II. Academic Excursions : Womxn

But I also exist in this and have questions of my own that stand outside of yours…

"The opposite type of emancipation--in which the woman has to be equal to the man and even exceed him in every respect, including the phallic orgasmic competition--eventually results in a new type of female suppression: the woman is acceptable only when she appears in men's clothes, until this finally becomes a caricature [...] This leaves no room for the woman to discover her own female desires."
                                      -Paul Verhaeghe, Love in a Time of Loneliness

Historically, a womxn’s identity has been derived from her relationship to others and to her functional role rather than her independent being. She was (is) someone’s wife or mother. She is a good housekeeper, a good cook, a good lover. She is a caretaker, a nurturer. Though we like to think the days have long past when womxn were measured by how clean a house they kept, we only have to look to the anxiety expressed by working womxn today over whether they are successfully navigating both worlds to see such measuring still firmly intact. Indeed, the story of what it means to be a womxn, as well as most theories about womxn, have been produced and written by men and driven by ideologies that undervalue “traditional womxn’s work.” There are, of course, incredible people disrupting this discourse, rattling it around, challenging it, but it remains insidiously operative in our unconscious, our language, our social world, our media, and our frequently unquestioned “common sense” beliefs. The traditional spelling of “women” (wo-men as an extension of men) being the example par excellence. (Language matters.)

Our society has been structured this way such that only now are womxn even becoming aware of just how much we have been structured this way. We find ourselves doing things to keep others happy at our own expense—feelings of guilt arising when time for oneself is taken. Words often measured (if spoken at all) to prevent hurting others' feelings or appearing "selfish." Voices often strangled for reasons that elude our understanding. What creates such ambivalence and fear about creating a space of one’s own? Why this failure of speech?

What is womxn’s voice, independent of her relationships—of her identifications through other people? We are certainly beginning to discover it as increasing numbers of people march for womxn’s rights; however, one cannot help but remember the disbelief and shock that reverberated through many people when it was discovered that 42% of womxn voted for 45, and that of that 42%, 62% were white womxn. People scrambled to understand this given 45’s blatant misogyny, sexist rhetoric, and explicit degradation of womxn.  How could so many womxn vote for a man who gleefully denigrated womxn, going so far as to suggest he could “do anything” he wanted with them? Surely, womxn everywhere were livid?

The numbers tell a different story (as does the outcome of the election). In a very real sense, this question of “what the hell happened” is closely tied to womxn’s subjectivity because it would seem that womxn themselves did not act in their best interests. What seems mind-boggling, however, begins to make a bit more sense if we scratch the surface and acknowledge that much of who we are is hidden from us. Indeed, much of what motivates us is unconscious and formed from the social and cultural fabric of the time. Ideas become so well-integrated into this fabric, we mistake them for being unquestionable and thus unchangeable Truths. People believe womxn are more caring than men, by nature, rather than because we have constructed and created myths that make it so, and then drilled it into the heads of everyone via media, jokes, language, and so on.

In 1948, Billie Holiday sang Girls Were Made to Take Care of Boys:

Girls were made to take care of boys
To be kind and dutiful
Girls were made to take care of boys
Made to share their sorrows
Made to share their joys
Made to help and guide them
With ever a patient hand

Made to give affection
In the right direction
(Always understand)

Now boys may think they take care of girls|
Just because they pass on their fashions and their curls
But I've always found
It's just the other way around
(Other way around)

If you need the girl
And declare you do
(Tell her that you need her)
She'll be there
To take care of you
(She'll be there)
(Now boys may think they take care of girls
Just because they're clever with their fashions and their curls)
But I've always found
It's just the other way around

The song was written by a male, and ostensibly, meant to subvert the idea that men take care of womxn; however, what comes across is the idea that womxn were placed here to take care of men, to be dutiful and kind, and that womxn need to be told and feel they are “needed” by men. In short, womxn exist only in reference to a man. Her role is to take care of him, and in return, she will be made to feel her existence matters because he needs her. (Rather than her existence mattering because she simply exists.) This is a role that continues to be instituted and perpetuated by our current socioeconomic order.

Now, it would seem (again) that we have come far since the 1940s when such ideas were romanticized and sang by jazz greats, but let us turn to a recent conversation I encountered between two professional womxn who are also both mothers.

Womxn A: “I never wanted to have children. I have three. I feel miserable most of the time. I felt like I had to do it to make him happy. Like, it was required. I didn’t have an option. The happiest year of my life was when I discovered he cheated on me. I left him and just freely traveled and enjoyed my life, but then I came back out of guilt.”

Womxn B: “I understand about feeling like you have to make them happy. I came home with a terrible headache the other day, and my husband’s answer was to have sex. I didn’t want to have sex. I had a headache! I just wanted to rest, but I just did it anyway to get him to be quiet.”

Womxn A: “Oh, yes! I just give my husband the obligatory blow job when that happens.”

The cliches and the struggle are real. The conversation continued, but I think this is enough of an example to show how very little we have moved forward since the 1940s in how womxn conceive of their identities and roles. When I asked the (seemingly) simple question of why anyone would give an “obligatory blow job” or have sex when she didn’t want, both womxn rolled their eyes and said, “It’s my duty. It’s just what you do to keep them happy.” I pushed a bit harder: “Do you think your husbands would be happy to know their wives are having sex when they would prefer to not? I was met with blank stares and admonitions that I do not understand because I am not a mother and wife.

We are inhabited by a social structure that eludes our conscious knowledge.

What we see here is a womxn’s identity formed from her identification with a man’s desire. He wants me to be this, so I will be it. There is little subjectivity—only identity, and identity is not something of her own that stands outside her “duty” to men. In fact, being dutiful is her identity. Being wanted by a man is what provides her identity. To not give the obligatory blow job risks loss of the man she presumes expects such things. (I say presume because this will be taken up below.) Identity is powerful. People cling to their ideas of themselves and will often go to great lengths to protect those identities. Our identities, after all, are often what we think define us and our life purpose. If someone comes along and punches a hole in said identity, well, who is left? When our identities are sustained always in relation to another, then they must also always be maintained by another. He must always want me. I must always do what is necessary to keep him.

So, to return to the question of the womxn who voted for 45, we can begin to see the underlying dynamics of womxn who perhaps really had no idea they were voting against their own interests (some did know and did so anyway, such is their right). So indoctrinated by a lifetime of believing their subjectivity comes via a man, why would they vote for a womxn, particularly a womxn they felt did not fit the standard mold of “womxndom?” Why risk stepping outside rigidified roles to question the status quo? This isn’t to say that Womxn A and Womxn B were happy—in fact, both seemed fairly unhappy—but they understood their prescribed roles and felt secure in those roles and thus remained silent. Their identities remained intact, and they got the pleasure of complaining about these men who “don’t understand” and “demand sex.” This is a far less frightening position than finding one’s own ground with nothing to fall back on. Because present days roles are so conditioned, it is much easier to simply continue on as we have, even when it means electing a blatant sexist to office. It is our "duty" after all, no, to take care of the boys?

Such overidentification with male’s desire here does little for men or womxn. It disallows womxn to find a place of their own—separate from men—and does a tremendous disservice to men by assuming them all thoughtless and cavalier enough to want womxn to have sex out of “duty” rather than out of a true desire to do so. (It is often the case that when I share with men these types of real conversations that occur between womxn, I am met with looks of surprise and disbelief.)

As womxn, we must rethink prescribed roles and step outside the status quo to locate a voice of one’s own. A voice that many fear will be “too loud,” “not feminine enough,” or will “drive men away.” This is identity based on identification with men rather than subjectivity via creation of one’s self based on one’s desires and interests. As womxn, we have subjectivities that stand outside prescribed cultural roles. What is important to recognize is that perceptions such as “too loud” and “too feminine” were created—not biologically ordained—by a patriarchal law that prioritizes the masculine over the feminine in support of a neoliberal agenda. 

To create and amplify the feminine means an honest acknowledgement of where we continue to act out antiquated social constructs that are false and no longer serve to further human evolution. This isn’t biology. It is how society has structured us at the most intimate of levels—structured us to such a degree as to not be able to recognize how we restrict our own freedom and act against our own interests.