Interviewee: Ruth Ann Alexander
IWY TX 559
Interviewer: Laurel Shackleford
Date: November 18-21, 1977
Ruth Ann Alexander was a delegate to the National Women’s Conference from South Dakota. She served on the coordinating committee of the South Dakota State Conference. Alexander was a professor in the Department of English at South Dakota State University. She became interested women’s issues and rights during the 1950s when she earned her doctorate and had difficulty getting a job because she was a woman. Interview includes discussions of the South Dakota State Conference and the composition of the final delegate group from South Dakota, which included a Roman Catholic sister and a Native American woman. She also discussed the stereotypes of rural farmwomen and how the South Dakotan women do not fit these images.
Laurel Shackleford: We usually begin these interviews by asking people to give just basic kinds of biographical information. Your name, your exact address, what you do.
Ruth Ann Alexander: Okay, well my name is Ruth Alexander. Ruth Ann Alexander and I live at 1809 Third Street, Brookings, South Dakota. I am a professor of English at South Dakota State University and also a mother and wife and have three children. And have been interested in the women’s movement for about twenty years.
LS: How did you get interested in it?
RA: Well, when I got my Ph.D. in 1952, I was told in a very fatherly way by the head of my department that I would have a very difficult time getting a job because I was a woman. And he was right and I did. It was kind of a depressed period because the GIs had begun to move out of the universities and colleges and I had a very tough time. For years, I was at the very bottom of the ladder. I finally did get a job at South Dakota State, where I still am.
LS: When did you get that job?
RA: 1952, after looking eight months and writing hundreds of letters. Then I was an instructor and for four years I was the only instructor on the campus with a Ph.D. and I remain in that role. So, that’s when I came to the women’s movement, which wasn’t a movement at that time. But I decided at that point, I would devote myself, whatever interest I had, to women and their cause, which was virtually unknown back then.
LS: What lead from that particular experience of what happened to you – the difficulty in getting a job and using your diploma – to involvement in the collective movement?
RA: In the active? Well, for a while I tried the feminine mystique. I got married and had three children. And I really tried to give it a good whirl and found that I was simply miserable at just staying home. I was a failure as a housewife, as a matter of fact. I don’t do very well in household things. I keep my house reasonably clean but I don’t much care for a lot of it. And my husband felt I would be a whole lot happier if I went back to work, which I did. An opportunity came to go on part-time teaching and I did and I went back. And then in 1963, not more than a month or so after it was out, I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and felt that I could have written it myself. And from that point on, I had a sense of others being in a similar situation.
LS: What about your own state? The South Dakota delegate? Are you an observer with the group?
RA: No, I’m a delegate.
LS: You’re a delegate.
LS: What kinds of things went on in your meetings?
RA: We thought out meeting was terrific. We just had none of the criticism, I think, that has come from the other meetings, which I think is suspect anyway. We had a marvelous coordinating committee; I was a member of that. We had very little difficulty with it. We had about 400 in attendance which is small as state meetings go but then we’re a small state. We only have 600,000 people in the state and I think we got good representation of the…we had a very strong right to life group and they tried to pack it and they tried to influence the decisions, but they simply weren’t in majority.
And then of course the argument came, which is the same argument here, that the meeting was stacked, which is not true. The women that came to the meeting and by all our efforts of publicity were women who were sympathetic with the cause. To our amazement because I didn’t know most of them. I really thought we’d lost in the course of the day, but when the votes were in I found out we hadn’t and it was a great surprise to me.
LS: What were some of the issues that were debated most hotly amongst the South Dakota delegates?
RA: Well the two ones are reproductive freedom and the ERA. Well, those passed and the slate of delegates we elected was even stronger than that nominated by the nominating committee. The nominating committee did try to be very fair and had put on more people that they thought were sensitive or sympathetic to the right to life cause. But when the final votes were tallied, it was not the slate of the nominating committee and the one who lost from the nominating committee were the right to life people. So, we only have two delegates who are opposed to reproductive freedom, the plank on reproductive freedom, and only one delegate who is opposed to the ERA.
LS: And what is the relationship like within your group between those two or three women and the rest of the group?
RA: Excellent. We have a very amicable relationship. I realize that we have, in spite of our differences, we have a fairly homogenous group. We have one Native American, one Indian, woman. But we’re all very close, very good friends and have had no troubles along that line. We have had some political difficulties and with a letter-writing that was very inaccurate. But we confronted the person who was elected an alternate on that directly and supplied her with the evidence of what she was saying was not true and she backed down.
LS: What was she saying?
RA: Well, she made the accusation that we did not, that we deliberated stacked our meeting and that we hadn’t used adequate publicity and we simply had the facts to show that that was not the case. By not stretch of the imagination could you have said we stacked the meeting because the efforts we had to get everybody there.
LS: One of the problems that we’re having is collecting interviews with delegates or observers who are from the very rural parts of our country. Do you have any?
RA: Yes, we have two farm women. One of whom lives on the farm. But she is… there is a sort of stereotype as to what the farm woman is and this farm woman is also one of the Country Women of the World. And she’s been big in extension and she’s traveled much more than I have. (Laughter)
LS: What is Country Woman of the World?
RA: She belongs to a, it’s like Farm Wives. It’s a national organization. She was just recently in Africa and she’s very interested in international food and this sort of thing. She doesn’t fit the stereotype of the rural farm women and you’ll find in South Dakota that’s the case, they don’t. They’re educated, knowledgeable, active. And so she doesn’t, according to the opposition, she doesn’t qualify as a farm wife. And I find this hard to take. We have another woman who lives on a ranch, but she happens to be state president of the League of Women Voters. So, you see, the stereotype doesn’t fit. I don’t know what you’re looking for in the way of farm women. These are farm women.
RA: But they’re middle class farm women, you know. If you’re looking for a rural kind of image there, it isn’t that. The Indian woman we have is from Eagle Butte, which is on the reservation, but she doesn’t fit the qualification either. She’s a counselor at the University of South Dakota for Indian students.
LS: And so you’re saying if we’re looking for stereotypes, we’re not going to find them.
RA: That’s right! And you’re not going to find them, even…I think this is one of the difficulties. I assumption is that there’s one kind of woman who is a farm wife and who is devoted to the home. Actually, I think the most frightening thing about what’s happening in this whole thing is that it’s pitting the educated woman against the uneducated woman. The assumption being that the only true woman, whatever that means, the so-called grassroots, is the uneducated housewife who devotes herself to the home and family, which is nonsense. I devote myself to the home and family. I’m happily married, been married.
As our whole delegation, we have 29 children within our delegation. We’re all, almost all… I think we have one sister. She’s the only one who is not married and she’s a Roman Catholic sister. We have one woman who does not have children. Married, but does not have children. But the rest of us all have families, as many as five children. And I have three. And I just resent this kind of dichotomy. I was talking to a friend of mine this morning. The interpretation has come to be that the “grassroots” woman is a woman who is uneducated, has a husband and a family, and who devotes all her time to being at home. That’s simply not true. There’s so few women. I think there’s only 10% of the women in the country who are in that position. They have two children at home and their husband works and maintains the family.
LS: Can you hold on just a sec?
End of Interview