On November 13, 2018 I was given the chance to interview a woman named Anne Shapiro. Anne is a retired accounted who taught my grandmother to speak English up until last year when my grandma past away. Together we discussed her life in detail, she held nothing back, and we examined her life through the lens of the broader context of the history of women in the U.S.
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Anne is the second of two children. She has a brother who is thirteen months older than her. She was born in Chicago in 1942 to educated parents from very different backgrounds who provided models for interesting lives without undue deference to cultural norms. During her lifetime, Anne, a white woman, continued the ways of the middle class she was brought up with by her parents. She grew up in a neighborhood where 100% of the residents were born in America, 100% of them were white, and 90% were Jewish. Anne is now 76, divorced and living in Pasadena to be closer to her only child and her brother. While Anne’s family lived up to the cultural norms of the 40’s and 50’s where the woman stayed at home and the man went to work, they did not preach this lifestyle. She had a liberal upbringing and yet she was not involved in many of the women’s movements going on at the time. After hearing about Anne’s experiences, I see that I can put them in conversation with the historical context of Women’s education, sexual division of labor in the U.S., and the birth control movement.
Anne’s father missed the first two years of her life because he was enlisted in WWII. He was sent to pacific as a doctor specializing in orthopedic surgery with the Marine Corps and landed on Tarawa and Saipan — two really terrible battles of war and he was on front lines doing surgery on the wounded rather than shooting. He probably suffered PTSD but that was not a term then. Anne recalls how the war affected her family by saying; “It interrupted my parents life—my mother with the fear of the death of her husband and taking care of two babies alone; my father with the experience of terrible battles.” He was 41 in 1945 and just beginning a life that had been interrupted for the war years. Anne’s mother was a college educated nurse but never worked after having children. As a result of the Great Depression when her parents were growing up the family’s political views were very liberal but not to the extreme of being communists. This allowed their children, especially their daughter Anne to have a life that many women of her generation could not. This was a mindset shared by the majority of her extended family including a female cousin who graduated from Yale Law School in 1951 when no women went to law school.
The Shapiro family was fortunate enough to have money so that both children could go to college. Her brother became a general surgeon graduating from Johns Hopkins University. Due to her gender Anne was not pushed to enter the medical field by her parents. They did want her to go to college but she did not have the same pressure as her brother to become a doctor or even enter the scientific field, which at the time was dominated by men. Chemist Betty Lou Raskin addressed this idea in a 1958 address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She blamed “cultural conditioning and poor vocational guidance” (Raskin 1958) for women’s lack of interest in scientific careers. Anne received her BA from the University of Michigan, MA from University California, Berkeley, MBA from State University of NY Buffalo, and CPA from New York State. In 1963, when she graduated from Michigan, there were limited job opportunities for women but she did not work at the time and chose to be a stay at home mom. By the time she completed her MBA/CPA in 1981 most fields were in process of opening up for women but as we know a slow process indeed.
Anne was never involved in women’s organization but is very supportive of them. She even says; “I was not personally involved in formal organizations such as women’s organizations, environmental organizations but always supported/worked for liberal causes.” While at Berkley she did participate in civil rights movement. She was part of the very first sit in and was arrested with 800 other Berkeley students in 1964. The movement was about civil rights. They asserted that, under free speech they were allowed to hand out literature on campus to protest racial segregation in Oakland California. The University said it was private property and they could not hand out the literature. 800 students were arrested led by Mario Savio. After being arrested Anne met her future husband on their way to jail and in the end, they won the court case. She says it was her choice to stay home and raise her child that stopped her from participating in the women’s movement because she felt was not in the position to do both at the same time.
The division of labor in middle class home in the 40’s and 50’s was defined by cultural norms and Anne’s family followed this pattern: stay at home mother; working father and no divorce. She was very adamant that I know “They lived the model but did not “preach” the model.” Her mother was tall, thin and considered by all the kids elegant and extremely pretty. She was educated and read all the time, something unusual for women at that time. For Anne having a child had little impact on work because she chose to be stay at home mom for 7 years and her husband was a professor of literature who did all his professional writing at home so there was home care after she went to work. Her husband arranged his classes for when their daughter was in school so that he can be home with her when Anne was at work. Anne and her husband shared everything financially and generally agreed on how to allocate money. Although they had a very modern household their home was still somewhat affected by the traditional roles of the 50’s. Anne cooked and kept the “house going” though she and her husband shared more responsibilities for their daughter than fathers of the 50’s. Especially Anne’s own father who was old when he had children, war weary and working very hard as a doctor. Seeing as she had a lot of freedom with her parents, husband, and work life, she did not radically challenge women’s roles.
Anne worked continuously from 1981 to 2012 all in finance at Cornell University and did not face many of the problems most women of her generation had to endure at work because she started working in the 80’s when a change was taking place for women in the workplace. Anne has been very lucky to feel as though she has always been taken seriously at work and always worked for firms where she had opportunity for advancement. It is important to note this crucial fact relating to her career; “Remember, I did not pursue my last and final career (CPA) until I was 40 (1982) and by then so much had changed. Had I pursued a serious career in my 20’s there would have been many more constraints related to being a woman. I did not experience being a “woman” as a detriment to advancement except I did understand that the accounting firm rarely promoted women to senior partners.” The fact that women at her firm were rarely promoted to senior partner is sexual division of labor that is right in line with Ruth Milkman’s speculations about the division of labor during and after World War II, and how women were only hired into “specific classifications that management deemed ‘suitable’ for women and were excluded from other jobs” (Milkman, WA 537) . Anne also adds that there was no women’s work culture in any place she worked. Unfortunately, this was that harsh reality for women who worked at the time and even in some places today.
Dating was very important for Anne and her friends in the 50’s. Everyone wanted to be popular. Pre-Marital Sex was not something she and her cohorts were involved in, in high school, or college. In 1963 all of that changed with pill. The issue of “purity” disappeared before the “pill” but fear of pregnancy was very strong deterrent to pre-marital sex and abortions were still illegal. Margaret Sanger who coined the term “birth control.” In 1965, after it was legalized, as described in Beth Bailey’s “Prescribing the Pill: The Coming of the Sexual Revolution in America’s Heartland,” women were given contraceptives at public clinics only by licensed physicians and a commonly held view was that premarital sex was an immoral practice (Bailey, WA 632- 633) . Anne did not know anything about the fight to have the pill so it wasn’t shameful or difficult for her to use it when she met her husband and always saw it as an option for herself. They lived together and travelled together before marriage and she was taking birth control at that time. After a short time, she stopped taking them because the pills affected her system and so she switched to a diaphragm.
At 30, they decided to have a child and found out that she could not get pregnant due to tubal scar tissue from surgery (appendectomy) when she was 15. So, they did something that was not common for the time. They adopted a daughter. This is incredible because Ann was unable to do the only thing that the people and media at the time thought women were goof for; having children. Instead of abandoning her like many other men would have done, she and her husband adopted a child and lived a life of equality together. Historian Beth Bailey’s research has shown, that mainstream support for, and legalization of, birth control in the 1960s was hastened not so much by feminism. Rather by its connections to Cold War fears over population and Johnson’s Great Society programs that merged public health with family planning in the U.S. Anne’s recollections confirmed this insight; she did not associate birth control or herself with the feminist movement, but rather stated that as far as she could remember birth control was just always an option for her. She saw it as a convenient means of family planning which in the end she did not even need. (630).
These days Anne is modestly involved in community and political activities but none are gender specific or related to women’s role. Pro Choice is very important to her and women’s education in general and in math and science are also of great importance to her. Her family life changed with the divorce. As a woman who grew up in the 50’s, she simply never imagined she would be divorced. The most important change she has experienced is a deep understanding about “individuality”—how profoundly different each person is and the critical need to understand, accept and respect these differences. She says “the 1950’s was marked by a very narrow interpretation of how people are and what they should do. My family never actively promoted these interpretations but they were in the “air” and therefore influenced everyone.” Her views on women’s roles were always broader than the general culture because of her parents. Interviewing Anne has been very informative for me. It is true that she has not faced the typical difficulties like most women of her time, yet she has and continues to have a remarkable life. The thing I find most inspiring about Anne’s life is her openness and acceptance of people and ideas without judgement. This been an amazing experience and I hope to one day be more like her.
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