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What It Takes to Be a Woman: Personal Communication With Catherine Wittmann

The life story of this old woman may impress many generations with its unexpected turns of events. The given essay will be devoted to Catherine Wittmann, the woman who was born in 1931 in the German city of Delitzsch and later moved to the USA because of the severe hardship – World War II. Catherine is the best friend of my grandmother, and she was pleased to answer all my questions. Now she has a lot of free time and she was rather enthusiastic about sharing her experience with the younger generation; our interview resembled a conversation between two bosom friends. The interview started with the following Catherine’s words: “When you are young – time flies, but when you are old-aged, it slowly floats. Dear friend, if you do not hurry, we can talk very well.” (personal communication, October 30, 2016). I have heard a lot about her from my grandmother, and therefore I decided to have an extended conversation with Catherine about her life and her perception of women’s roles in society.

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The old woman with a sorrowful face tells me about childhood in the hometown. She was one of three children in a rural family. The woman recalls that everything was quiet, calm and stable before World War II. “Our parents had good professions: my father was engaged in farming and mother worked as a seamstress to make good money. The production evolved, people were financially secure, and no one even suspected that everything would change dramatically,” says Catherine (personal communication, October 30, 2016). The period of the thirties, as she later realized, was positive for almost all people in Germany. She said that her family had had everything needed, parents treated them carefully, and their self-development was at the highest level. Her mother was a good housekeeper, and the father was a calm and balanced man.

Since childhood, she and her siblings have been accustomed to reading a lot and forming their own opinions; they had a large home library. Parents talked to children on equal terms and instead of reproaching, they raised them as open-minded and civilized people. In addition, Catherine Wittmann admitted that since childhood she has gained an interest in observing others, in comparing and analyzing their actions and deeds. The following topics fueled her interest, such as what is the difference between a man and a woman, how people develop, form their opinions, why people consider the same issue in completely different ways. She said that during the day she loved to ask many questions to her parents. Regardless her young age, she was interested in such serious problems, because gender inequality in society at that the time really was painfully obvious, even for a little girl. Women were able to perform only women’s occupations, society was convinced that only men might be responsible for more physically or mentally demanding jobs. Young Catherine experienced it even when playing with her peers. Boys mocked her when she read stories about airplanes, cars or displayed any behavior different from the traditional women’s role. For instance, once, when she came to school in trousers instead of a skirt, she received the nickname “youngster”.

In general, early childhood was a nice period. When I asked about the best time of her life, Catherine was not able to give an accurate answer to this question. She said that she really valued every moment, and every day in her life she considered as a gift of God. “It took me a lot of time to learn to perceive things in a positive light. At some point I concluded that only our unfulfilled expectations can harm us,” she said (personal communication, October 30, 2016).

World War II was the most difficult period, because then she was under the impression that time stopped. People resembled the faceless crowd, every day all the media told the same things, only in different perspectives. Authorities began to control each one’s step; nobody had any freedom of choice. They lived according to the script written by the government. Many citizens started to look for any possible ways to live in other countries while the authorities were torturing and persecuting those who were against the regime. At that time, she was a 13- or 14-year-old girl, and her parents also started to think about migration to the USA, but during the war it was very difficult to implement.

After the graduation, in 1949, the family was able to migrate to the USA, thanks to their aunt, who helped them. By that time, the financial situation of the family was not so solid as before. Catherine was 18; she understood English very well and wanted to go to college. However, now she says that self-education is the best way to develop mental abilities. Parents gave her free will to choose her education and she started to study to be a psychologist.

“Resettlement to a new country was not easy,” says Catherine. For the first time, the family had almost nothing, so she had to combine work and studying to provide for herself, as her parents also worked hard to support the younger two children. Everything was different; it was especially noticeable while studying. Catherine Wittmann describes:
I thought that Americans treat everyone equally, but in those days it was not true. They considered everyone who migrated to their country as a second-rate people. Their patriotism was close to racism, we all felt it. People of different nationalities tried to form communities, thus protecting themselves (personal communication, October 30, 2016).

In childhood, Katherine was aware of gender inequality, but during her lengthy job search, she felt its effect on herself. Nobody wanted to hire women for responsible positions; mainly, jobs of cooks, cleaners, and seamstresses were available. These were decent jobs, but she wanted to work in her area of expertise. After a year of hardships and underworking as a waiter, Katherine was able to become an assistant psychologist. She became the first female psychologist in the city who already tried to fight against the women’s unequal position in society.

Girls from 16 to 22 years showed their superiority over those who belonged to lower social class or another nationality. They were proud that so many people chose exactly them and wanted to stress their superiority, but Catherine did not understand why. “I thought, it is better to be proud of the fact that you are an honest personality. Why instead of striving for self-improvement and bosting your self-esteem they were just self-centered?” C. Wittmann states (personal communication, October 30, 2016). She analyzed and pondered over these problems. In the end, she concluded that upbringing and environment affect all people’s actions. Catherine admitted that if she were born and grew up in the USA, it is likely that she would be similar to that youth. Society was not fair, and it was very difficult to find true friends.

The situation described above was not a hindrance for Mrs. Wittman to find someone she was able to trust. At the beginning of her undergraduate studies, she met Henry, who also came from Germany with his family, and at that time he worked as a taxi driver in the city. She says that relationships between them were not always good, especially at the beginning, but eventually everything was settled. “I am not one of those girls who at the slightest misunderstanding are prone to change people; it concerns friends, as well as lovers. I like to solve problems, to trust, to overcome the barriers and find positive solutions,” said Catherine. Passing through the obstacles after graduation, they married and created a happy family, and after 10 years of marriage they had three children. Her eldest child is a girl (now she is a 36-year-old woman with own family). Catherine educated her daughter, trying to instill in her the most significant values in a person’s life – to be a self-sufficient and developed personality, regardless of your gender. Catherine considers the close-knit family and self-development as the most important things in the world.

During her work as a psychologist in private companies, she heard many life stories from her clients and helped solve many difficulties in their lives. Catherine worked with people of all ages, genders, and nationalities. In most cases, people called for help because of family hardships, personal problems and challenges at work. There were frequent requests from people with different sexual orientations. She does not like to divide people into good and bad, men and women, separate them by age or nationality.

She is a supporter of the fact that our environment, upbringing, and education affect our actions. “People come to me because they need someone to trust. I always want to find the cause of their problems. I always try to put myself in the other people’s shoes to plunge into the problem and find the most optimal solution,” says Catherine (personal communication, October 30, 2016).
She always follows the “Golden rule”: “Do to others as you want them to do to you.” C. Wittmann shares her thoughts about visible changes in the values of young people:
The current generation has become more selfish compared to ours, and the part of them tries to live by this rule. People have become consumers; they only take something from the world and give nothing in return. Competition and scarcity gave rise to envy and hatred to each other. War causes fear in everyone’s heart. Sincere people are becoming a rarity. Society has become very artificial and not real, I do not even know if something can change it. Society treats old people with more respect, especially old women, because ethics demands this, but not because people themselves want to act like that. Only with the age, I began to perceive naturally that I am a woman and there is nothing wrong with me (personal communication, October 30, 2016).

Catherine said that she dreamed a lot when she was young. She spends her life trying to pay more attention to the love of the world and self-development. Old age begins when people start to talk about it. She does not think that she is old; Catherine has no destructive thoughts, and she always wanted to change the world by changing herself first. Today, she continues to read many books and provide help for other people as she used to do in her counseling practice. “Be such a good person as you can” is the only short advice that she gave to other people.

In her opinion, modern young women are more optimistic and more open to the world in comparison with the previous generation. She calls them “pragmatic generation”. Today’s youth starts to be interested in politics and society, unlike previous times. Now they are interested not only in their personal lives. Young women take more responsibility for themselves; they hold high political office and manage the international business. Young women look positively to the future and they are confident in their goals and dreams. Most women of the last century just “went with the flow”, but nowadays young girls are very self-confident, because in the modern world there is no breach of women’s rights on the part of the stronger sex. Catherine believes that it is important to admit that one of the main stereotypes is that men have always considered themselves the active members of society, and women played only a passive role in their life. Nowadays, such gender stereotypes are slowly disappearing, and everyone can develop regardless of gender or age. Women of the 21st century have become more productive and purposeful. In the days of her youth, almost all women played the role of homemakers and mothers, but now many women are dedicating their lives to the career. Eventually, Catherine said that she does not accept this, as she believes that a woman should remain a woman and not become a “person-organization”.

Summing up, I would like to stress the personal traits of Catherine Wittmann which mark her as a mature personality. She is a wise and astute woman who is confident in every step and word. She does not judge people for their actions and lifestyle because every deed has its own reasons. Moreover, she is able to analyze and characterize the person only if she has enough information about somebody. The priorities of her life are family and self-improvement. She says that we all are a big family and must do good deeds to improve the world. Her personality is capturing due to her restraint, confidence, and a rich life experience. Catherine says that women have become more pragmatic and pedantic, and she is different from them in this aspect. Although she loved her job, family and children have always been of primary importance in her life. Throughout her life, Catherine noticed that the lower socioeconomic status of the family is likely to cause a lot of stereotypes. On the other hand, financial stability and social status are not the most important things in life, but they give freedom to a person. Gender stereotypes are acquired, they cannot be with us from birth, they are developed within the community, through upbringing and education, and the person who is free will never follow these intrusive stereotypes.

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