Documenting the American South Logo
oral histories of the American South
Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Factors in becoming an advocate for women's equality

Gerber describes the forces in her life that led her to advocate for women's equality. According to Gerber, growing up in a liberal home, the emergence of a more discernible women's movement in the 1960s, her experiences as a physical education teacher, and her sexuality were all important factors in contributing to her awareness of women's inequality. She concludes by highlighting pay equity—or the lack thereof—as the most pressing issue women still faced in the 1990s when the interview was conducted.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Ellen W. Gerber, February 18 and March 24, 1992. Interview C-0092. 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

KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
After listening to the tapes, one of the things that really struck me, this is moving away from your childhood, but that is the issue of your interest in women's issues kept popping up over and over again. I was wondering what, was it a childhood experience or just the way you were raised or your educational experiences? What made you so passionate about that particular area because I know today there are so many women who are apathetic or feel powerless or just don't - you know, why was that?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
Well, it's hard to put my finger on it, but there are two things that probably are relevant here. One is that I was brought up in liberal environment so when I was faced with the reality that women were put down in many ways, it was a shock to me. I didn't sort of just accept it because you know, it's like carrying a very heavy weight. The old story of the Greek who carries the calf. As the calf grows, he can take on the weight, take on the weight; you don't notice so much if the change is gradual. But for me it was sudden to realize what was going on and when I was in, probably it was the early 60s when Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique came out. That really put a name and a face and a understanding to, you know, sort of set out what the reality so that I was able to use my intellectual skills to understand. Thirdly, I was in a field, physical education, where in those days it was still segregated. Women's physical education and men. The gym classes were separate. That was changed, of course, by a law in the middle 70s. When I grew up they were separate and the teachers of course then were all women teachers and I went to a school that educated women to be physical educators. So I was in a group of women who all were professional and strong. So it was important to me to contrast that again with the world at large and see that women could be that way and why shouldn't we fight for it? Then finally, and I don't know, it's appropriate I think at this point for me to say I'm a lesbian. And so I identify with women and I see them as equal to anybody in the world and [I] lived a life of equality. I don't see any reason why everybody else shouldn't have that opportunity if they want to. I can see that as something to fight for.
KRISTEN L. GISLASON:
What problems do you feel are the most serious facing women today — the ones that are still unaddressed or under-addressed?
ELLEN W. GERBER:
There is no question that we have not resolved the basic issue of pay equity. That's really, women are never going to be equal if they can't earn salaries commensurate with their skills. I don't know how much you've studied about pay equity personally, but for example, women who take care of children like in a daycare center or kindergarten are paid so much less than let's say zookeepers who take care of the animals. You think of the difference in the skill level and when they do these pay equities, that's the kind of thing they look at. What skill is demanded, what training, what education; and the idea is that jobs that require skills, training, and education should be paid more and jobs like collecting garbage by contrast are paid less because they require no training, no skill, no education. So you look at the jobs that have been handled by women such as working with young children which should be one of the most important functions of our society and those people are paid less. Librarians, another very important job, most librarians are women; so librarians get paid practically nothing. But it used to be when men cleaned buildings or garbage trucks, they would get salaries twice as much in any given city than the city would pay its librarians. So that's what I'm talking about when I talk about pay equity and I think that's a real important problem. I think the family issues and how to resolve them has made a lot of progress in the last decade or 20 years. It has got a long way to go still. I think men still think they are helping out. A good man is a man that really helps out a lot.