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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

A southern woman's views on the disjoint between feminism and individualism

Here, Arnow confronts declarations from others that her literary work was feminist in nature. Arnow never saw her writing as feminist and describes her views on that issue. Drawing comparisons to her earlier criticisms of proletarianism, Arnow believed that feminists tended to obscure women's individuality by focusing too much on women as a group with a collective identity. Nevertheless, she very much seems to have advocated for women's rights to choice career over family (or vice versa). Again she mentions here decision to not marry until she was in her thirties and explains that before that point, writing took precedence over any impulse to settle into domesticity.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Harriette Arnow, April, 1976. Interview G-0006. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

And then more lately I discovered, though I haven't been able to read the piece the woman wrote, that I was a feminist. I cannot believe that I am a feminist. I don't think Gertie was a faminist. What was best for her children came first. On the other hand, I'm weary of this talk of women. It's much like the old talk of the proletariat, that woman is woman, and there are no individuals, and all women are alike. It makes me both angry and sick at my stomach, because women are individuals and each should be permitted to follow her own bent, have control of her body. If a woman wants to marry and stay home and raise six children, that's her business, and never with a thought beyond the home and the church and the school. Of course, I hope too many women don't do that, because we're rapidly reaching the point in the world of overpopulation and under-food. I don't know what would happen should we have another Dust Bowl. We have no promise from the weather or God that we can go on producing enormous quantities of wheat and corn year in and year out. So I believe in planned parenthood for those who can possibly accept it. There is discrimination against women; I know that. But I also know-I think the trend is changing-that too many girls pushed on by mothers and fathers marry out of high school, and if they don't succeed in catching their men they go to college, and everybody feels they're a failure if they don't get engaged during their undergraduate years. So that too few women train themselves to do any work. If you study the statistics of degrees, you find that by far the greatest number of degrees earned by women, either undergraduate or graduate, are in education. Well, we have an oversupply of teachers, and as the salaries have gone up, more and more men are entering the field. You find more men even in elementary school. But I do think more women with a bent in any direction should plan on some life work, if they want to do it and have the brains to do it. Yet, there are many young married women doing well in the professions. I know lawyers, two physicians, school principals, and other married women with demanding jobs outside the home.
MIMI CONWAY:
But see, I think that one reason why women-"women," but anyway-are interested in you is that you managed to do both, have a family with husband and children and follow your writing. And it seems when we talked earlier, you said that when you were in your twenties and late twenties and still unmarried, that your dedication was to writing, and that the right man hadn't come along. I mean, you put it up to sort of being lucky, that you were thirty-one; I think he was thirty-five?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Thirty-one.
MIMI CONWAY:
And then you married and could pursue what amounts to a double career.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
But was it as simple as that? I mean, had you really . . .
HARRIETTE ARROW:
No. You see, I'd been writing. My first book was published when I was twenty-eight. Since that time I've published only four novels and two social histories. Now other women, most women writers are married. Look at Joyce Carol Oates. She is not only married, but she teaches at a university in Windsor. Or I know a woman who is doing extremely well as a lawyer. She got her bachelor's degree, and then when her children were getting old enough-she had three-she studied law and made a success of it. And there are many women doing both, or trying to.
MIMI CONWAY:
That's true. But you know, you talked about meeting the right man when you were thirty-one. But I mean earlier, before that, were there other men that could have been the right man, but your decision was that writing was the most important?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Yes, I wasn't eager to get married. There was no compulsion at home.
MIMI CONWAY:
The other thing was, in those years, like late twenties, another thing that a lot of women feel, in addition to a compulsion to be married, is, as they get older, they feel that their childbearing years are diminishing.
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Yes.
MIMI CONWAY:
And feel a real desire to have children, and that's very important. In those years before you got married, did you feel a strong need to have children, or did that go along with not feeling compelled to be married?
HARRIETTE ARROW:
Oh, not too often. Oh, sometimes I'd think I'd like to have children, but it was no compelling desire until about the time I married and I wanted children very much. Or perhaps until my sisters younger than I married before I did. No, two didn't; one did, and she had children. But you must remember that during the Depression, the Great Depression of the thirties, people didn't stop marrying but they waited a while, and the birth rate went way, way down, just as it has gone down during this very minor depression.