Lorraine Rudowski has worn a number of hats throughout her life: sister, daughter, mother, nurse, wife, professor and grandmother. This woman, my grandmother, taught me everything I needed to know in life. Everything from when to keep my mouth shut to how to tell someone, only when necessary of course, to “fuck off” politely. She is a woman of integrity and has more drive than anyone I have ever met. I decided to interview my grandmother because I knew that she had a variety of experiences in her lifetime, especially being the wife of a man in the Foreign Service and traveling for much of her adult life. Due to her recent development of Alzheimer’s disease my family asked me if “I really thought she was the right person to interview.” To this I responded with a wholehearted yes. The interview was a little rockier than I had hoped and some of her information (dates, locations, etc.) was shaky but my grandmother, as she has always done, gave me her best.
She was born in 1929 and raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts. She grew up with her mother, father and two sisters. When asking my first couple of questions about gender expectations in the household she told me that she was expected to follow the rules, all the rules, there were no exceptions. Because there were no boys in her family I asked her about being a girl in her community, and what that meant at that time. She told me that she and the other girls received a lot of respect from the boys in her area, not like today where you see all this hoopla about harassment and such. I asked her about her first job, and whether she was paid or not. She explained that she had a wonderful singing voice (in the most modest way one can say that about themselves) and that because of this she had a radio show on Sunday evenings where she would sing with another young man. She was paid minimal for this work but she believes that was a product of the times and not because she was a woman. After she graduated from high school she moved to Connecticut to live with her aunt and uncle, she was 18 at the time. She started working at a bank and was paid for the work she did there. I asked if there were men working at this bank as well, trying to get a feel for whether or not this was a typical job for a woman to do, but she informed me that there were in fact men working there as well.
When I brought up the issue of gender bias in the work place she told me that she did not experience any of that, she said the environment in which she worked was pleasant. So I followed that with a question asking her if she believed there is a difference in being a woman in the workforce today as opposed to when she was working. She explained that she believed there was definitely a bigger difference for women today and that she thinks men in this time period are more aware that women are fully capable of replacing them at work, this she stated “is not a happy feeling I’m sure.” My grandmother continued to say that some women are probably content with the under representation of their gender in the workforce, however there are definitely women who are very aware of it and very unhappy about it.
The next couple of questions I asked were about her family life, for example when she got married. My grandmother was married at the age of 18. I asked her why she chose to get married that young in which she responded that my grandfather’s mother was very intent on them being together. She told me “she [my grandfather’s mother] really picked me out, in fact I was living with my aunt and she said you are to come and live with me.” She had her first child at the age of 19; I quickly asked her if having children this early was something women did during that time. I say quickly because my grandmother has a tendency to go on a completely different tangent when talking about her children, this I know from asking questions about her life prior to this interview. She told me yes, that women typically had children at a young age because they didn’t normally attend college like they do today. She told me that she had gone to college for a small period of time in Hartford, Connecticut and that even though a lot of her classmates were men, it was a coeducational school so there were also women, but a limited number.
I wanted to know if she raised her children with gender expectations in mind. Her response was pretty straightforward, “you always do that, you expect boys to be stronger and more willing to help, and you expect girls to follow the line of the mother and help you around the house and in schooling, you expected her to look for female potential for a job in other words you wouldn’t pick up a hammer or shovel.” This was interesting to hear though, because of what I know about the childhood of my aunts and uncles prior to this interview. She may have thought she was raising her children with gender expectations but because my grandfather was normally at work or traveling because of his job my uncles did help around the house. My uncles have told me many times before that they all know how to sew. This is because when they were living in Africa, shopping malls weren’t really at their disposal so they had to sew their own clothes. My mom and aunt, the only girls in the five children my grandmother had, didn’t really do any heavy lifting, so maybe that is what she was referring to, but the boys definitely took part in chores on both ends of the gender spectrum.
I wanted to know what it was like for her during World War II and Vietnam. She told me that her personal experience during WWII as a woman was not really any different because of her gender. However, with Vietnam, she did feel that being a woman contributed to some of the things she dealt with. A major aspect of this was being married to a man in the army. She said that her and the other wives always had a feeling that their husband would be called next. I’m sure the men also had the same feelings but it was the women who would be home with the children while their life partner was somewhere in a war zone. She did mention that because my grandfather was older at this time he was not involved in any combat but was called to go after the war. When I asked her about being a woman during the civil rights movement she at first told me that she wasn’t in the same area as that was going on, that she was in Washington (one of the shakier parts of the interview). She followed this, however, by saying “it was difficult for them [the women] to accept it. Number one they wanted it [civil rights] but how to work it in responsibility with men was very difficult for women at that period of time. Some of them [the women] were extremely arrogant and that made it difficult for them and some of them were extremely, not weak, but not wanting to stand up and say look I’m a woman, I can do what you do, a lot of women that did that didn’t get a good response from it.”
Towards the end of the interview I started to notice that she was getting a little bit tired and wanted to try and wrap it up and ask her about her thoughts of younger women today. My grandmother believes that younger women today have a much better opportunity than they did at her age. She noted that this is especially true with continuing on in school, that didn’t really happen in her time. When I asked her about the difference in expectations she said that women in her time were expected to do the cooking and the cleaning and the rearing of the children, as opposed to today, where women are expected to find jobs and get babysitters. I asked her what she thought about the hopes and dreams of women today and she said that we should try and immerse ourselves in politics and change what we want to be changed. Confused, I asked her if she thought all the younger women of today have these hopes and dreams and she said no, so I went on to ask if she believed that was a bad thing. This is where the interview ended, her answer to my last question was “no, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I think people with special attitudes and [people] that haven’t been raised in that way [to want to get involved] then they wouldn’t be looking at that [getting into politics] but you can’t stand still…your generation, you’re not supposed to stand still.”
The interview overall went better than I had expected. I wish my grandmother would have gone deeper into her life a little bit more, but I made the decision not to push too hard. I believe that in her younger years my grandmother wasn’t really aware of how gender differences play such a large role in society, but I think she realizes it more now. I think she believes that she raised her children with gender expectations but at the same time didn’t realize that she was also pushing the boundaries with them. In the end, I was incredibly glad that I got to interview my grandmother on this topic because her answers were definitely different than I would have expected. I expected more feminist answers than the ones she provided because that is how I have pictured her, but I think that is important. Like the Ted Talk we watched on having one story of people. You may think one way about a person but after getting to know them in a different way, such as interviewing, you get to witness a whole other side.
- Tayler D'Alelio