Theola Petteway

Interviewee: Theola Petteway
IWY 408
Interviewer: Mollie Camp Davis
Date: November 18-21, 1977

Theola Petteway was a social worker working in social planning and program development in the Houston, Texas area. Petteway was also involved in women’s organizations and African-American organizations. She attended the IWY Conference to connect with other women involved in the women’s movement, especially African-American women who were fighting against racism and sexism. Interview includes discussion of: how women can learn from each other in the movement; Petteway’s experience working in health and medicine related workplaces that are primarily male; and Petteway’s belief that encouraging confidence and assertiveness in women could help them achieve feminist aims.

Sound Recording


Mollie Camp Davis: Well, I’ve enjoyed talking with you. And I now have Theola Petteway. Theola, would you (unintelligible at 0:08) address? Thank you so much. We need your name, address, if you don’t mind, your zip, your phone number, and maybe your occupation, or whatever organizations you’d like to tell us. Just for the record.

Theola Petteway: Ok, my name is Theola Petteway. Address is 7575 Office City Drive, Apartment 2104, Houston, Texas, 77012. My home phone number is 613-1971. My occupation, I’m a social worker, primarily in the area of social planning and program development. And I’m also actively involved with a number of women’s organizations and black organizations in the city of Houston.

MD: Thank you so much. Now, why are you here? I guess, if you’re a member of those things and active in the organizations, you would have reasons. But what is the real reason that you think you might be here?

TP: Well, the one reason that I’m here today was to really touch base or to find out a lot of women around the country that are involved in the women’s movement. And also, especially, to see if there are black women that are involved in the area of eliminating racism and sexism. And to hook up with, because we’re trying to do a lot of things here locally. And it’s kind of good to have an opportunity like this conference to be able to meet people, who are seemingly concerned about the same goals and things that you are. So that’s one of the reasons I’m here, and, also, to be very practical, to get a lot of materials, and signed up for contact lists for people and things that will, hopefully, be able to continue some of the things that we’re doing after this conference is over with.

MD: You’re the second person who’s told me on the tapes that she was here to meet people who might, from whom she could learn, and also people from whom, with whom, she could make contacts. Women, it seems to be an area women do not have the opportunities in as frequently, perhaps, as others, do you think?

TP: I definitely think so. One of the things that I like different from Gwen, in a way, is that Gwen is at least working in a setting where there are other women that have a sense of understanding about their role, and need to really do something about sexism and racism. But a lot of the people I’m working with are people who just have not personally been hooked in with organizations, not really sure about themselves as women in other things. So, it’s kind of good to know. And when you’re out there trying to relate to women like this, there really are a lot of them like that, actively involved in movements, it does kind of give you the new energy you need to fire up and to continue to struggle, in spite of all the obstacles. And I really need this kind of a conference to do that, personally.

MD: If you’re alone in your work, in other words, you sometimes feel isolated?

TP: Yes, very much so. And sometimes, it gets frustrating, because I’m in a situation where now I’m doing some consulting work, where I’m with a lot of medical and health-related professionals. Most of them naturally empower men, and very few professional women at all. Really, I should probably say maybe two or three out of a hundred or so professionals in that setting. Women are all secretarial, whether they’ve had degrees or not. They’re assistants, but they’re treated as if they’re clean-up people and whatever. So, even though for a lot of people they work with, their roles are serious, they’re down in, doing a lot of . . . and keeping those bosses, so to speak, they work with from completely cratering, but they don’t have any kind of . . . they cannot get any kind of power, no financial rewards, no nothing.

And, you know, it’s working with them and trying to help them become aware of where they are, and what resources they have. Because the controlling thing that I’ve seen is that many of them are being told that you aren’t, that you aren’t that much, or you aren’t be able to do all that stuff. The only hope for themselves is through the promotions and whatever their boss is; they don’t personally can begin to make some moves, and to make some demands, as far as what they want to get out of their own jobs, and what kind of things they’re going to be giving up, and not getting anything back personally from their jobs.

MD: The other women you talked about are here? But, if they are not, what will you do when you leave the conference?

TP: I’m be fired up to go back and do the same thing I was doing before, trying to help them become more aware of where they are and what good resources they have within themselves. And how they really running their lives, and stuff. They had, I’m serious.

MD: They help other women.

TP: That’s right.

MD: They help other women. Good.

TP: Because there’s been a lot of criticism about how women, you know, women out there are not in the women’s movement, and don’t see where it meets their needs. And the things I hear these women talk about, who quote-on-quote do not identify in support of the movement, per say. But it falls down to the same thing we’re talking about. They are in favor of the movement: they just don’t know how it meets their needs the way they see it publicized, in other words.

MD: They are afraid, and change frightens people, frequently.

TP: Oh, of course. You know, what do you do, if you’re in a job, and somebody tells you that, because of what you’ve been doing here, you could run this office. I mean, you could throw the other person out and still keep it going. That’s a frightening thing. Because you feel a certain amount of security in knowing that the last thing doesn’t rest with you, but don’t realize how much control that you have had, and how many things that you have done, and that it takes a little testing, it takes some support, and you can begin to feel confident in your own abilities.

MD: Confidence is a real need here, in opinion.

TP: I think a lot of women, the whole thing about assertiveness, the whole acceptance and ability to understand what you’ve really got going for you is a real critical problem, why a lot of the women are remaining with this subservient kind of position. When, really, they’re doing a lot more. They’re doing a whole lot more.

MD: In a sense, they aren’t aware of their own power.

TP: That’s right.

MD: And, until they become aware of their own power, they’re wasted?

TP: They are sitting there. It’s not what usually that they’re wasted, it’s that what they’re doing is they are not maximizing the potential they have to do a lot more. And they are being controlled by little statements that, you know, has been made in traditional kind of views that what a woman’s role is, and what a woman has working for her in terms of opportunities.

MD: You’ve really made some good statements here. And I really appreciate it. And I hope that you don’t meet many obstacles. And, if you do, you won’t let them ever get you down.

TP: Well, let’s just hope it doesn’t. ‘Cause, when we get with Gwen and people like that, friends of mine. And they say, “well, yes, right on, it’s still bad, it’s still a struggle, we’ve still got to fight,” we say, well, fine. We say, fine. We’ve got a lot of work that we can’t afford to get burned out, so let’s hope we don’t.

MD: Well, I’m so glad you’re here. If you want to hear your take, you go to the National Archives.

TP: Well, thank you. (Laughs)

MD: Thank you.

End of Interview