectly affected by sexual abuse?
Etta declined to comment except to say that she finally left her husband shortly after Judy came forward with her story of abuse (after watching an episode of Oprah that featured a sexual abuse victim).
71: My stepfather was physically and emotionally abusive to me. He would expose himself, masturbate, try to get me to touch him, etc. Having my grandparents pick me up for summers and long holidays was a life-saver for me. I did not tell my mother because I didn’t have the words until my daughter-in-law was pregnant with my first grandchild. I figured if he ever touched my grandchildren I would kill him and never get to see my family again. I was 45. I think I told my Aunt Gladys in a way when I was young. I have a feeling there was a lot of incest and child molestation going on where I grew up.
52: I was not directly affected by sexual abuse. However, there was a serious situation and accusation that caused a divide in my family that continues to this day. Forgiveness has taken place and the hurt has healed in part, but it left our family wounded for many years.
15: I have not been directly affected by sexual abuse; the closest I have come to something as horrific as that was when I was inappropriately touched by a boy who got too comfortable during a movie. Another instance occurred at the height of boy immaturity when they were considered cool if they grabbed my ass while walking in crowded hallways and then ducking behind tufts of people. I would not consider this to be sexual abuse though, only some form of harassment (and extremely annoying).
4. How old were you when you were married? How did you meet your spouse?
88: In 1949, I married for the first time. Leon was abusive, physically and emotionally, and could not hold a job for very long. But I always had a job as a store clerk or a waitress. We were married for 40 years. We moved a lot because he was very possessive and jealous, so any time I made friends or was promoted at work, he uprooted us. I met him at the cafe where I worked.
71: I married when I was 16. I was pregnant. As I look back, I realize that having sex was not because of exciting desire, nor was it to keep my hooks in Lyndon; I did it because I loved him and wanted to make him happy. I do not remember having hang-ups about sex as a youngster, and because I had never had anyone except my grandfather to depend on, I pretty much felt I could take care of myself. In the 1950s girls were expected to marry, have children, and take care of the home, and that was pretty much what I wanted. My mother was never my confidante, so I pretty much depended on Lyndon…until he asked me if the baby was his. I never, to this day, have forgotten that and think I knew then that I would always have to take care of myself.
52: I was married in 1984 when I was 22 years old. I met my spouse on the campus of St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.
5. Was/Is there access to women’s health care where you grew up/are growing up? For example, birth control (either for family planning or medical issues), exams, and OBGYN services? From where did the majority of your information about your body and information about well-being come?
88:The first time I’d ever seen a doctor was when I went to the hospital to deliver Judy. They sent Judy home with my parents and kept me in bed rest for 10 days, as was standard back then. We now know how dangerous this is to a woman’s recovery.
71: I had an aunt who would explain things to me.
52:To my knowledge there was no access to women’s health care where I grew up. There was access in the city where I went to college. Most of the information I got about my body was in books I read.
15: I’m assuming that I do not have access to OBGYN services because I do not know what that is.
6. Describe jobs you have had, including any caretaking roles you may have played / are playing.
88: I worked in the PX at Fort Sill and as a waitress and a clerk at other places. I mostly worked in drugstores after that. I sewed clothes for Judy because we couldn’t afford to buy new clothes. She would show me the fashions, and I would copy them.
71: Financially, we were pretty tight in Kansas and I was forced to get a job once we moved back to Lawton. I say forced because I did not want to leave my babies. My skills were very limited, but I got a job at a finance company as a credit checker. My trainer was awful, and after three months I was fired; it was just before Christmas, so after the holidays I hit the streets to find another job.
My next job was with a financial company as well; I was trained well there. This was about the time that I became involved with civil rights. I met Iola Taylor, a Comanche woman, and Margaret, who was married to an American Indian man. I looked up to them very much, as they were powerful and opinionated and would argue with the men in the group. I was only 21.
The head cashier at the new financial company was very racist and didn’t like that I spent my evenings working side by side with black Americans to end segregation. This was 1964. After 4 years, we moved to Norman and I got a job working for a husband and wife at an accounting firm. The third week, Iola and Margaret, gave me a red pin to wear that represented women’s rights. I was immediately fired by the wife for wearing it. Lyndon worked as the statewide youth coordinator for the Oklahoma for Indians Opportunity funded by Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society plan.
52:I played the role of caretaker first in my own household with my young children as a “ stay at home mother” and also during that time as one of the caretakers of my dying father.
15:As a big sister and a pet owner, I have a couple roles to play in my household. Of course, I have the regular responsibilities of caring for a pet, but I think I exceed in my big sister role. Although my little brother and I don’t always get along, I am always willing to do whatever I need to, to make sure that he is okay. One night I got home from volleyball late and I was about to study for a test and turn-in, but I went and checked on Justice and realized he had put himself in a horrible situation that only gave him one night to complete two un-started projects. Once I realized how overwhelmed he was because Mom gave-up on him, I put away what I needed to do and worked late into the night helping him get what he needed done.
7. Were / are most of the women you confide in and who confide in you women of the same race as you? Which race is that?
88: A Seminole family lived next door in the country. George was their son. He was an acquaintance of mine.
71: In 1972, I tried to get involved with Women’s Lib, but I found that the women were too angry. It was all white women. They were frustrated by inequality in the workplace, mostly. I always advocated in the workplace for people who needed me so I felt like I could do more on an individual basis, rather than as part of a group effort. I felt like they were snobs. Mother had never judged anyone and I learned tolerance and acceptance from her. My friend Betty who was black was very close to me. She didn’t have many people to go to back then. I helped her with her relationship. I learned that women had the same trials whatever their color of their skin.
52:Yes all of the women I confide in are of my same race. (Mexican- American), with the exception of my daughters who are biracial.
15: No, I would say that my friend group and the people I confide in are not of the same race as me. My closest friends are all different. They vary from Hispanic, African American, Mexican, to White. Race doesn’t have any significance when it comes to who I confide in.
8. What did/ do you want to be/do/experience when you grew/grow up?
88: I didn’t have a chance to think about that.
71: I thought I would be a wife and a mother. I didn’t expect to work until I had to bring in an income. I cried every day when I had to leave my babies. Kennedy had that program where the government would pay you to go around and do whatever work needed to be done, so I did that. I didn’t expect to go to college. The Women’s Business Association would raise money (I don’t know for what) by hosting fashion shows. Once I started working at El Centro College, I felt ambitious and started moving up. Lyndon would often encourage me to go back to school, but then he would get in my way. He was ambivalent about me being educated and a working mother.
52:I am not exactly sure, but I think I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up, which is what I currently am. I did have a desire to do good for others and vaguely remember wanting to join the Peace Corp.
15:I am having a hard time trying to decide who I want to be and what I want to do because there aren’t many things I’m interested in. I found that I do well in American History and I am considering pursuing that path by taking speech classes. I am also skilled in my English Language Arts wheel. I may want to become a lawyer, or business manager, or a CEO of anything.
9. Describe a time when you felt in competition with a man for authority and power, either interpersonally or professionally.
88: I told Leon that if he ever beat Judy, I would kill him in his sleep. So he never did. Only me.
71: When I was sent to another college to be the HR Coordinator, I hired my replacement. He was always my competition. He was promoted over me twice. Our boss was a woman and he catered to her in a way that I did not.
52: I don’t think I can recall ever having the feeling of being in a competition for authority, but I have tried to assert my way of thinking in an authoritative way when I have felt that the male position was wrong.
15: I am constantly competing with a male friend of mine about who is smarter, and he insists that I can’t be better than him at anything because boys are just better. He is smarter than me, but I am determined to kick his butt at something.
10. Was female desire expressed as openly as male desire at any point? When? What were the social and/or political circumstances?
71: Free love in the 60’s and 70’s. Everyone expressed their desire mutually.
15: Female desire has not ever been expressed as openly as male desire in my lifetime. It’s always the men who want the women to do things, I have noticed. Rarely have I seen it the other way around.
Monica McClure is a writer and performer based in New York. She is the author of Tender Data (Birds LLC, 2015); and chapbooks Mala (Poor Claudia, 2014); Mood Swing (Snacks Press, 2013).