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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Willie Snow Ethridge, December 15, 1975. Interview G-0024. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Lack of sexual knowledge while growing up

Ethridge discusses the ways in which sex was discussed (or not discussed) while she was growing up in Macon, Georgia. Ethridge explains that her mother never discussed sex with her while she was a child and she recalls her embarrassment when she still did not know where babies came from at the age of twelve. According to Ethridge, this lack of sexual knowledge was quite typical for that era. In addition, Ethridge explains that most women she knew had never had sex outside of marriage and that in her entire life she had only known two women who "went wrong."

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Willie Snow Ethridge, December 15, 1975. Interview G-0024. 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

LEE KESSLER:
Was your mother an easy person to talk with?
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
Oh yes, she was very … you mean, for me to talk with? No, as far as talking to me about … anything to do with sex, that was never breathed in our life; never knew the word, I never heard the word. I knew no meanings about… People think I'm kidding when I say I never knew the word "intercourse" until just a few years ago. It's the gospel truth; I always just thought it chatting [laughter] . When I tell people this they look at me absolutely aghast and think I'm making it up. And I wish to God I was, but I never… No, and I know nothing about such things; it's just unbelievable.
LEE KESSLER:
Now what did your mother tell you before you got married?
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
She didn't tell me anything. She said when I got married I must be very careful every morning, and get up and dress and be as neat about the house as if I was going to work at the Macon Telegraph. [laughter] That was about it.
LEE KESSLER:
That was it?
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
As far as I remember, that was it. No, and she certainly never took me aside and discussed anything about sex. When I was growing up she always, of course, told me I must, you know, not let a man touch me in any way or hold my hand or kiss me, or anything like that; I thought that was the height of indecency. And that was as far as she got.
LEE KESSLER:
When you started to mature physically and hit puberty, was it a shock?
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
Yes, it came as a great shock to me. And I remember (my ignorance was so apalling), I was in the sixth grade of grammar school when they were discussing (we must have been studying some kind of biology of some sort—in the sixth grade it must have been very light biology), and people were getting up telling about people with handicaps or something, or deformed. And I got up and told about seeing this woman with her stomach poking out. And everybody in the sixth grade just laughed and laughed, and I didn't know what … I had no idea what I had done. The sixth grade! Think how old I was, twelve at least. I had no idea babies came from inside people, twelve years old. And on the way home from school one of my friends told me what I had done, that babies were born inside of you. And you can see how ignorant I was.
LEE KESSLER:
You didn't grow up on a farm, then, at all?
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
No, no, I grew up in Macon, Georgia. I was born in Savannah, as you know, but then I moved to Macon when I was about seven or eight years old. My mother never discussed anything, and I never knew it. I can't imagine how stupid I could be.
LEE KESSLER:
Well, I've heard stories from my own mother [laughter].
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
Well, isn't it amazing? I didn't know anything. And I'm so shocked, of course, at the morals today that I just can't understand it, I really can't. The young, the fact that they're living together, you know, not only having that word intercourse (which is so new to me [laughter] ) with people they're not married to: this did not go on when we were young. I know your mother's told you this. I mean, and everybody was a virgin. I remember when two girls in Macon, Georgia "went wrong", as we said. It just caused a sensation; people just talked about it and talked about it, and the girls were absolutely cast into outer darkness.
LEE KESSLER:
Well, do you mean that they just weren't virgins, or that they were pregnant.
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
Yes, they were pregnant. Nobody would have known otherwise; that was something you would have hidden so carefully.
LEE KESSLER:
What happened to the girls afterwards?
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
One of them's still living in Macon, Georgia, but her father got the man to marry her. And the other one, I don't know what happened to her; she just was too far out in limbo [laughter] for anybody to be interested. That was just unbelievable. No, I've only known two girls in my life that I knew about that "went wrong," as we said. Isn't that something? It's a big span; I've lived a long, long time.
LEE KESSLER:
Attitudes have really changed.
WILLIE SNOW ETHRIDGE:
And men, I don't think, tried to take advantage of women like they do now. I mean, I never had a beau who tried to take advantage of me in any way. I think maybe they were more … conscious of their obligation to be gentlemen.