Belinda grew up living in Washington DC during the Civil Rights Movement. A majority of her extended family lived in North Carolina. Her family was one of the first to move out of the south and go to DC, and also where she spent a great deal of her childhood. When asking her about the Civil Rights Movement, she recalls the cultural differences she experienced as a kid between DC and North Carolina.
“Civil Rights Movement, wow it was different. It was, I guess we were trying to make a place. Our ancestors were trying to make a place for us to grow up. You know, I can remember thinking, I went to school in DC but then I would go to North Carolina all the time, and there was a difference between being in DC and being in North Carolina. ..My Uncle Vernon who lives in North Carolina, he got TB, only one of his kids got TB from him, but every year we would have to go to Jackson, which is the biggest city, and go to the health department and get tested. I will never forget that when you go into the courthouse there were two bathrooms one said “white” and one said “colored.” Those kinds of things, you put them in the back, but it was hard.”
She continued on, recalling how segregated public places like school and the movie theatres were while visiting North Carolina.
When asking about her education and experience in the coastguard, she explained she thoroughly enjoyed working her way up.
“I worked my way up, I didn’t go to college I didn’t aspire to go to college. I was more on the path of business and working so I could support the kids and I felt like that was more important for me to do. I always felt the coastguard is a small service, and what they did for me was more important than to be another number at other agencies.”
Belinda started at the coastguard as a clerk typist and after 39 years of work was able to become executive assistant to the chief of staff. After retiring, she dedicates most of her time now to a family owned business providing tax software and services. She explained that although there are rewards to being a small business owner, it takes a lot of self discipline to set your own goals and write your own paycheck. She continued, saying the most important part of working is a genuine passion for what you are doing.
“Grandad had a passion for it, he said he was tired of working for somebody else and he quit his job to start this, and now we’ve been doing it for 35 years. So, you know you’ve got to have that passion. And you’ve got to go into something you like, not just something you wanna just try, it’s gotta be a passion that you like.”
When asking Belinda what she thought of as the gender norms in society while she was growing up, she began to list all too familiar stereotypes.
“Girls, you did the cleaning, the cooking, the watching the kids and those kinds of roles. And you would be pushed to the back. If we look at it right now we got the first female vice president, we didn’t get those aspirations, we weren’t taught to do that. And for males it was like, “You’re gonna be the breadwinner, make more money, get the higher education,” that’s what most males would do. You know then, “When are you gonna get married? What kind of person are you gonna get to take care of the house and take care of the kids?” You know things like that, that’s how we grew up.”
Hearing this, I began to think of all the reasons why the white patriarchy would want women to stay home and be financially dependent, so they could control them. This reminded me of bell hooks passage in her book, “Feminism is for Everybody”, when she talks about the idea of work liberating women from male domination. Hooks explains, “Positively we do know that if a woman has access to economic self-sufficiency she is more likely to leave a relationship where male domination is the norm when she chooses liberation. She leaves because she can. Lots of women engage feminst thinking, choose liberation, but are economically tied to the patriarchal males in ways that make leaving difficult if not downright impossible.” This reinforces the stereotypes of men being the “breadwinner” while women work at home and have no way to individually financially support themselves are so crucial to male domination and control.
I was then curious to ask Belinda what she believed the differences were for white women and black women during the rising feminist movements of the 60’s and 70’s.
“I’m looking at the kind of jobs that my aunts had and my cousins had, like one was a seamstress at a pajama factory, a couple of them worked at the pajama factory. You know compared to what other women were doing, they had more of the executive jobs you know than the other women. Only the black women who were fortunate enough to get education could go on to be teachers, it wasn’t a lot. There were not a lot of role models. There were not a lot of women role models, more of the teachers were men. It’s really sad to say I guess we were just doing the homebody things we were taught to do.”
After reading Audre Lordes, “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” I began to understand the true detriment of not acknowledging the intersectionality race plays within the Feminist Movement. Lorde explains, “By and large within the women’s movement today, white women focus upon their oppression as women and ignore differences of race, sexual preference, class, and age. There is a pretense to a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist.” Later in the reading she continues by saying, “Now we must recognize the differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior or superior, and devise ways to use each others’ differences to enrich our visions and our joint struggles. The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference.” This reading really emphasised the importance of identifying the widely different forms of oppression white women face in comparison to women of color.
I then wanted to ask Belinda about how she felt women of color were represented in the media.
“Let’s see it in the media.. I’m looking at black women in movies.. They worked at bars, they were the cooks in movies, they were the house cleaners in movies, the babysitters. They were strippers and you know things like that.”
These roles Belinda described reminded me of Dr. Stacey Smith’s study, “The Ticket to Inclusion: Gender & Race/Ethnicity of Leads and Financial Performance Across 1,200 Popular Films,” in which she concludes, “Women of color are less likely to be seen in sequels, action, or sci-fi/fantasy movies which can be some of the most lucrative cinematic properties. Until movies starring women of color are given the support that is granted to films with white male leads, it is difficult to ascertain whether differences in economic performance are due to lack of support or to real biases in audience attendance.” Women of color starring in less important and more demeaning roles leads to there being no representation for women of color, but also does not allow women of color to make as much money in the film industry.
Talking with Belinda and doing this oral history project has been an extremely eye-opening experience. To speak with someone who grew up during such an important and critical period is a privilege. I was surprised by some of her responses; she seemed to keep a positive tone and usually finished answering a question by talking about how we have improved as a society. I appreciated this positive outlook and envied her ability to see the glass as half full. Learning about the intersectional struggles that black women deal with, I acknowledge my privilege as a white woman and realize the importance of sharing and listening to these stories.
Listen to Belinda’s full interview below:
Lorde, Audre “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference” April 1980
Hooks, Bell. Feminism is For Everybody: Passionate Politics. Pluto Press, 2000.
Dr. Smith, Stacy L. “The Ticket to Inclusion: Gender & Race/ Ethnicity of Leads and Financial Performance Across 1,200 Popular Films.” February 2020