Oral History and Feminist Knowledge Production

Mary Minassians, the Artist of Motherhood

       Often, when learning about feminist theory and history in America, we learn Western ideas of what feminism looks like- “the strong independent woman who needs no man.” While this is a very legitimate vision of feminism, this does not embody all of feminism; it is solely a Western view of feminism. Through my oral history, I was able to delve deeper into what a non-white feminist holds as values to herself as an intersectional woman. Motherhood was a foundational part of her identity that empowers her as an Armenian woman. I would not have been able to come to this conclusion of the value of motherhood as an autonomous and prideful identity for women of various races and ethnicities if it was not for this oral history. Oral history is crucial to underrepresented communities and especially women, because they continue to keep their values and experiences alive through these oral histories, as they may not always have the privilege of land, unity, language, or positions to produce other sources of written scholarship about it. In this specific case, Armenians have always relied on oral histories to share our true stories of culture, as we are a transnational diasporic culture, and this oral history is a great example of a perspective I would not assume of an Armenian mother’s life.
      I interviewed Mary Minassians, an outgoing female Armenian, graphic designer, mother of two and wife. We met two hours before her daughter’s volleyball game around 4:45 at Occidental College, in the front of campus on a quiet table in the grass. Because of my personal relationship with her, I first texted her explaining my project and that I wanted to interview her to see if she would be open to meeting; she was more than willing to move forward with this project. 
       As I mentioned, I have a personal relationship with her, as her daughter, Lara, is my roommate and best friend. So, I see Mary often, spending time in her home or having meals together. I think of her as a second mother; I refer to her as “mom.” Being this close to her, I knew pieces of her life story and some of the things that are important to her and her identity. Thus, I found this to be a good opportunity to learn more about what has been most significant in her life and what has molded her to be the woman she is. Besides, Mary is known to be a very social woman who is more than willing to talk to anyone about her thoughts and experiences, and that is something I admire and wanted to highlight through this oral history. Mary and I also share a cultural identity, as we are both Armenian and come from immigrant families, her being an immigrant herself. This common identity was another factor in choosing to interview Mary, because I assumed that our conversation would revolve around that intersectional identity. This cultural commonality is a telling part of our relationship and thus this interview, because sharing such a background of a marginalized diasporic minority is special.
       Considering my positionality, I did expect her to talk more about certain things that I assumed would be essential to her life story, like being an immigrant. I was surprised, however, to understand that she centered her interview and her stories on her children, but this was the indirect intersection of her identity as a woman and an Armenian, because this reflects our strong cultural values. Then again, I should consider that being the best friend and roommate of her daughter could have played a role in her emphasizing her kids. This discussion, though, also made me realize that the idea of feminism I had in my mind stemmed from how I am shaped to understand feminism- in this Western view. She reminded me of what intersectional feminism looks like and how different that looks than the feminism the U.S. defines. 
       Mary was born on March 4, 1969, and so is 50 years old, in Tehran, Iran. She was born into an upper middle- class family and has two older brothers. She recalls having such a positive childhood, where her house was known to be the house that entertained many guests, or the “pancion” as she puts it: the place to stay when one does not have anywhere to stay. When Mary’s dad found out that a revolution was beginning, her family immediately moved. Mary came to California from Tehran, Iran in 1977, when she did not speak a lot of English but spoke Armenian and Farsi. She went to Mesrobian, an all Armenian school, where she faced the challenges of not speaking English. She then went to Schurr High School. During this time, when she was 16 years old, she went to a Homenetmen (Armenian scouts) dance, where she met her future husband, Serj, whom she was with from that point on. In 11th grade, a representative from Art Center came to their school and that was when Mary knew that Art Center was where she wanted to go, considering she had a passion for art since she was a child. She graduated high school, worked on her portfolio that year, and was then admitted to Art Center.
       After she graduated from Art Center (she assumed she was 23 or 24 years old), she got her dream job of working with Saul Bass, a legend in graphic design. At the same time, she married Serj. After doing amazing things like making the Getty Center logo at Saul Bass for three years, the Bass Yager company decided to make their designers freelance. So, she freelanced all sorts of work she loved to do, like animations for the Simpsons, for Warner Bros., and logos for companies. During this time, Mary and Serj worked on community projects together and even made a documentary together. Then, when she was 28 years old, she had her son Patrick and two years later, Lara. Since, she has been extremely active in her children’s lives. She continues to volunteer for and in their community with them, making it a tradition to go to volunteer at Lady of Armenia summer camp every summer in Armenia with Lara. She always makes sure to surround her kids with their Armenian culture and instill a love for their culture in them as well, as she has for herself. Mary’s faith with God has always been the center of her life and she continues to use that in her relationships, specifically with her husband and her children. 
        When I first asked Mary what she considered to be her identity, she said very slowly, "I'm an outspoken, sometimes maybe too much (laughs), social, mom of, mother of two, wife to, a passionate person, and loves what I do. [I am] a graphic designer, mom, cheerleader for my kids, interested in all things design, I mean all things design, everything design, and fashion." This was right after our conversation about how important her Armenian identity was to her, which was something else she emphasized as being a part of her identity. However, it is important to notice how many times she brought up her role as a mother in her response to what her identity is- four times. Mary has done amazing things in her career and in her community work, but she values her accomplishment of being a mother as something very different, something greater. This sense of pride and accomplishment in motherhood should be accounted for in feminist theory, as it is usually not, because it is not valued the same way in Western notions of feminism.  
       In Emma Gross’ “Motherhood in Feminist Theory,” she emphasizes Hays’ notion of “intensive mothering,” as the heavy work and dedication mothers put to their children and their motherhood (Gross, 270). Although she continues to expand on the concept of intensive mothering, I found her beginning arguments about the non-Western views of motherhood as feminism more relevant to my oral history. She explains that white feminists view motherhood as a “sense of loss,” while women of color “are more likely to respect their mothers’ struggles while they were keenly aware of the price their mothers had paid to survive” (Gross, 269). Mary never talked about having her children as a strength she lost in herself, but rather a pride she gained. She even explains that when her mother passed away, someone she respected so much, Lara was her comfort. Mary remembered, “My mom was my everything. Lara was my rock. She was only 8 when my mom passed, but she was my rock. Like ‘Mom, it’s okay, she’s in a good place, she’s with God. Lara’s always been Godsent.” This reveals a generational respect and value of motherhood, as Mary’s daughter is comforting her mother about Mary’s mother. Mary explained another intersection of not only her Armenian identity as a mother that puts great pride and strength in herself from her children but also her intersection of religion. She puts her strength and pride in God as well, as she later tells me that she centers herself around her faith and tries to do the same for her kids. Thus, the text analyzes how various people view the concept of motherhood and how much women of different races and ethnicities culturally value motherhood as a form of power and feminism in their strength and struggles of raising a child.
       Gross notes the perception white feminists have of the “superwoman-supermom” syndrome, where they assume all mothers feel this sense of disappointment of not accomplishing their dreams as a sacrifice for motherhood (Gross, 260-261). However, through this oral history, it is apparent that Mary was and still can pursue her dream as a graphic designer, while being a mother, devaluing this Western assumption. She confidently reminds me, “I’ve never given up what I do as a graphic designer... because I love it so much.” Right after she said this to conclude her explanation about how much her love for and career in art means to her, she immediately transitions to how proud she is of her children and to see them forming passions the way she did. This shows how she truly has been able to pursue her dreams of graphic designing and loves to do what she does, but she also holds her role as a mother as something even greater and just as prideful.
       Mary is truly empowered and inspired by her passion for her art and her children. With the greatest pride and excitement in her eyes, she says, “ Ever since they were really really young, [I would say] ‘work hard, do good work and never give up.’ With the strength of God... those three things could take you to a lot of places. And who gave me that quote? When I graduated Art Center, the speaker came and he spoke and said these three things. At my graduation, I said ‘hmm that's what I’m going to teach, that's what I’m going to instill in myself and then maybe one day my kids.’ I came home and wrote that in my diary, the diary that our art teacher gave me.”  It is apparent that even when Mary was not a mother, her passions not only fell in her career in graphic design but also something else she felt equally or more proud of that she planned for herself. The idea of her kids in the future was something she already thought about and was inspired by. Gross’ text falls along the lines of Mary’s story that embodies a more worldly notion of feminism to culturally value the feminism that motherhood represents, contrasting Western notions of feminism.
       In “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Mohanty also explores this notion of the misrepresentation of feminism by white feminists indirectly to motherhood but more concentrated in colonial discourses. She first defines colonization in this context as “focusing on a certain mode of appropriation and codification of ‘scholarship’ and ‘knowledge’ about women in the third world by particular and analytic categories employed in writings on the subject which take as their primary point of reference feminist interests as they have been articulated in the US and Western Europe” (Mohanty, 61). In other words, Mohanty argues what Mary indirectly presents in her interview that true notions of various identities of feminism are discounted in “real knowledge.” I had a challenging time understanding how Mary’s interview related to feminism since she tended to center her discussion on her children, but that is only because scholarship as we know it in the U.S. portrays women in a narrow focus, while not accurately representing those women not in the US, or the “third world women” (Mohanty, 63). Mohanty contextualizes this piece and her discussion of third world women not only to the women living in those countries but also to the women whose motherlands these are as well, directly relating to how Mary has evolved her Armenian cultural third world ideals into her life essential to her feminism. 
       Western feminism, as Gross discusses as well, often has this idea that mothers and especially third world mothers are “homogenous ‘powerless’ group [s] often located as implicit victims of particular cultural and socio-economic systems” (Mohanty, 66). Mary would thus be viewed as “powerless” or another Armenian woman who relied on having children, as what Western feminists would think of third world women. However, Mary, as previously mentioned, is a third world woman who has accomplished values that Western feminists find important, like an education at one of the most previous art colleges, a career in graphic design and giving back to the community. She also, however, is not victimized by her motherhood but is the most empowered by it; she challenges “knowledge” and “scholarship” as it exists.
       It is particularly interesting to see how this Western scholarship Mohanty discusses is internalized. Mary confessed to me, “I surround myself with very strong [woman], like when you asked me to interview, I’m thinking ‘Me? Wait, Serena should see my friends… I see my friends in government, doing great things...These are women I’ve known for twenty years, maybe twenty plus years now and they are doing some amazing things out there as Armenian women, helping our community. Even if I have this much part in it, I take great pride in it as an Armenian [woman].” Therefore, it is clear that Mary has internalized this Western thought, comparing herself to other women who have done “great things” or ‘real feminist’ things like having government jobs and such. Although she is hesitant at first about why I would think of her as the feminist that came in mind for this project, she explains to me that she does take great pride, clearly not “victimization,” in being an Armenian woman accomplishing both her success as a graphic designer and as a mother. Motherhood is something we deeply value as Armenians and credit as being the strong mother, not the Western discourse assumption of victims (context of chosen motherhood). 
        The oral history component of this project has been crucial to my understanding of feminism in this non-Western light and especially crucial for the intersection of an Armenian feminist lens. Daniel James’ “Tales Told Out on the Borderlands: Reading Dona Maria’s Story for Gender” explores the cross-section of oral history and interventions of what could be considered feminist thought or theory through Dona Maria’s “her-story,” a phrase Joan Scott used to consider the stories of a broad range of women (James, 229). James proposes this notion of disemia, which “consists in the ‘contest between ambiguity and order’ in social life in which order and the formalism of official discourse are subverted by social experience framed in a register of localized usage and intimate context” (James, 228). The way that Dona Maria’s oral history revealed things about her experiences that were not expected is the way that Mary’s oral history surprised me. In “official discourse,” we would typically learn that motherhood is a chore or something bound to happen but not a typically empowering thing for feminism. Mary tells me that she knows that Lara is going to thrive in whatever she does and that makes her "prideful." With the oral history, I have learned power in motherhood. Mary is so prideful in her work as an intersectional woman- mother- it presents the intersection of her identity as a woman, as an Armenian, as an immigrant, and a graphic designer. Further, oral history for Armenian people and specifically women builds to our transnational diaspora in the sense that oral history has often created the “official” history of our people. As people, we have been forced to separate into diasporas from the Armenian Genocide. The accounts of genocide survivors, witnesses, or victims are all told through oral histories, because our people have been spread out and we are not plenty. Even the Armenian language has evolved through oral history and thus has become so important to carry on, as Mary tells me she has and continues to make sure that teaching her kids the language is a priority. Thus, even as Daniel James presents, oral histories are crucial for underrepresented identities to correct what Western notions have been in place for their communities and what their lives are actually like. 
       In conclusion, this oral history added to the richness of the oral histories of not only Armenian culture but for Armenian women. Mary helped me criticize the Western assumption of the sacrifice of self with being a mother by reassuring the cultural significance of being an Armenian mother as one of the greatest feminist notions. The first question I asked Mary was “Would you consider yourself a feminist?” She paused for a minute and deeply thought about it, then slowly and confusedly responded asking what it even meant in the first place, “What does it mean to be a feminist? Women enriching other women’s lives and empowering them? If so, yes.” This left me confused, but after completing this oral history, I now understand why. She associates the word “feminist” by this Western notion of feminism, admitting that I was also referring to that form of feminism, so she was confused as to what that meant for her. However, her oral history responded to that question. She is an intersectional feminist, who puts her cultural identity values with the same values as her feminist agenda for herself and for her children through her art, her culture, and her faith.

Works Cited
Gross, Emma. “Motherhood in Feminist Theory.” Affilia, vol. 13, no. 3, Oct. 1998, pp. 269–272, doi:10.1177/088610999801300301.

James, Daniel. Dona Maria’s Story: Life, History, Memory, and Political Identity, 2000.  “’ Tales Told Out on the Borderlands:’ Reading Dona Maria’s Story for Gender,” pp. 213-243).

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Feminist Review, No. 30 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 61-88.

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