Women's Studies 30 Interview 9/30/98 - Lise
We sat down and talked one evening,
our conversation in fits and starts as we went about the activities
for the evening and paid attention to her three-year-old son. Life in
a home with a family is very different from life in a dorm, and it
always strikes me strongly when I step across the campus boundary and
into the real world, even if only for a moment. While Lise and I went
on an errand, we began talking.
Lise is a social worker interested particularly in reproductive health and law from the point of view of women's issues. She attended social work school, and although she considers her profession to be "a 'female' job - women are attracted to it because it is a helping profession," she does not feel that her choices in life were limited. This job interests her, and she enjoys it: "I wanted to work with women. This was natural." Lise did comment that were she a man, she would most likely have become a lawyer involved with class-action suits. It is something that she did consider becoming, but she found that social work was closer to what she wanted to do.
Many people would class Lise as a 'supermom,' but she does not consider herself to be such because she "only work[s] part time." There has been no major change in her work life since her son's birth, Lise added - she always "assumed that I could do both [work and motherhood]." Coworkers' expectations of her might have changed slightly, because people now realize that she is not willing to work long hours or put too much extra time into work at the expense of her family. "I'm lucky, we can afford to let me work part time. Not everyone has that advantage, and some people see a working mother as a person who has her career at the expense of her kids. As if it is selfish for a mother to have her own desires and to go after them. But I don't think this is true - my job makes me happy, and I am a better parent because I am happy."
Lise feels that this pressure to stay at home and be a homemaker comes from older people, members of her parents' generation. Lise's mother never worked outside the home. Lise feels as though her mother's identity was "tied up in being Mom - she had other interests, but not on the level of professional interests, because she couldn't or didn't spend the time and energy that a career would have needed. And that is something that I think she is still struggling with, especially since all of [her children] have left."
"There are so many things that I use that I don't even consider to be technology," says Lise. In her working environment she makes use of a computer, a phone, a fax machine - items that have radically changed the manner in which people carry out business. "Where I would have called someone up on the phone five days in advance and asked them to send me some papers through the mail I now just call them up an hour ahead and ask them to fax me a copy." An immediate style of business was born. It is now possible to carry out transactions or communicate in ways that were not dreamed of ten years ago. Technology has altered the role of all people in business, not just women. In family life and at home, Lise uses household appliances, a car, a phone, and a home computer. Many of these items have become such a large part of our lives that we do not even consider functioning without them - especially machines like the microwave, dishwasher, and clothes washer. The speed of life has changed not only in the workplace but at home - on television we see working moms packing lunches for children before going to work. Mothers are now expected to be at home for children as well as hold a career, and the expectations have not changed or lessened for either job. What is considered "clean" and what is "acceptable" have changed, creating new challenges for women in every household. "I feel like I have two jobs sometimes," Lise says. "It's hard to balance both but I wouldn't give it up."
Different social and economic communities have different levels of technology available to them. Women in poorer areas might not have access to the computers and email and fax technology that other women use. Lise believes that these are factors in the perceptions that different women have about technology and their place in relation to it; education and age also play strong roles. She related the story of a coworker who is in her mid-fifties and who is "almost technophobic - she just learned how to check her voicemail and I don't think I have ever seen her at a computer." Generational values and mannerisms can have a strong part in the way that different women see technology and their own involvement with technology.
Also tied into the issue of generational differences, Lise remarked upon the changing social climate in the past 150 years. In the Victorian Era women were expected to be the nurturers and caretakers - the nucleus of a family. "Of course this was different for lower class women, as they were expected to do the work for the upper class," Lise said, but most women were raised to "believe that it was improper to have a role outside the home." As people spread out and began to move out of cities into suburbs, technology developed for people to move easily from one area to another. The rise of streetcars and automobiles facilitated leaving the house, which, when combined with changing social attitudes, gave women a chance to participate in the world outside of the home. "Women's identities were closely linked with what they did for the family, but this started to change."
When thinking of women's roles with technology and how social positions or attitudes have controlled the way in which women function in society, we began to talk about medical and reproductive technology. Lise is now pregnant with her second child, and she has found that the medical community is almost hesitant to have anything to do with her (other than prenatal care) because of her pregnancy. "Almost all drug testing is done on men. Practically no testing is done with women, and especially not pregnant women," Lise told me. As a result of this, women carrying unborn children are extremely vulnerable, and often fear unforseen side effects of common drugs. These drugs have not been tested for possible side effects on pregnant women or their unborn children.
Lise feels that reproductive health research policies and birth control regulations are highly politicized. She illustrated the extreme control lawmakers have over reproductive technology with the example of RU486. RU486 is a birth control method that has been legal and used for over 10 years in Europe with no major side effects. Legislators have been hesitant to allow the FDA "even the chance to make it legal" in the United States.
"All reproductive technology is geared towards women, which can be both a positive and a negative thing," says Lise. "This gives a woman control over the situation, but it also gives all the responsibility to the woman. We are the ones who have to deal with the consequences of a pregnancy." Most of the medical profession who research and investigate reproductive technology are men. She wonders "if there is a correlation between that and the fact that most contraceptive methods are dependent upon the woman. A lot of [this type of technology] is so invasive. It makes me feel uneasy."
Politics are too deeply involved in the social fabric of this country to pull out of the discussion. Lise believes that the political system has taken a strong stance "against reproductive freedom, against family planning. Why don't we put money into preventing unwanted pregnancy? The cost of these things to our society is too large to ignore." Federal funding for reproductive technology research has been "under attack for over 15 years." When I asked if Lise thought that encouraging women to enter into research of reproductive technology would help solve some of the problems, she was not sure. "It's a matter of changing attitudes. There must be some way to put more of the actual responsibility [for contraceptive technology] into the hands of men."
How do these political and social roles pass from one community to the next? How are ideas communicated within a society, and where do social values come from? Where do stereotypes propagate? "The media has played a large role in how our society views women. I recognize that men play a larger role in the home now - and some advertisements gear their message towards that, towards men as caretakers. But there are still products that are aimed directly at women, like most household things, and products aimed at men [like cars and stereos]." Lise told me about when she bought her car: "the salesman kept turning to [my husband] and talking to him. I finally said bluntly that it was my car and I was going to be making the decision. While I might consult my husband, and he had opinions that I wanted to hear, I was making the decision. When I said as much to the salesman, he started to talk to me. But I had to come right out and say that directly to him."
It is common to blame the faceless, nameless 'media' for all of the problems that we experience in society. While a lot of the criticism is unfounded or unreasonable, there are media-enforced social roles. Lise's mental picture (from television and magazines) of women in relation to technology is one in which women are mothers, homemakers, childcare providers. "You don't picture a woman wearing a hard hat on a construction site, sitting at a computer, [or] doing manual labor." When I inquired into the origin of these mental guidelines, Lise said that she believes a good part of it comes from childhood and the experiences that children have. Her own experience in a fifth grade math class, she believes, led directly to her insecurity in math and science. "I know that I have those logical and critical thinking skills, I've used them in my job. But I became convinced that I was not a math or science person back in elementary school. I hated those classes. I took them and worked hard to please my parents and so that I could get into a good college, not because I liked them." Some people have decided that single sex classes are the answer to this problem, and that new surroundings might change the socially instilled feeling young girls have to avoid math and science. Lise considers this idea "a possibility. I wonder if I had been in a different environment, a more supportive environment, if I would have changed my perspective."
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last updated 10/18/98