Oral History and Feminist Knowledge Production

Interview with Emma Robitaille: On Catholicism, Feminism, and Becoming

I chose to interview my friend and fellow Oxy student, Emma Robitaille. Emma is currently a Senior, and is double majoring in Media Arts & Culture and Spanish. She is also involved with Project SAFE as a Programming Assistant. When choosing to interview Emma, I was interested in this aspect of her presence on campus. I was also interested in exploring various points of overlap in our upbringings. I felt eager to expand on the various casual conversations we have had throughout our friendship regarding womanhood and feminism, and dive deeper into the life of a friend I deeply admire. 

Emma cited her relationship with her mother as extremely formative and central to her growth. While attending middle and high school at a private school in suburban Cincinnati where her mother taught, she found that the proximity allowed for both of them to nurture their bond even further. Emma noted that this was especially magnified because by her early teens, she had chosen to spend less time with her Dad (her parents remained separated throughout her entire life, and officially divorced when Emma was eleven). She explained this dynamic, saying, “It was really great having my Mom be a teacher at my school... I had a lot of trouble with like, girls and just like girl drama in general--so I spent a lot of time in my Mom’s office like crying and unpacking my emotions with her… Primarily I spent time with Trish, my Mom.” It was clear to me that over the course of Emma’s adolescent life, her most significant feminist influence was her Mom. However, later in the interview she noted that her Mom often avoided speaking about politics in an attempt to protect Emma from backlash from her conservative father (although Emma did definitively identify her Mom as a Feminist). I found this to be particularly important, because in our study of oral history as a Feminist methodology, we have found that the value of the form lies not exclusively in factual measures of the past, but in how one decodes and makes sense of their lived experience. In Daniel James’ piece entitled “Doña Maria’s Story: Life History, Memory, and Political Identity”, he explores the rich tension between historically accurate retelling and contextual inference. He argues, “we have to learn to read these stories and the symbols and logic embedded int hem if we are to attend to their deeper meaning and do justice to the complexity found in the lives and historical experiences of those who recount them,” (124). I found this to be particularly relevant to this aspect of my interview, because Emma’s clear identification of her mother’s feminist ideologies—regardless or whether or not they were explicitly identified as such at the time—is where the power of her experience lies. 

Emma also had a similar experience with a friend of her Mom’s, who came up in our interview when Emma was discussing her Catholic Confirmation. She explained, “She has very conservative views. And to me, I’m like, you were such a big part of my life, and you were such an empowering female figure, but we disagree so intensely.” The disparity between how we recall the facts of our lives versus how we make sense of them is one theme that Emma arrived at independent of any of my theoretical applications. When I asked Emma whether or not her Mom’s friend would identify as a feminist, Emma responded, “I want to say that she would, because… we’ve had so many conversations about like, reproductive rights and just like, the rights of a woman… this is why like, I didn’t understand that she was a conservative… because of the conversations [we were having].” 

Correspondingly, one other central theme that shaped Emma’s narrative was her upbringing through religion. Raised Catholic, she cited both tension and affinity with the church throughout her childhood. During our interview, it became apparent to me how her relationship with Catholicism deeply influenced her understanding of gender and feminism. In her initial recounting of her early life—within minutes of the start of the interview—she mentioned the conflict her and her mother experienced with the Catholic church she grew up attending. She pointed to the prominence of religion throughout her Mom’s upbringing, while also pointing to obvious points of hostility. She explained, “I was raised Catholic, my Mom raised me Catholic, but we did have kind of a weird relationship with the Church because my Mom was a single Mom. But my Mom tried to be as involved with it as possible. We ended up leaving when I was about 13, just because there was a lot of controversy about whether or not my Mom, as a divorced woman and a single parent could be a leader of some of the trips… they were like ‘Mmm, we feel uncomfortable with you leading our children, our children of God’.” 

The intersection between gender and religion continued to unfold as an important facet of Emma’s early childhood. When bringing up the intergeneration similarities between her relationship with Catholicism and her Mom’s, she explained “My Mom grew up in a really strict Catholic family. She was the second out of six, and like, the girls were treated very differently than the boys… My Mom was always getting in trouble for doing the same thing the boys were doing, like staying out and like having boyfriends… And because of this she has a very strict set of self-imposed rules. I kind of saw her growing up with that for herself.” In this situation, Emma identified religion in its function as an essential tool in defining categories of gender. As Joan W. Scott defined in her piece entitled, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis”,  gender can be understood a social construct imposed on a sexed body. Gender also serves as a tool to understand and observe our social world and the construction of power differentials within it. Religion as a prominent tool of policing came up once again when Emma was discussing her own experience with Catholic practices. She said, “Reconciliation scared the shit out of me. Especially because like, we did it with our parents, and my Mom got like, yelled at on the altar by the priest because she was confessing her sins… it had something to do with my Dad, and she got yelled at for being, like, a bad wife. And I remember sitting there and doing my Hail Mary’s that he told me to do, and my Mom’s getting sternly spoken to on the altar.” 

I would argue that Catholicism not only influenced conceptions of gender throughout Emma’s narrative, but also sexuality. When discussing her early schooling, an anecdote surfaced about an experience in her abstinence-only sex education class. She described how her teacher asked each student to fill a cup with water, then walk around and pour their own water in other students’ cups. This experiment acted as an analogy for purity, as her teacher also claimed that this could be understood as the accurate way that sexually transmitted infections are passed from person to person.  Emma described her reaction to this experiment as, “I remember being like, okay… I guess I can’t have sex until marriage… I was a very anxious child in general. Catholicism did not help with my anxiety, because I was already like ‘the world’s going to end’—and that consumed most of my age ten to twelve nighttime thoughts. And then they introduced STD’s and I was like, ‘Well, fuck. I’m definitely going to get one if I talk to anyone. And it’s going to ruin my life.’” This sentiment relates to Chrys Ingraham’s “Thinking Straight”, and her belief that various official and unofficial structures define one’s relation to heteropatriarchy. In this case, religion—specifically the Catholic Church and its deployment of biologically inaccurate abstinence-based sex education—acted as an institution that reinforced heterosexism within Emma’s life. 

Ultimately, Emma vocalized a confidence in her Feminist reconciliation with her Catholic upbringing, saying, “I think that once I turned about like, fourteen, just realizing that my personal views really conflicted with the church was also when I was coming into just, me as a woman and me as a girl, and just realizing how females have historically supported me in my life. I wouldn’t have been where I was in that moment without women. I just always felt like I was comfortable about women, that they had been particularly formative to me.” Later in the interview she built on this, saying, “In considering myself a Feminist I think it’s very much so because I was kind of like, grown and nourished and raised in a matriarchal system, that being like my Mom and my Mom’s female friends and my Bita [maternal grandmother].” 
Through this interview, I was able to highlight some of the immensely intimate and emotional work that has influenced my own considerations of the world. My interview with Emma was incredibly rich, engaging, even at times hilarious. She often layered her own complex commentary with perceptive irony and humor (for example, when discussing the tension she felt with her conservative family and peers during the 2008 Presidential Election, she claimed: “I was like, ‘I don’t understand why Barack Obama is the devil… they never said that in church. I feel like I would’ve remembered if they had said Barack Obama is the devil’.”) I am incredibly grateful for her immense humility and vulnerability, as well as her willingness to share her stories with me. I have found that throughout my life, the emergence and growth of my feminist consciousness has been fostered through my many transformative female friendships. Arriving at Occidental and choosing to pursue an academic path that is greatly influenced by the academic work of women, I have nonetheless found that my feminist praxis continues to be informed by the emotional and intellectual labor that the women in my own life have offered me.

Works Cited:

Ingraham, C. (2013). Thinking Straight The Power, Promise and Paradox of Heterosexuality. Florence: Taylor and Francis.

James, D. (2000). Doña Marías story: life history, memory, and political identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Scott, J. W. (1986). Gender: a useful category of historical analysis. Washington: American Historical Association.

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