Interviewee: Naomi Christensen
IWY TX 107
Interviewer: Jay Kleinberg
Date: November 19, 1977
Naomi Christensen was a farmer and homemaker from Hastings, Iowa. Christensen was a pro-woman delegate-at–large, representing rural women. In addition to working on the farm with her husband, she was involved in various women’s organizations including United Methodist Women. She conducted workshops throughout the state of Iowa on rural women’s issues including land conservation, the farm inheritance tax, the roles of different generations of rural farm families and women’s changing roles. Interview includes discussion of the reaction of rural communities and families to the women’s rights movements, the influence of fundamentalism on the ERA cause, and Christensen’s own discomfort with certain aspects of the movement, particularly lesbian involvement.
Jay Kleinberg: Jay Kleinberg interviewing Naomi Christensen at the convention, 19-11-1977.
Naomi Christensen: I’m Naomi Christensen from Hasting, Iowa. I am a homemaker and a farmer.
JK: How did you get interested in the women’s movement?
NC: I think I could credit my interest in the women’s movement back to my local church, the United Methodist Women, which is very active in social issues. I’ve been a district and a state and jurisdiction officer in that, and my interests are spread out from it.
JK: Are—many women that have spoken to have talked about they got interested in women’s issues and then how they began to work for women’s issues themselves. Ah, I’m rather curious about how people make the transition from seeing this as something personal to something political or something that we do deal with mass action about, and I’m wondering how that came about for you.
NC: Well, I don’t know. I guess just because I’ve always been interested you know— in things around—and began to work in the township, you know, on the elective and was a township official and then moved on to different kinds of things, volunteering for jobs and things. Right now I would say what I’m really interested in—and I was picked up as a delegate-at-large and the reason, I think, I was is representing rural women. For about the last year, I have been doing workshops over the state of Iowa, picking up a lot of interest on preservation of the family farm and the things that are effective—the farm, you know, per se. And so I think that was a lot of my interest and why I was probably picked up here: to come and speak for rural women.
JK: What do you think are rural women’s major concerns?
NC: Well, I know in the platform, and I agree with it, that rural women lack chances—you know— to motivated, educational opportunities, and to know where the help is and things. But one of the things that I really think that all people are going to have to face someday, that I think need to be issues, and that is land use, water and energy conservation; I think these are some of the big things. Ah, when I speak about land use, I think people are going to have to come to the realization that prime farmland is going be have to kept for prime farmland, or else we’re not going to be able to feed people eventually, you know, so much land goes out of production.
Right in Iowa, every ten years, we’re losing about the size of two of our average-sized counties, and I think we’re going to have to encourage people that when they want to build or industry, they’re going to have to use marginal land. Water, I think, more and more people this year have seen how that’s an issue—you know—and we’re going to think about it, and I think irrigation, particularly, farm people are going to have to come to realization that we can’t just irrigate forever; that’s another major problem, as well as the energy thing.
And then of course the inheritance tax for farm women; so many states, you know, don’t recognize a farm woman as making any contribution to it. That she can even, money that she’s inherited, if she puts it into the estate then it’s taxed all over again. So working for something where women’s contributions are recognized, because I’m a farm woman and I can climb on a tractor at five in the morning and work until nine or ten at night. There isn’t a thing on the farm that my husband doesn’t do that I don’t do; we farm in a partnership together.
JK: Has there been an effort to change the laws in Iowa to reorganize, as it were, the inheritance system?
NC: They’re starting to work on it. A lot of women, that is part of my idea of getting involved,
was to get this type of organized. Then, of course you know, Royal, from Nebraska, did a lot to get the change that we have in the federal law, at least getting the exemption to up to 250,000 dollars.
JK: Do you think that many women in Iowa perceive the Equal Rights Amendment as being in their interest?
NC: I think that’s probably about as mixed as the feelings are here really. Depending on your religious beliefs, depending on how fundamental of a church they go to, and maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I really think it’s a lot tied up in where their religious beliefs are. If they’re a fundamental denomination, I think they’re more apt to be anti-ERA than if they’re a couple of what we would consider more the liberal streak of churches. This is really my feelings.
JK: What is it about the fundamentalist dominations do you think that—that encourages this anti-women’s rights attitude?
NC: Well they interpret the Bible so literally—you know, just per se—not realizing that I think anything that you read has to be interpreted, not only of course, by history, you know, how you seen it in the past, then you have to see how it applies for you today, and then your own common sense about things that are around you—what am I trying to say? How you lived life, you know, and everything tells you. But, in a fundamental church, you’re pretty much told what to believe, and often times, I don’t think people take time to really study and read for themselves; I think they accept what’s told to them. I grew up in a fundamental church, so I really feel this until I moved more liberal.
JK: Uh huh. What do you think the conference—the convention can accomplish for women?
NC: Well, I certainly hope that it’s going to show people that women are a majority that are going to have to be dealt with, that they have the issues, and I think it’s going to have a good effect, and I am for the ERA. I think it’s — it’s great. I think it’s too bad we have to legislate something that really should be a person’s right, you know? But I think if we can do these things, so that, you know, equal pay for equal work and all these different things that come up. I think they ought to be recognized and have a chance.
JK: Are there any aspects of the report from the convention or the proposals of the convention, that you do not support?
NC: No, I pretty much—I hate to think that, for one thing, I would hate to see them extend the ERA, that we have to extend it beyond the seven-year time limit, you know? I really think that if we work hard that we could do it, the last three states within the seven years. I kind of hate to see that kind of thing. I have some mixed reactions, and this is probably upbringing things, and I’m sure others do. Ah, I think lesbians and people do, you know, have their rights and things, but I noticed so many people—what I’m trying to say on the whole, I think they get turned off because it seems so anti to everything that they think about stuff.
And I think abortion is really going to be a hot issue when they get there, to say that I think a woman has a right and I will vote that way, but I myself could not, if it came up, that I was going to have a child certainly at my age in life, I wouldn’t want another one, but I couldn’t have abortion. But I still think a woman has a right.
JK: So you have some mixed feelings?
NC: You know what I mean, over what you think is right, over again some personal feelings inside of you.
JK: I’m curious about your—your family background. Did you grow up on a farm? Where did you get your—your strong feelings for equality for women? And it—you said you had, came from a fundamentalist background, was this something that even despite the fundamentalist background that you felt while you were growing up, was it accepted in your community or is this something that you came to somewhat later on?
NC: No, I think that even though growing up in a very fundamental home, you know, where drinking, card playing even—you know what I’m saying—dancing, things like this in a very fundamental background were frowned against. Even then, though, I guess I wanted to say I had a questing mind or was interested, joined a lot of things, went to college, and, you know your world began to open up and your views. Although I always lived on a farm, have you know, and eventually married a farmer.
JK: What sorts of attitudes were expressed towards women when you were growing up?
NC: Well of course a lot less opportunity. The thing that I have noticed such a difference in the twenty-five years since I’ve graduated from college and now my daughter is in, is the feeling that there’s so many things open to her. She’s not afraid to dream and dared to do a lot of things that I didn’t co—even consider as options. I was a speech major with an intent to teach, well you know, that was about women: teachers, nurses, you know, the general stereotype.
My daughter —you know—feels that there really is something, and when I graduated in the fifties, you know, the thing was get married and have a large family; this was the whole thrust that was on women, and now girls are, I expect that there are other options. Besides, you know, old—as somebody who didn’t marry in those days and chose a single was really frowned upon. You know, you’re odd—that just isn’t done—and a lot of women are finding herself today.
JK: I’m—I’m gathering from what you’re saying then that you see real changes in women’s status and women’s opportunities between the time, I would say twenty years ago when you were in school, and now? What are the changes you think we have to make to assure—oh, say, what we call human rights—for everybody? You know, a fair shake for everybody?
NC: I think it’s a very broad thing, and I don’t know how to say it is the time when people
realize that they aren’t threatened when somebody else has equal status. I don’t know, it’s a whole change of attitude, and it’s awful hard to legislate. Well, it’s almost a moral—if I can put it that way—and I think it’s hard to legislate, and I think it’s going to be a long time. There’s lots of joking and laughing; I’m a very extrovert person that doesn’t bother me. But I know my husband takes a lot of kidding from people around who think that his wife is awful lot to—to meetings, you know, supporting things, working in issues that they won’t touch. But he’s not, bothered this, you know; we have a good relationship, and we understand, and I expect equally, I encourage him to belong to things, to do things, and I am willing to stay home while he does that.
But I don’t know, it’s a hard thing, and I think we got a long ways to go. I think we’ll probably be another fifteen-twenty years before we really begin to see some results. You know, and kind of an interesting observation to me, or I think I’m feeling this: back, you know, in the sixties it was the college students that were really militant and moving for the change, you know, all of this with the Vietnam War and all these things.
The thing that disturbs me a little, and maybe it shouldn’t, but I noticed in talking with the college friends of my daughter now when I visit school and stay there awhile, is the young girls now aren’t that really wrapped up or concerned about world’s issues—you know—talking about this thing, as much as they’re more interested in getting a job, security, they’re much more traditional. I would say that its most of the older women—you know—from say, they have to be out of college awhile things and be in life, that I think are really begin to move and be wrapped up more in this movement. And I’m kind of interested on the age level, I wonder how many women we have now—you know— that aren’t these ages and doing these things.
JK: Well, I can give you an answer as a university professor later, but not on the tape I should think. (Laughs) Not yet, I’m interviewing you, you know! (Laughs) We’ll have no role reversal, if you don’t mind!
JK: I did have a question; I can’t remember what it was. Yes. What does your daughter do?
NC: My daughter—when we were talking about I wondered why the young girls weren’t so concerned, I believe that’s right that they do believe that they can do about anything they want to now, so maybe that’s why there isn’t a concern. She says, that whoever she marries when the time comes—she’s been very independent, went with a lot of nice boys—but she’s going to have her education first, and she’s going to work, and she’s said whoever she’s marrying going to have to accept the fact that she is going to have a career as well as a homemaker. So maybe you’re right, they just more or less take it for granted. Maybe what I think is lack of concern is that this force is, and I think that’s a good point.
JK: Well, there’s much more, my suspicion is there is much more acceptance of women’s equality now, so parts of it are less of an issue, not all of it certainly. And I think older men are more set in their stereotypes of what man’s work and women’s work, much more than the younger men that are graduating on. Do you think farm men have those stereotypes about what’s man’s work, what’s woman’s work?
NC: The real older ones. Now like when I said that, I was going to say most of the men sixty and over, very definitely, very sad. But in the age group that I fall, I’m forty-five years old now, my—my husband and I and most of the farmers of our area, the wives work right out in the fields. It’s—it’s an economic type of thing, too, to be able to hire help, you know, and I don’t think they are so much. We share; if I’m out in the field working all day after coming in to get the meal, he helps do the dishes, you know; we share a lot of things. But I think a lot of it depends, but I think farmers are more apt to be conservative and probably a majority of them would trend more that way, but the older ones particularly. There’s definitely women’s work and men’s work, you know, they just don’t cross the lines.
JK: Even when harvest comes?
NC: With the older ones, yes, most of the older women are committed to go work out as much as what I would classify middle age, if you’ll follow me.
JK: Uh huh, yes.
NC: From the middle age and down, it’s a lot of partnership thing, but I don’t think it was with the older ones so much. Don’t misunderjudge—I don’t misunderstand me that I’m saying that the farm women didn’t work, but what I’m trying to say is there were the big gardens, the poultry, livestock much, but they didn’t go out on machinery and things as I would say the other age do in that respect.
JK: That brings up the very interesting question of what constitutes work on a farm then.
NC: Yeah, well that’s what I meant, they consider those women’s work opposed to running the machinery, equipment, and things I think is “men’s work,” that’s what they consider. But now, it’s interchangeable as far as the women, and of course, machinery’s changed, you know. We got power steering and torque amp and things, and it’s not as difficult to run the machinery. You know, you can handle a big tractor, and I can work all day now, and in the last ten years, you’re not half as tired as you were before because of the new conveniences that are on the equipment; it makes an awful lot of difference.
JK: Sure, sure. Do you think your husband gets—oh grief, from his fellows because you are active outside the home or because you’re active in women’s rights activities outside the home? If you were active in say, the church guilds only, would he meet the same kinds of comments?
NC: Pretty much so, I think, because traditionally, in our community anyway, and I think it’s probably typical of a lot of Iowa, not very many of the women do much away from home unless it’s right in the community. You know, you do something in an afternoon or a day and you’re back home; where lots of times, I’m gone a week, you know, at a time and things or will go to three or four different meetings in different parts of the state and things. And I think he does take some ribbing things for some of them. It really bothers him because I’m labeled “women’s libber” and—but it doesn’t bother me. (Laughs)
JK: Well. Do you have sons as well as a daughter?
NC: Yes, I have a son that’s twenty-three years old. He’s a graduate of Iowa State in animal science and is farming now and married, and I became a grandmother in July.
JK: Does he have positive attitudes toward women’s position? Does—do he and his wife share the work on the farm?
NC: Very positive, very open and just, I think they get along real good. He’s always had that, in fact—it was a funny thing—when I was first doing this type of work, you know, things do sometimes get hectic at home and there are responsibilities that I think are mine. And I remember one day after having been gone and the kids were younger and somebody needed—you know—something for this and somebody else had to have something else, and they were things because I had been gone and had just gotten home, and the house was kind of a mad house.
And that night I sat down and I said, “Hey, I’ve caused a lot of people inconveniences today, and you know when you get pushed and pressured, you sometimes raise your voice, and you’re not just very motherly or Christian-like or anything else.” And I said, “Maybe I need to reevaluate what I’m doing. Maybe I’m involved in too many things and need to slow down.” And it was my son, who was then about an eighth grader that says, “Oh no, mom, don’t worry; sure occasionally we have a bad day,” but he said, “When you come back from these meetings and things, you have so many new ideas,” and he said, “You just bubble.” And he said, “We’ll put up with one bad day for all the good ones that are a part of it.”
JK: That’s just fantastic. It’s really—so your family feels that their participating or felt when they were younger, that they were participating in what you were doing outside the home too?
NC: Right, very supportive, and I think that gives you a good feeling.
JK: Well sure, it means that your family’s working with you—.
NC: —Well I don’t think a woman can do a lot if she doesn’t have the support of her family, frankly, and particularly her husband. But your children—I know a woman who every time that she went to meetings, her daughter got sick, and, you know, it was a thing that she did because she resented her being gone. Well, you know, whenever she would come into meetings, she’d be in a turmoil and well—you know, it just does that to you—so it does make a difference.
JK: Yeah. You can’t be anywhere near so effective.
NC: No, that’s for sure.
JK: What do you expect to come out of the convention? What do you expect to take back to Iowa with you?
NC: Oh, I think just to give people a perspective and a view of the meeting. I’ll probably talk on what I consider the key issues to let them know what they were. Respond, a lot of the things, even—I suppose you are a journalist—but ah, you know; the things that you read in the paper and the things that actually happened sometimes make a difference, to try to be fair and give them a feeling of this was the way it was. I think it’s an exciting place because it’s a historical first, really. I think it’s exciting to think you’ve been a part of it. But I think to push and then as things come up for legislation and things to encourage. If Congress makes proposals, you know, to write, to keep people informed, to get them to push for what you think is right.
JK: Uh huh, uh huh. What do you think the direction of the woman’s movement ought to be from now on? Where ought we to be going?
NC: Well, I think we’re moving in a much better position than we were. I think, at first, it was—you know—really considered militant, you know. And I think that we lost a lot by women dressing too masculine, you know, really playing the other side of the fence, and I think we’re moving toward much more real road. I think this is great because if you look at the women in this conference, you just see everything—you know, just all styles, lifestyles, and things. It was interesting yesterday; I got to serve on a panel over in Sequalia—South—Falls South, I guess that’s what they called it.
JK: It’s name is Falls South, yes.
NC: And they had—yeah Seneca Falls South—and they had about, oh, eight or ten different women that spoke on their lifestyles and views and things, and I found that very interesting, you know, to listen to. And I think a lot of the things I’ll take back, I can’t tell, but they’re personal by the women I’ve touched, the lives that I’ve talked to, the experiences I’ve shared. That’s a lot that an individual takes back that you really can’t—it just helps you to grow and you can pass on ideas and things from that. I think it’s the lives of the people that touch yours and how it affects you.
JK: Do you think the women in the women’s movement come from the mainstream of American life? You see these women walking around with these badges that say “majority” on them, do you think they are?
NC: Well, I really don’t know. Now that’s terrible to say, I’m really not sure, they’re not the majority of the delegates here—definitely not—but I don’t know if you did a whole cross-section of the country. I don’t know how I feel on that, I would hope they’re not; I would hope that we’ve moved more progressive than that. Maybe that’s batting around the question, but I’m not positive that I could speak for sure.
JK: Do you think the majority of women in this country support the Equal Rights Amendment?
NC: I hope so. I think the majority of women that are involved outside of their own community and have had a vision a little bit beyond their own home and neighborhood, yes, but I don’t know about the woman who’s really locked in, you know—.
JK: —Uh huh—.
NC: —Pretty much in a traditional role if she does wrong.
JK: Where do you think the women’s movement— how do you think the women’s movement can get more support for the Equal Rights Amendment, for its other major issues?
NC: I think it’s going to be women like us going back and telling the story in our own communities: talking to women’s groups, letting them know what’s going on, and all we need to support and be supportive of each other—how we can do it without threatening either women or men.
JK: What kinds of activities do you plan to undertake when you go back to Iowa to get the message to people?
NC: Any organizations or groups that I work in, I’ll just ask them if they’d like to have me talk, you know, tell the result of the program, make suggestions and, it’s an ironic thing in our territory: if somebody finds that you spoke to one group on a subject, then somebody else will ask you too, and pretty soon it begins to snowball.
JK: Uh huh.
NC: And I think that’ll be one of the best ways.
JK: Uh huh. What do you think the goals of the woman’s movement ought to be now?
NC: Well, I think we should work to see, first of all, that the passage of the ERA and these things that we’ve adopted here, really see if we can move to get them legislated and carried out clearly. I would see that if we could carry these bullets out that we’ve accomplished a lot.
JK: Is there anything that you would have—that you di—have so far not liked about the convention, about the way things have been run?
NC: No, I really have been pretty well pleased. I think they did a fantastic job. I don’t know, being a delegate probably puts you in a little different situation than if you were an observer. I don’t know how they could have avoided such long lines to get in to sit and observe and things; some of these people probably feel that this is quite a problem, you know, to them. I think on the whole they did a good job. I think the display area, the sections up, I think that got some wonderful things for them to see. I think it’s been real good, real positive. You know you read so many things that could be negative about groups and if they have had many protest movements or anything like that, it surely hasn’t affected or upset the conference at all. I think it’s been great.
JK: Thank you.
End of Interview