Being a woman

Unmana writes about why she is feminist.

Speaking about clichéd gender roles in books, she says:

You see, in all the books I had read the heroine merely "waited to be rescued" (courtesy Shrek 3), while the hero did all the rescuing and adventuring.

Taking this forward, Nancy Friday’s My Mother My Self has interesting commentary on women being slotted into gender roles.

Society plays us a dirty trick by calling us the loving sex. The flattery is meant to make us proud of our weakness, our inability to be independent, our imperative need to belong to someone. We are limited to need and nurture, leaving erotic love to men. A “lovesick” man makes people uncomfortable because the condition weakens him, jeopardises his manhood, cuts down his productivity. But a woman who can’t think clearly, who dreams over her law books, loses weight, and walks into brick walls arouses warm feelings in everybody. Men and women both know how good it feels to be knocked out by love, but someone has to mind the store. Since women haven’t got anywhere to go anyway, and a needy woman makes a man work harder in order to provide for two, romance itself becomes fuel for the economic mill.

He will make love to us in the moonlight to the sound of violins, but in the morning he will shower, shave, put on his clothes, and go to the office in pursuit of his “real” interests. In almost every novel you read or film you see, love is a disaster for the female protagonist, depriving her of initiative, courage, or sense of order, sending her down into masochism and loss of self.

Studies have shown that the basic nature of a human being is determined by the first five years of her/his life. Nancy Friday talks about the relationship between a woman and her mother being the basis of all dependency vs. independence, the longing for intimacy, and the passivity in the woman’s personality. My Mother My Self deals with the first binding relationship of our life being the model for everything else in our adult lives.

After the first stage of dependency on the mother, a child soon starts wanting separation – to experience all the smells, touch, sights around – as a separate individual. Until now, the mother has been the beginning and the end of all experiences and fulfilment of every need. From here on, what a baby most requires is a “basic sense of trust”.

This need to feel a basic trust of life is essential for both males and females. But because of the inevitable modelling relationship between mother and daughter, we are not just stuck for life with the sense of basic trust she did or didn’t give us. We are also stuck with the image of her as a woman, her sense of basic trust that her mother gave her. A boy will grow up, and following his father’s lead, leave home, support himself, start a family. He may or may not be successful. Much of his success will depend on the basic sense of trust his mother gave him; but he will not identify with his mother. He will not base all his relationships on what he had with her (unless he is a certain kind of homosexual).

But a girl who did not get this basic sense of trust, though she may leave her mother’s house, get a job, marry and have children, will never really feel comfortable on her own, in control of her own life. Part of her is still anxiously tied to her mother. She doesn’t trust herself and others. She cannot believe there is another way to be because this is how her mother was. It is also how most other women are. If our mothers are not separate people themselves, we cannot help but take in their anxiety and fear, their need to be symbiosed with someone. If we do not see them involved in their own work, or enjoying something just for themselves, we too do not believe in accomplishment or pleasure outside of a partnership. We denigrate anything that we alone experience; we say, “It’s more fun when there is someone else along.” The fact is we’re afraid to go anyplace alone. How many adult women have you heard joke, “I haven’t decided what I’m going to be when I grow up…”? How many women call their husbands Daddy or Papa, and think of their children as “my daughter”, instead of Betsy or Jane?

Emotionally unseparated from mother, just as afraid as she was, we repeat the process with our own daughter. An unfortunate history, a way of growing up female that our society has amazingly left unchallenged. Being cute and helpless, clinging, clutching, holding on for dear life, becomes our method for survival – and ultimate defeat.

It isn’t only, of course, the relationship with our mothers that dictates the women we become – though it is the most important, probably. Fathers too play an important role in making a child into the kind of woman she becomes. Not just the relationship, as it is, between a man and his daughter – but also the dynamics of that relationship within the family. Actually, also the dynamics of all relationships within the family.

Simone de Beauvoir says, in The Second Sex:

The relative rank, the hierarchy, of the sexes is first brought to her attention in family life; little by little she realizes that if her father’s authority is not that which is most often felt in daily affairs, it is actually supreme; it only takes on more dignity from not being degraded to daily use; and even if it in fact the mother who rules as mistress of the household, she is commonly clever enough to see to it that the father’s wishes come first; in important matters the mother demands, rewards, and punishes in his name and through his authority. The life of the father has a mysterious prestige: the hours he spends at home, the room where he works, the objects he has around him, his pursuits, his hobbies, have a sacred character. He supports the family, and he is the responsible head of the family. As a rule his work takes him outside, and so it is through him that the family communicates with the rest of the world: he incarnates that immense, difficult, and marvellous world of adventure; he personifies transcendence, he is God. This is what the child feels physically in the powerful arms that lift her up, in the strength of his frame against which she nestles. Through him the mother is dethroned as once was Isis by Ra, and the Earth by the Sun.

But here the child’s situation is profoundly altered: she was to become one day a woman like her all-powerful mother – she will never be the sovereign father; the bond attaching her to her mother was an active emulation – from her father she can but passively await an expression of approval. The boy thinks of his father’s superiority with a feeling of rivalry; but the girl has to accept it with impotent admiration. I have already pointed out what Freud calls the Electra complex is not, as he supposes, a sexual desire; it is a full abdication of the subject, consenting to become object in submission and adoration. If her father shows affection for his daughter, she feels that her existence is magnificently justified; she is endowed with all the merits that others have to acquire with difficulty; she is fulfilled and deified. All her life she may longingly seek that lost state of plenitude and peace. If the father’s love is withheld, she may ever after feel herself guilty and condemned; or she may look elsewhere for appreciation of herself and become indifferent to her father or even hostile. Moreover, it is not alone the father who holds the keys to the world: men in general share normally in the prestige of manhood; there is no occasion for regarding them as ‘father substitutes’. It is directly, as men, that grandfathers, older brothers, uncles, playmates, fathers, family friends, teachers, priests, doctors, fascinate the little girl. The emotional concern shown by adult women towards Man would of itself suffice to perch him on a pedestal.

These two books, I feel, together, are the most exhaustive study of feminism and femininity – and have always made perfect sense, not always in my own context maybe, but always in the larger sense of society, and a lot of time in the context of someone or the other I know.

Any more books that add to these, I’d love to read. Suggestions are most welcome.



Filed under feminism, literature, thinks

5 responses to “Being a woman

  1. Thanks for the shout out. I need to read Nancy Friday, then.

  2. Oh, and have you read ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’?

    In fiction, do read Margaret Atwood’s books. I’ve read ‘Blind Assassin’, ‘The Edible Woman’ and ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’, and they’re all awesome, though it’s the last two that are more related to feminism.

    me: Yes, have read Mary Wollstonecraft. Margaret Atwood I’ve read only one – The Handmaid’s Tale. Watched the movie too, and it’s as good as the book. Been wanting to read more of hers.

  3. D

    I swear by Simone de Beauvoir. You have already read Mary Wollstonecraft and you must also read Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

    I also recommend Color Purple by Alice Walker.

  4. Guy

    I agree with the mother-daugher part!

    and somebody said – a man’s identify is defined by his mission, whereas a woman’s by her love.

  5. Pingback: Happy Women’s Day « three drinks ahead

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