When I was a young woman, misogyny and patriarchy fell on my head.
I was raised to have all the skills of an upper-middle-class homemaker. I can cook, know the secret places to check for dust, how to sugar a violet (and why one would want to.) I can sew, quilt, knit, embroider and babysat endlessly so I would be prepared for when I mothered the next generation. As a member of my generation I was also raised to have a career, to succeed in school, attend an elite university with an aim for graduate school and a professional career. I read I Don’t Know How She Does It when I was 22 and I completely empathized. I was terrified and my whole future seemed utterly exhausting.
Mostly, I found, she does it through self-flagellation and very little sleep. When my boyfriend cheated on me repeatedly and publically I thought it was my fault, or the other women’s fault. The concept that men were responsible for their actions and choices, especially around sex, was not a part of my world-understanding. My father (reflective of his context and to his unending shame) said at the time ‘well, if she sticks her hands down his pants, what is he supposed to do?’ I was caught in the double bind created for women; everything was our fault and responsibility; but the power dynamics involved (and the social and structural means for our disenfranchisement) were never discussed. When I challenged these foundational assumptions by seeking real power and then using it, the backlash was overwhelming and confusing.
For a long time I thought I was crazy. I had been educated enough to identify the gaps or contradictions in logical arguments, but when I found my voice to point them out, I was told I was wrong. When almost universally a group of my men friends decided they had ‘other priorities’ rather than support my leadership, when they played dirty rather than accept the will of the majority, I thought I must personally have done something wrong. When I asked others outright why they would not support me, the collective response was to continue to blame me. It made me question everything I saw and felt and heard. I thought ‘that’s what madness is’; believing something to be true, even when it seemed that no one else could see it. The line between genius and insanity has always been a bit wobbly.
I was not the ‘smart’ one, which meant I must be mad, because I could not possibly see something that no one else could see. I could not be the first in this space to have the courage to stand up despite personal attacks, to a power structure that supported the status quo (and their own) and so I must be stupid, tilting at windmills. I believed I must be wrong because it was my role to be silent and submissive and cry in private instead of advocating for changes in public. I was taught throughout my childhood to take that role. I was to throw dinner parties at which my husband’s professional interests could be promoted. Once I was married I would give up my chosen career, raise children and fade into the private sphere. My job would be to support his interests in the public sphere but have few of my own. Young women are told over and over they are not smart, or educated, or experienced and we often actively discourage them from pursuing those goals. It is our job to stand aside and learn from our elders and our betters and to support the men to whom we are attached. I was told that again this week. You can tell everything about a society by what it tells young women.
They can say you are wrong, but if you listen closely, you’ll hear your soul screaming. You still know what is right, even when lied to by people you trust, or punished by people you love if you disagree.
It was my mother, as it is almost always the mother, who kissed my hurts, and taught me slowly the secrets she learned:
- That feminism is asking for equality.
- That equality doesn’t mean displacement.
- That if we communicate clearly there is often more than one way to share an orange.
- That I am enough as I am, and Louis IV invented rules of etiquette to keep his court busy.
- That hearing my own voice, deep from my own soul, will always point the right direction.
Patriarchy is the story that raped young women must bear the children in shame or be forsaken by god. Patriarchy is unquestioning obedience to those who say they speak for god. Judeo-Christian patriarchy will always blame Eve as the woman who dared.
I saw this the other day and it resonated: “We live on a blue planet that circles around a ball of fire next to a moon that moves the sea, and you don’t believe in miracles?” I hear god. We all hear god if we listen carefully for our higher selves. We all look for strength when we are afraid or feel completely alone, call it prayer or not. We all see magic in beauty and wonder. The instinct runs deep. Perhaps it is a heavenly father, and perhaps it is something deep in our cosmopolitan human nature, but as children, we mostly don’t have to be taught not to deliberately hurt others. Until socialized, most babies are fascinated by other babies and have only wonder for their differences.
Like many others, I am stunned and the feeling is familiar. But this time is different, because half the world is experiencing this insanity with me. It is not my dissonance alone. It seems impossible that the world is this mean, that people are this selfish or ignorant. The line between being racist, and supporting racism is very thin, and the groups marginalized while we debate over the difference are dying, literally. I don’t know the difference between white and racist right now, and I know that my privilege has given me the capacity to contemplate. I know that people I love chose proactively to ignore the crisis of other people I love.
I don’t want to square that circle. I don’t want to learn to understand that. I only know to say this is wrong to me. I want to love you and find the ways we are the same. That is precious to me, but I am afraid and you did that.
I know that so many have lived with this kind of fear (that grips my whole body) for most of their lives. I am grateful for an opportunity to learn and I will do better. I’m sorry that I underestimated your suffering, I am awed by your strength. I want to learn to do better and I want to teach those who might only listen to someone who looks like me. I’m sorry it is such a small offering.
I know we are divided and angry and tribal. I am stuck, ready to swim but without a shore to help my aim. Floating on a sea of bodies, and hopes, and ideals, waiting to plunge into madness, waiting for the powder keg.
I am simultaneous good girl and raging, incapacitated and silent once again. The point of gaslighting and abuse is the silence that they bring. Patriarchy requires good girls to be quiet and obedient, and when we step out of line the consequences are swift and predictable. When women willingly play that role however, we paint a sheen of respectability on what is pure, unjust, domination; the toxic masculinity of a bygone era.
When I was young, boy-hero stories were adventure, strength, ingenuity, justice, and resilience. Girl-hero stories were occasionally that, but often the overcoming was muted and constrained- beating the mean girl (or the mean girl inside), catching a murderer without breaking a nail, or overcoming brutality to regain normal again. Enders Game and Sarah Plain and Tall tackle pretty different challenges. I have always been fascinated at the choice that the only girl in Ender’s final Jeesh was the first one to break.
Until we are all willing to take the shadow into our wholeness, as long as we attempt the death of the real, and othering to look more presentable at church or the club, we will enact violence on others and ourselves. The masculine and feminine are naturally balancing forces; fluid, all shades of grey, despite our desire for the simplicity of a binary. The desire to scapegoat, to use another group to carry our own shames and disappointments also seems universal, but we must confront ourselves in entirety and complexity to avoid injustice and resulting instability.
We are all still Americans. We all must still find a way to work together. I promised myself on November 8 that I would not choose fear or anger. I would choose hope, as I did in 2008. Hope is my strategy and will continue to be–hope for healing these divisions; hope for doing better for our fellow humans; hope for improving our political discourse and confronting the obstacles still in our path. For too long we have seen others as obstacles. It is not the other, but our inability to resolve our disagreements that is the problem, and it cannot be solved without both sides. One must learn to compromise, or everything becomes a fight. When everything is a fight, and everyone is an enemy, growth will always be an afterthought.
Globalization has brought us face-to-face with so many others, so many shadows, and we will never have the capacity to fight all those demons. Anger has too long been the bastion of men and patriarchy. I have resisted the anger arms-race, confident that there is no end, and no resolution. My reluctance to express my anger has limits however and will not decrease or impair my boundary setting.
So I say to you now: I understand your fear, but marginalization is never a long-term strategy. I don’t believe you want to eradicate those different from you, but it is the end of the continuum you have chosen to step onto. Ego, if unexamined, runs unchecked and I believe we can all be more. I will forgive you for your choice, and my loved one’s resulting danger, but I will not forget that you stepped on others to avoid your fear of drowning. That is something you will have to face as well, in the dark recesses of your own heart, and as history unfolds. We all endure what we must, as we must, until that pressure abates and freedom reigns again.