For all of its well-deserved successes, the demagoguery of the #MeToo movement has led to this widespread belief that all women are powerless victims, controlled by and subjected to the sexual appetites and whims of all men. American women, according to 21st-century progressive feminism, are perpetually under the boot of The Patriarchy and are helpless to save themselves from men, who are, by nature, evil.
I call bullshit. Women, are we childlike puppets, or are we free agents, equal in intelligence and power to men?
Of course, there are vast, interconnected systems of injustice still at work in our country. It is both blind and naïve to pretend otherwise. And many continue to perpetuate the myth that women are weak and bad and less than. But what I cannot fathom is why modern feminists are repeating this very same lie. Can we not see that we are working with misogynists when we invest so much in this victim mentality?
We lose—and our daughters lose—if we continue to parrot the myth that women are powerless. As a recently pregnant person, I am overwhelmed by the tremendous strength of women. It is one of the hallmarks of our sex. We are incredibly powerful, capable, and beautiful creatures. We are long-suffering and determined. We are intelligent, wise, collaborative, and creative. We bring forth life, for God’s sake. (Relatedly: Stop patronizing pregnant women.) I trust women immensely, and I trust us to take our lives in our own hands.
Yes, men continue to perpetuate great harm against women, every day and all across the world. Yes, countless women live in daily fear because of the men in their lives. Yes, I continue to conduct myself as a person who should mistrust unfamiliar men, choosing the routes I walk and the public places I frequent with great caution.
And this may be our situation for a while. I hope and pray that the world continues to get safer for and more supportive of women everywhere, as it has been trending toward lately. But I think so often of the shallow platitudes that we offer our little girls. We read them books about Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhart and tell them about “girl power” and dress them in silly onesies that declare that “the future is female,” but we don’t seem to believe any of it ourselves, wallowing instead in fear and investing in this fashionable identity of helplessness.
We are doing the dirty work for our oppressors: You want women to be subservient? Great, we’ll strip ourselves of power so you don’t have to! We’ll continue to only talk about ourselves as underlings and victims. That’ll make it easy for you to carry on with the oppression and fear tactics and stereotyping. You’re welcome.
Womenfolk, let’s return to our true selves and to our deep, inborn reservoirs of strength. Let’s look to our mothers and grandmothers and all who came before us. Let’s stop talking about ourselves as if we’re indentured servants in a vast, conspiratorial patriarchy. There is much to be done. Less whining, more work.
I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.
I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.
(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)
In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.
Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)
“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?
This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.
It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.
Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)
If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.
I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.
Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.
We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.
Life is short, and the days pass quickly, especially in winter, when we wake up and come home in darkness. My perennials have been stricken by the frost; they appear to have been caught totally off-guard, their leaves curling up with blackened edges. A carpet of red dogwood leaves fills up half of the front yard. I am loath to rake them.
A family of finches is trying to nest in our wall-mounted mailbox. I hear them landing on the metal lid in the morning and catch them poking their heads in the side. They’ve amassed a small collection of building supplies in the mailbox: tiny twigs, bits of green moss, skeins of grass. I’m curious to see how far they can get with this project, what with the daily disruptions from the mailman.
Regular fires in the living room, surrounded by our books and antsy German shepherds, keep the spirits bright. We are getting a new front door installed the week after Thanksgiving, and I remember it eagerly every morning as I curse the hated storm door. But we are lucky, to have warmth and share words with one another.
“My favorite part is connecting the ideas. The best connections are the ones that draw attention to their own frailty so that at first you think: what a poor lecture this is—the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is . . . How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.” — Anne Carson, “Uncle Falling,” Float
Thoughtful conversation does not happen easily. I admire and envy people who can speak fluidly, in full sentences with fleshed-out ideas. I speak haltingly. I hedge. I go back on what I previously established; I come out with an opinion too quickly. But this quote from Carson makes me feel a little better. If even Anne Carson feels that the web of connections between thoughts is unprepared and unpreparable, then maybe I’m not so alone.
Still, I’d like to be more intentional. I’d like to use better words.
I did not appreciate Sebald in Austerlitz, but I appreciate him now, greatly, in The Rings of Saturn. It is dreamy and rich and full of life.
Something I dislike: Going to a party in which the men only speak to the men and the women only speak to the women.
I’m going to hazard a generalization here, but this happens far more often when we’re in our Christian circles than when we’re not. Christians, even modern ones like us, still mistrust the sexes. There’s a lot of gender baggage there, skating under the surface.
Non-Christian men, in my experience, tend to talk to me as if I were an equal, as if I could generate a conversation that would interest them as much as a conversation with my husband. They ask me about what I’m reading or what I think about some recent event or to weigh in on a dog breed dispute. This is not so with most churchgoing menfolk or womenfolk. The women talk in a corner about womanly things (probably babies), and the men talk at the mantel about manly things (sports, news, culture). God-fearing men will speak to me kindly, but only as long as they have to.
At gatherings such as these, I am grateful for female company, because it is safe and comfortable, but I am often looking longingly at the closed circle of male conversation. I could do without the football analysis, but they are often talking about ideas. They’re debating some theological point or evaluating some political story. I want to talk about ideas! I don’t mind hearing about people’s children—I love my friends’ children—but I like a healthy mix of baby stories + everyday philosophy.
I have guesses as to why we women, especially in these circles, shy away from discussing ideas. It’s not that we don’t have any ideas, but again, it’s the experience of growing up in and living within a highly gendered culture. We’re wired to take care of things, whether it’s our houses or spouses, besties or babies. Caregiving, more often than not, leaves little room or energy for theory-making. And so we talk about the people or things we look after: our jobs, our kitchens, our children. We leave the debates to men, who have that kind of mental leisure.
I am perpetually frustrated by this division, but I accentuate it in my own way, too. I like talking about my charges with other women. I like taking care of my house and my incorrigible dogs. And I will always love—and preference—the company of women. But I also like talking to men. Like any restless animal, I want a diversity of conversation. I want to talk about diapers and cryptocurrencies. I want to discuss recipes for homemade cleaning products and half-baked defenses of predestination. I dislike feeling excluded or relegated to only one sphere.
And so I try to do my part, whenever I host dinner parties or gatherings, to mix company, to seat women next to and across from men, to create a space for conversation that can involve everyone at the table. We could learn a great deal from each other if we would take the time.
Some possibly contradictory thoughts and no clear conclusions. This waffling nature is where I seem to have staked my flag at the end of my twenties. (And I am happier to be here, living in the gray, rather than in the stark dualities of adolescence.)
Does femininity have any intrinsic qualities of its own?
Men defined femininity for us, and masculinity gets to claim the origin of all gender traits. Femininity seems most often defined as the simple absence of masculinity: Men are strong, thus women are weak; men are bold, thus women are cautious; men are violent, thus women are compassionate, etc.
But what I want to know is this: Is there any quality that is inherent to being female, as we suppose there is to being male? Some characteristic that marks women, because women are born with it?
I started thinking this some months ago, when some men were discussing how grateful they were to not have any feminine traits, as if it would be the worst thing in the world to be compared to a woman. (It makes me think of that traditional Jewish blessing, Thank you G-d, for not making me a woman…) Many men think this way and express it openly. Even now, a great way to publicly shame a man is to compare his behavior to a woman’s.
I was incensed, after this discussion, but it made me start to wonder: Can women have pride in their female-ness, the way that men so evidently have pride in their male-ness? Do we always have to be comparing ourselves to men and in opposition to women to get any respect or credit? I’m smart, not like those silly girls; I don’t cry easily, like most women; I hate shopping, unlike most dumb broads, etc.
Is there anything deep and true that women can lay claim to, outside of the jurisdiction of masculinity?
If there is, I suppose it must reside in biology. Men have more testosterone, and therefore they actually are more prone to aggression and violence than women. Women can create and give birth to children, which brings with it a whole set of hormones and evolutionary instincts that men have no need of. Naturally, this does not preclude the fact that aggressive women and nurturing men exist all over the place, every day, and we can shift gender presentations in the span of an hour. But that is not what I am after. I am after something else, the root of what it means to be a woman.
What is it? Where does it reside?
The next question, though, is that if there is any intrinsic quality of womanhood, is it even worth defining? Will it just lead to more subjugation and heartbreak among women? Probably.
It taunts me, this question, because of the lack of middle ground. I want to live in a gray space on the question of gender; I don’t want it to be either/or. But I’m not sure it can be found.
I guess I’ve never felt entirely female, but then probably lots of people don’t. But I think that at different times in my life I located myself in different places on the gender spectrum, and for many years, throughout my thirties, which is when I made that pilgrimage, I didn’t have any connection to the female gender. I wouldn’t say I exactly felt like a man, but when you’re talking about yourself you only have these two options. There’s no word for the “floating” gender in which we would all like to rest. — Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry, Paris Review
I womanfully put this aside for the time being.
Does the feminine feminist exist?
Yes. Of course.
But in what ways? Which patriarchal standards do you choose to reject and does it matter which ones? How do you justify your choices to men and to other women, when there will clearly be gaps and paradoxes?
For instance, I sincerely enjoy cosmetics and a swipe of red lipstick, but I think mini-skirts and stiletto heels are misogynistic. I have strong moral objections to even the notion of a Brazilian wax, but I am completely fine with dresses, perfumes and facials. I mow the lawn and yet I make Guion fix any machine that malfunctions in our house, without ever trying to figure it out myself. I want men to take me seriously and yet I flatter their masculinity in a conversation in all the ways I’ve been taught since I was young.
Upon recently finishing Susan Brownmiller’s Femininity, I was comforted to read of how often she — feminist icon of the 1980s, who only wore pants and never any makeup — faltered from time to time in her commitments to outwardly rebel against femininity. Despite knowing the sexist origin of her angst, she says she was obsessed with how her hair looked and couldn’t stop thinking about her body and how men saw it in clothes. She won’t shave her legs or armpits but bleaches her leg hair in the summer when she goes to the beach.
Brownmiller knows she’s trapped; she knows all of us women are trapped. Whatever choice you make, you lose. Because here’s the rub:
Men created extremely high standards of physical beauty that women have to meet, and then simultaneously mock us for being vain when we try to uphold these standards.
Who do I get dressed for? For whom do I take care of my face? For whom do I apply mascara?
It is for myself. But it is also for everyone else — other men and other women. Like it or not, we’re all judged on a sliding scale of gender performance every day, most often in tiny, undetectable ways.
So, what is to be done? I think it is to take comfort in Brownmiller and take comfort in Carson and be OK with the floating space, even if we will never rest there completely. Be OK with living in and performing a little bit of both: the stereotypical femininity with dashes of stereotypical masculinity (who said that only men enjoy lawnmowers?).
Live with a perspective toward others and toward ourselves that is free and open-handed, especially when it comes to performing masculinity or femininity.
We’re all playing make-believe and dress-up anyway.
The truth of the matter: My (formerly beloved) liberal media outlets are making me feel like a conservative these days (don’t worry, never will be, would rather pluck my eyebrows off than vote Republican). The outrage is daily and continuous and we’ve all lost big time, but I don’t think I can sustain this level of indignation for four years.
I feel like I can’t even have lunch with someone without having to append some policy-oriented aside to every comment. “It is a good sandwich, but my enjoyment of it is diminished because, as you know, the lettuce subsidies are getting out of hand, and Trump of course is in Monsanto’s pocket…”
We all need to put our sandwiches down and go outside and pet a dog and spend time with people we love. And not mention DJT even once.
In light of this need to escape the outrage machine, here are some nonpolitical things to enjoy and think about.
Joy Williams’s short stories, because they make me feel insane with delight
“Still, a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Vincent van Gogh, in a letter
Annals of Everyday Sexism, No. 1,204
I told him some about my new job and what I would be doing and how I was so excited about it, about the work itself and about all of the new challenges and opportunities it would bring.
“It sounds like Guion and I would be better at that job than you would be,” he said as soon as I finished.
I blinked. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“Yes,” I said, and then with uncharacteristic firmness, “I am going to be great at this job.” My blood was feeling hot in my face.
He furrowed his brows, implying he didn’t believe me. But for once, I had a retort ready.
“Just because I’m not constantly talking about myself and how great I am all the time doesn’t mean I don’t have any skills,” I said, turning away.
“Oh, you’re adorable,” he said, in the purest of patronizing tones. And all this despite the fact that he is several years younger than me.
(You are not surprised when it happens, this kind of thing, because it has been happening all your life, but you are now almost 30 and ready to say something about it when it does. To name a thing, to call it what it is, to not hedge anymore.)
That said, I just finished the first week at my new job, and I am feeling all of the good feels: happy, grateful, fortunate, enlightened, challenged, hopeful, thrilled, capable, eager.
“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” — Annie Dillard
I just finished The Abundance, which I thought was a new collection of Annie Dillard essays because I didn’t read the subtitle carefully. It isn’t; it’s almost entirely old stuff, repackaged. But her old stuff is still beautiful and challenging and mind-expanding, and I was happy to re-read it. If I ever were to aspire to nonfiction in this way, Dillard is all that I could ever hope to be. Her boundless curiosity, her lyricism, her patience, her directness. It will always be difficult to convince me than any other American essayist can surpass her.
Up next on the reading docket: A big haul from the library book sale (somewhat thick, heady European novels that have been on my list for a long time + James Baldwin + John McPhee + Simone de Beauvoir’s short stories) and the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (I’m scared).
A quote, which I should have used as an epigram for this post:
My former bishop Allan Bjornberg once said that the greatest spiritual practice isn’t yoga or praying the hours or living in intentional poverty, although these are all beautiful in their own way. The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up. And Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of just showing up. Showing up, to me, means being present to what is real, what is actually happening. Mary Magdalene didn’t necessarily know what to say or what to do or even what to think when she encountered the risen Jesus. But none of that was nearly as important as the fact that she was present and attentive to him.
If you can control a woman’s body, you can control the entire trajectory of her life.
You can keep her at home, endlessly pregnant, and caring for numerous children. You can prevent her from getting an education and a fulfilling career and achieving even the basest level of respect in society. Don’t give her unfettered access to contraception or abortion. Don’t let her make any choices about her body and thus her life until you have given her explicit permission. Don’t let her assume for a second that she is a free agent. Keep her in her place, preferably with violence or harassment, both in public and in private. Constantly remind her that even her body is not her own. And finally, preferably, express all of these limitations with the backing power of your religion.
I have been thinking about physical autonomy lately — specifically, a woman’s body from the perspective of religion.
Far and away, religious institutions are the groups most concerned with controlling and restricting women’s rights, specifically, her body and her ability to make decisions about it.
This troubles me, as a person, and specifically, as a person who identifies as a Christian.
A hallmark of the most conservative branch of every major religion — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism — is the urgent need to control women’s bodies. This is a natural belief, because women have traditionally been seen simply as the property of men. From the beginning of recorded history, women have not been human; women are objects, to be used, bought, sold, and controlled. Drawing from its patriarchal roots, fundamentalist religion is therefore obsessed with sex and ownership of a woman’s body. When she is young, her virginity is her most important quality. Centuries ago, brides were subjected to bloody-sheet tests; today, an American girl is bedecked with “True Love Waits” rings or publicly shamed for being a “slut,” both practices reminding her that a preserved mythical hymen and a virginal reputation is her highest calling. Keeping her veiled, literally, from male attention is crucial. She ought not be trusted to take care of herself; the male authority figures in her life will take care of that. Mutilate her genitals so that she cannot experience sexual pleasure. Keep her perpetually cognizant that her body’s sole purpose is for man’s use and for the production of offspring. When she gets a bit older, get her and keep her pregnant. Don’t let her make any choices about when to get pregnant and if to stay pregnant. Marry her to an eligible man, who will then assume responsibility for her body. She will still not be trusted to take care of herself. A man will do that for her until she dies.
I am a Christian, but I confess that it is sometimes hard to be one when I think about these historical remnants. I am even more troubled by the still-prevalent Christian attitude toward women’s bodies and autonomy. Today, Catholics and most conservative Protestants are very concerned about controlling a woman’s body and decreeing its proper uses, all with the purported backing of God Almighty.
Because I am only qualified to write about Christianity, as it is the religion I know well, I am thus limiting this discussion to Christian women. (But I’d still love to hear from you on this topic if you are familiar with other religions. Please chime in.)
As I have written before, Jesus valued women as human beings, which is really saying something, considering the time in which he lived. The early church also valued women as human beings, and we know that women were called apostles and priests and served as deacons and as leaders in the church.
But not too long after its founding, Christianity fell back to its strongly patriarchal roots. The revered church fathers — Tertullian, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, among others — and later early reformers — Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley — have all said appallingly hateful things about women, along with hundreds of their fellow male theologians.
Church leaders today are a bit quieter about their hatred of women, but misogyny is still palpable in many of the conservative church’s teachings. For me, denominations obsessed with controlling women’s bodies and sexuality are the most vivid signifier of this entrenched Christian belief that women are evil, untrustworthy, and lesser creatures.
In the United States, there is a frightening trend of anti-reproductive rights, inspired by conservative religion. As the gay rights movement in the United States is increasingly achieving success with marriage equality, the women’s reproductive rights movement seems to be losing ground.* (*A point that Jill Lepore made in her recent New Yorker piece on the legal history surrounding reproductive rights and the choice justices made between privacy and equality.) Because we, as a culture often politically motivated by Christian thought, don’t care about women’s equality, corporations get to decide whether women can have access to affordable contraception and the right to a safe, legal abortion is being curtailed wherever possible. If you can control a woman’s body, you can control her entire life.
So, why is conservative Christianity fixated on women’s bodies and how can I still call myself a Christian and a feminist?
The first question merits a simple answer. There is power in tradition, and power begets the desire for more power. Conservative Christian denominations (Catholics, evangelicals, many of the so-called reformed church movements) care about controlling women’s bodies because (a) they always have done so and (b) they don’t want to be usurped. Subjugating women is an excellent way to maintain the power of the patriarchy in the church. Keep women “in their place” by denying them the power to regulate their own bodies. Don’t ordain them. Don’t let them hold any positions of leadership in any sphere, whether at home or in the church — and in this way, keep sinking your denomination further into oblivion and cultural irrelevance.
This, therefore, is my sincere hope: that denominations that refuse to accept women as people will die out. Hold to your precious patriarchal ideals for as long as you can, but I believe (and I think I have to believe, for my sanity) that such a misogynistic theology (and, indeed, many of the men who hold fast to it) are slowly and actually dying.
This hope is how I can still be a Christian and a feminist. I belong to a famously progressive denomination that ordains women and gay people, and this branch of the church gives me hope. I am blessed to know women priests who are changing the way that the church interprets gender. I am inspired by their faith and their hope for transformation. I believe that I belong to a religion that was intended to be FOR half of its most faithful adherents — women. We certainly got off to a rocky start, and we are still stumbling, but I don’t think we’ve seen the endgame of Christianity in relation to women.
In the meantime, what can be done for the majority of American Christian women suffocating under the weight of patriarchal tradition?
Campaign for churches to ordain women. Until women can be accepted at the highest levels of church leadership, major Christian denominations will never truly respect women as human beings and equal children of God. Elect women as leaders in a public, congregation-facing way. Start conversations about women in church history. Educate the clergy and laypeople; help men see women — and women see themselves — as equally valid partners in the kingdom of God. Preach equality. Don’t stop talking about this. And in this way, perhaps, women’s bodies — and hearts and minds — can be freed from the shackles of conservative religion.