The Little Woman that Could

Representation matters.

We hear that phrase tossed around, but how often do we actually think about what it means?

I’ve been wrestling with this concept this week a lot. As a fresh graduate opening my own practice, I’m having to think about my skills and abilities and the risks that I can afford to take in a way that I haven’t ever had to do before.

From an objective standpoint, I’m ready and more than capable. I manage the finances in my personal life and work part time as an assistant to a bookkeeper for a small business. I have that exposure. I’m organized to a fault. I think ahead. I have sought out advice, some freely given, some paid for. I have built a solid financial and practical foundation for myself.

I’m going into a field that is in high demand in my area. Counselors literally can’t keep up with the number of people seeking services. I have a guaranteed flow of clients sooner or later.

I have the necessary skills for my field. I excelled both in my “book learning” as well as the practical application portion of my training. As a student, I was involved in conferences and presentations that most don’t begin to pursue until well into their post-graduate careers, and my supervisors have all predicted that I will do well in my field (and I have to fight with myself to acknowledge that because it feels “arrogant” to write).

BUT

Representation matters.

Growing up, I heard my mom downplay her intellectual skills. I watched her choose to work out of the home from financial necessity but never pursuing a career.

I took in the lessons about how women were supposed to be the homemakers and men the breadwinners. I learned that a college education for a woman was more about having an income option to fall back on, but should be something that wouldn’t outshine the husband (the finding of one was also a primary reason for college).

My brother, who struggled in the school things at which I excelled, defensively taunted me about being “book smart” but not “street smart.”

I learned to think of myself as a naïve dreamer who wouldn’t survive out in the world on my own because that’s how he saw me.

I learned to think of myself as incompetent and horribly dependent because that’s how he saw me.

In college, before I left the cult, I was pressured to learn violin pedagogy because, like my mom before me, teaching music to young children out of the home was the best marketable skill I was told I had. Meanwhile, my desire to pursue writing was deemed impractical. When I initially expressed that I didn’t want to get married, people tut-tutted about how I would provide for myself.

Graduate school wasn’t something I saw the women around me pursuing. Careers were things for men.

So now, as I dive into my future, learning to see myself as a professional woman with a career—a self-employed woman, no less—I realize that the strongest image I have of myself when I think about this next step is that of the naïve, incompetent, book-smart not street-smart child who has no hope of making it in the world on her own.

I feel guilty for putting money into setting up a practice (it’s extravagant and impractical!), nervous that I’ll fail miserably (maybe careers really aren’t for people like me!).

I can talk myself into seeing my competencies, preparation, and skill…most of the time. But it takes effort. My default is the image I was taught to see of myself—of women’s potential—as a child.

Which is why I’m determined to push through these doubts and take the chance of trusting the foundation I have laid between my education and my “worldly” experience. I drown out the doubts the way Thomas the Train climbed the hill: “I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”

Eventually, maybe I’ll see myself in a different light without so much effort.

And I hope that one day another little girl will be able to look around and see a rainbow of examples of women doing the things that I was taught they don’t do. Maybe one day I might be one of the Jenga pieces that topples the limited tower in which girls are kept because I dared to remove myself from that tower.

Representation matters.

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A Different Kind of Privilege Conversation

Good morning, lovely readers!

Today I want to talk about something that has been on my mind following a thought-provoking interaction with a friend.

A small group (including me and this friend) were prepping for a thing—the thing is not important in the context of the story aside from the fact that we were working on it together and made our way over to a discussion of privilege in the process.

But not the kind of discussion that you might typically see, where people “confess” which privileges they have and vow to stop using their privileges as though privilege were a sin.

Instead we started imagining that privileges could be purchased through a special, imaginary catalog, exploring which ones we each might choose to have if we could buy anything out of this catalog.

Most of the responses were pretty typical; I didn’t even have to think about mine before blurting out “visibility.” When it came time for my friend to go, he hesitated and pondered for a bit before expressing that this would seem off to some of us because of his being straight, white, and a cisman, but he expressed that the privilege that he really wanted was the sense of connection and belonging to a culture or identity like he saw with some of us.

The answer took me aback, but not because I have come to expect that socially conscious men acknowledge that they have “nothing but privilege” (not necessarily something I support, but a common enough reaction to privilege questions). Rather, it took me aback because of the intense longing I actually felt when he said that.

He pointed out to me something I didn’t even realize I had…which makes sense because you are typically blind to your privilege until you’re made aware of it, right? Right. Suddenly all those times that I had scoffed at people who said “Well when’s international men’s day?” or “We need a straight pride parade”—those times began to take on a different light.

Later, as he and I talked more, I began to realize that there isn’t really a positive identity towards which someone like him could turn.

As a woman, I can turn away from sexist characterizations of myself and draw on the beautiful feminist, body-positive, sex-positive, goddess spirituality that I have come to love. As a bi person, I can connect with the Queer community or specific bi groups where I can openly celebrate my identity, taking pride in my sexual orientation. Hell, I’ve even written posts about it.

I have long thought that it is important for marginalized individuals to find ways of celebrating and loving their marginalized parts so that the whole of their interaction with those parts isn’t just fighting against prejudice or discrimination.

But I literally never thought about people like my friend and how they are expected to disown, distance, or divorce themselves from the identity of oppressor but have no alternative positive version of the identity to seek. All the “pride” groups for privileged identities are associated with vitriolic hatred and intolerance. If someone says they have white pride—the context basically means they are a white supremacist. If someone says they have straight pride—the connotation is that they’re homophobic.

But “pride” in that context is more about the way that it is used to mask intolerance, hatred, and superiority complexes. It’s so far from the definition and connotation of pride used in the context of marginalized identities that it’s barely the same word.

When I express pride in being bi, I definitely don’t mean that I think I’m superior to straight people or that I want to strip them of human rights. When I express pride in my feminine side, I’m not harboring hatred towards men.

I’m not trying to say that we need to reclaim the “pride” word. Rather, I’m thinking more about the possibility for…shall we call it healthy self-esteem and sense of belonging?

I want men to have a positive masculinity to gravitate towards. I want them to have ways of relating to their gender that isn’t rooted in shame (if they’re conscious enough to see women’s issues), neutrality (probably the most positive of what I see available currently), or hypermasculinity and arrogance.

I think it’s necessary, in fact. Because becoming interested in social justice shouldn’t carry the idea that you have to forever be ashamed of who you are and disconnected from a sense of dignity. My friend later expressed to me that he was extremely nervous, and I could see that in other contexts, he might have been raked across the coals without anyone bothering to try to understand where he was coming from.

In another context, I might have been the one laughing about fragile masculinity.

So what am I saying? I know I’ve rambled a lot in this post. I guess the thing that has been weighing on my mind is really that we need to do better at understanding that having privilege doesn’t mean that people don’t have a similar desire to belong and feel good about themselves—that that desire is not bad. It’s just a function of being human. We literally all have it. And social justice is a hobbled movement if we’re asking people to “wake up” but not offering alternatives of ways they can achieve those needs without resorting to harmful power structures.

 

 

The Answer to Hate Speech Isn’t Legislation: Lessons from Watching Pussy Riot

Pussy Riot recently released a couple new videos, one a direct warning about Trump, the other an anthem to vaginas (which is awesome as fuck!).

It inspired me to watch the documentary about them that’s available on Netflix right now, and I want to encourage everyone to watch it.

Protest is such an important form of free speech, and this documentary gives a stark example of what happens when totalitarian religion and government try to outlaw “offensive” and “hateful” speech.

We’ve been experiencing an erosion of the rights to protest and free speech…driven as much by the militarized response to human rights  and environmental protests (far too many examples to link to) as by the liberal anger towards “hate speech.”

It’s a dangerous trend. And neither conservatives nor liberals seem to realize that if you make it punishable for the other to have protests and free speech, as offensive as it may be, you set yourself up for the same.

In the documentary, you can see how the former intolerance for religious freedom has changed to intolerance for “blasphemy.” But nothing’s really changed. The foundation–that the government has the power to punish one for their beliefs and expression–is the same.

With the recent videos, Pussy Riot does a brilliant job of showing how Trump represents an overt threat to freedom, but the documentary carries a dire warning of another kind.

Free speech is only as secure as the right for the most offensive person to speak without legal retaliation.

As a bi feminist, I may not like it when someone speaks misogynistic or homophobic things, but I realize that their right to that opinion is my right to mine (and you’d better believe I want to be able to respond).

As we head into the future, with whoever becomes President, we as a nation really must consider what kind of nation we want to live in.

Will we support the rights of those we disagree with to have their voice so that we can protect our own?

Or will we support the comfort that comes when a police force can shut down those who make us uncomfortable and thus begin crafting our own gags?

 

Expanding Feminism with Archetypes: Hestia vs. Hera

Recently I’ve been reading a book called Goddesses in Everywoman: A New Psychology of Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen. It’s an older book with a fair bit of binary language and a slight over-emphasis on literal application of archetypes to women’s lives, but it has clarified something for me that I’ve struggled with for quite some time.

I like to clean. I like to cook. I like to do a lot of things that might be associated with “typical women’s chores.”

At least, in the right circumstances I do. Sometimes I loathe it and feel boxed into the housewife category. Sometimes when I enjoy dusting or doing laundry, my feminist mind observes with cool disapproval.

I could sort of recognize that the times I enjoyed cleaning were different from when I felt trapped into cleaning, but it still felt like maybe I was caving to gender conditioning or expectations.

That all changed when I read Bolen’s descriptions of the goddess of the hearth vs. the goddess of marriage.

Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, is not a very prominent goddess. According to Bolen, she was honored in every house and temple by the central fire, but she was also pretty unassuming, preferring to sit back and take pleasure in the quiet maintenance of the hearth rather than running off on wild adventures like Artemis or seeking out trysts like Aphrodite.

Hera, the goddess of marriage, is a little more well-known as Zeus’ wife. She’s often portrayed as wildly jealous of Zeus’ affairs with other women but is also fiercely devoted to her role as wife. The convoluted issues of jealousy aside, Bolen describes her as being primarily driven by her union—the stereotypical fifties wife who promotes her husband’s career and doesn’t exactly have a lot of interests of her own.

Hestia and Hera both can be seen doing somewhat similar things sometimes, but for different reasons.

Hera is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because a clean home is a comfortable home for her man, the type of goddess that would probably throw a dinner party to help her husband get a promotion.

Hestia is the type of goddess that would dust and clean because it brings her joy and peace to be in a space that feels good. She would cook because she enjoys the act of preparing food.

I can identify very strongly with Hestia. I like beauty, cleanliness, and harmony around me. I enjoy doing the things that bring that to my surroundings. I know that even if I were single I would still do much of what I currently do in my marriage.

But I loathe being a housewife!

If I’m doing my own laundry, I’m happy as can be. If I’m doing someone else’s laundry, suddenly the task seems like an enormous burden, demeaning as well as time-consuming. If I am cooking dinner because I want to have yummy food that carries the magic of having been prepared by hand, I feel content and absorbed in the process. If I’m cooking a meal because I feel obligated to have dinner on the table when my partner comes home from work, I find the process overwhelming and depressing.

I was conditioned to be Hera, so I’m not entirely without that influence. I do find myself periodically running around trying to be the perfect housewife, and that’s when I really hate household chores.

Feminism has been key in helping me buck that obligatory mindset, but I didn’t quite realize initially that rejecting the notion that I need to clean and cook to “make a home” for my partner didn’t necessarily mean that I would want to stop doing home making things entirely.

To some extent, I think certain facets of feminism contribute to that. There’s a certain amount of judgment or shame that sometimes gets directed towards women who might actually want to be a housewife or carry the greater burden of chores in the home.

It’s not everywhere. There are also feminist circles that uphold the value that a woman should get to decide what she wants to do, even if that is doing things traditionally relegated to women. But it’s present enough that when the Hestia archetype would take hold and I found myself enjoying the process of organizing a closet, I would feel guilty, wondering if I was falling back into old conditioning.

I can see now that Hestia and Hera are vastly different motivating forces. The one chooses to “keep the hearth” because it is valuable in and of itself to her. She probably wouldn’t do it if it weren’t personally fulfilling because she isn’t driven by duty or public opinion.

The other chooses to “keep the hearth” because it contributes to what she thinks a wife should be.

Hestia does her thing for herself whereas Hera does her thing for her husband.

It’s such a subtle but important distinction.

Hestia is a natural part of my personality. Hera is not (though she might be for others). When I find myself driven by the conditioning of “should’s,” I embody the patriarchy’s mandate that I should want to be the housewife that I’ve been told I should be.

This is one area where I think feminism can grow–in helping women see the difference between doing what they choose to do for themselves vs. doing what they are expected to do by patriarchy.

Rejecting the imposition of Hera on me doesn’t mean that Hestia disappears. I can still feel called to keep my hearth for reasons that are authentic to me.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame: A Metaphor of Patriarchy

I recently read The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.

Two things: It’s a ridiculously long book. I confess I skipped a few pages…er chapters with unnecessarily detailed descriptions of buildings and scenery. (Like he literally had whole chapters of nothing but description!)

And it’s fucking dark and depressing.

It’s nothing like the Disney movie. I found none of the characters to be decent human beings, except Esmerelda.

Spoiler alert: she dies.

In the afterword of my edition, it talks about how Victor Hugo was trying to show the process of fate and how inescapable it is.

I didn’t see that.

I did see some interesting feminist themes though.

I was struck by how sensual yet virginal Esmerelda is. She belongs to no man. She chooses to marry a somewhat important character to save him from being “executed” by the court of fools, but she basically tells him to fuck off when he wants to consummate the marriage.

But her virginity isn’t one of chastity in the Christian sense.

She’s a dancer and seems very in touch with her body. She acknowledges having desires. She isn’t afraid to own her sexiness. In a way, her virginity seems more about her being in charge of her sexuality. She is in search of her mother (perhaps a symbol for the sacred feminine or crone) and doesn’t want to have sex until she has found her.

Therefore, I dubbed her the “wild feminine spirit.”

And in a patriarchal world, of course the wild feminine would be besieged from all sides.

There are two characters who want Esmerelda sexually. Phoebus, a playboy soldier, is one. Esmerelda develops a crush on him after he rescues her. Phoebus is named after a sun god, and in a way, I believe that Esmerelda is in love with what he should be rather than who he actually is. She is obsessed with his name but never really knows him.

Phoebus, the non-god, is a pretty douchey guy. He has a fiancée, but is bored with her. He finds sport in seducing women. When he sees Esmerelda, he decides he wants to have sex with her and sets about trying to seduce her with promises of love that he doesn’t mean.

He is a perfect example of objectification within patriarchy. He has no concern for her as an actual person and merely wants to possess her sexually. He tries to guilt her for not wanting to have sex. He promises her things that he never intends on following through on. Sound familiar?

Frollo, the priest mentioned above, is the other. He hates Esmerelda’s sexuality and craves her at the same time. He has spent his life in celibacy. When he becomes aroused by Esmerelda’s independent spirit, he blames her for his own arousal.

In other words, he’s purity culture incarnate.

Interestingly, he’s probably far worse than Phoebus. Phoebus doesn’t care about Esmerelda, but he also doesn’t see her as responsible for his own desires. Frollo, on the other hand, thinks she is the devil for the way he thinks about her.

He blames her and abdicates his own responsibility for his sexual desires. In doing so, he justifies stalking her, trying to kidnap her, trying to rape her, and ultimately murdering her.

Phoebus embodies the “boys will be boys” mentality of patriarchy.

Frollo embodies the “I can’t help it; she was asking for it” mentality of rape culture.

He even tries to convince Esmerelda, as she is languishing in a dungeon without food, warmth, or basic necessities of any kind, that he is suffering more than she.

He gets off on images of her being tortured until she confesses to being a witch.

Ultimately, when he cannot force her to love him, he abandons her to the gallows, allowing her to be executed as a witch.

In the end, Frollo acts the way his own god acts, demanding the submission and love of someone while threatening to punish them if they will not comply.

And the namesake of the book? Well, he’s definitely not as nice as Disney portrays him. Probably for good reason, he hates everyone in Paris except the man who raised him. Quasimodo attempts to help Frollo the first time he tries to capture Esmerelda. He gets caught and punished for the attempted kidnapping. When Frollo turns his back on him while he is in the stocks, Esmerelda shows him kindness by bringing him some water.

At that moment, he falls in love with her, in a different way from the others. He doesn’t want to own her or force her sexually. He longs to be loved by her but sees her as a person. Even then, he is pretty despicable. He protects her from rape one night, but when he realizes he’s fighting off his master, he cowers down, basically saying, “Go ahead and rape her, but please kill me first so I don’t have to feel bad about it (my paraphrase).”

So Quasimodo has glimmers of being able to be a good character, but ultimately cannot stand up to patriarchy and power enough to be good.

I went back and forth as to whether I saw Quasimodo as a symbol for the deformity of healthy masculinity, which cannot fully develop in a patriarchal, misogynist culture or whether I saw him as the alienated and tortured “good” potential of Frollo, twisted by the church, suppression of his own sexuality, and his lust for power.

Probably Quasimodo is both.

Eventually he redeems himself slightly by killing Frollo, but only after he has been rudely awakened to Frollo’s evil when he sees Esmerelda hanging and Frollo laughing in delight.

Frollo certainly spouted off plenty about fate, so I can see where readers might think he is speaking for the author, but I was struck by how fate was often the name he gave his own inability to take responsibility for his desires, needs, and vices. Externalizing his desire and viewing his sexuality as evil set the stage for his dehumanizing Esmerelda and blaming her for the abuse he carried out.

Throughout the story, for all of the men who bemoaned “fate,” the only person who was literally powerless, imprisoned, and at the mercy of other people’s choices was Esmerelda. (Well, the only main character). The others who felt “powerless” to fate were only powerless insofar as they refused to own their choices and actions in the events.

And Frollo, in feeling the most powerless, was the one with his hand on all the strings.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is probably one of the most depressing books I have ever read, but I can’t say that it was a terrible book. There was so much there symbolically to analyze, and I was mesmerized by the way that it seemed to map out how patriarchy crushes a woman’s attempt to own her own body and sexuality. While I might have been happier with a different ending, I can see how no other ending would have carried the impact. In the end, it’s a story of the feminine being betrayed and murdered for refusing to submit.

 

 

A Story of Love and Marriage

If you compared my partner and me today to who we were as a couple when we first married, you would hardly recognize our marriage as the same marriage.

In fact, today we don’t even call it a marriage. Neither of us wears a ring, and I only refer to my partner as my “husband” when I don’t see another way around a system that still often places men as the head of the home.

We got married because we felt we had to in order to live together and escape the cult. Looking back, it wasn’t my wisest decision. I was conditioned to not just tolerate abuse but to actually consider it an expression of love. The odds of my choosing someone from within the cult who would reject that kind of power when I thought it my literal duty to grovel at his feet were probably against me.

The odds of us staying together after we left and throughout our deconversion process were also probably against us.

Every cycle of growth that one of us went through often required a redefinition of what our relationship was, but somehow we managed to stay connected and in love in spite of an unviable relationship model and significant individual changes to our worldviews.

Despite being a choice that I would never recommend to anyone else, it’s been a choice that I have never regretted.

I’ve often thought about what I would do if I were still partnered with my partner but unmarried. If I could take my current feminist consciousness and give it to my 21 year old self, would I still choose to marry?

The answer has differed over the years. At one point, it was, “Yes, because it worked out.” Then it was, “No, we wouldn’t need marriage to validate our love.” Then it was, “Yes, because of the benefits.” Then it was, “No, we weren’t mature enough. It could have been a terrible thing.”

Right now, it’s a pretty solid yes, but not because of pragmatics or some ridiculously fucked up version of ownership masquerading as romance.

Rather, I’ve come to realize that while I might disagree with the history of what marriage has been (a means of transferring property and controlling/disempowering women), I actually don’t disagree with the concept of marriage itself.

One of the things that I have always deeply felt in my own marriage is a sense of belonging.

During the height of my attempts to combat my own internalization of patriarchal relationship maps, I felt that that sense of belonging was a betrayal. I didn’t want to belong to my partner. He certainly didn’t belong to me.

But I’ve come to realize that belonging doesn’t have to signify ownership. I can belong with someone without belonging to them.

Certainly I don’t need a “marriage” for that sense of belonging to be true. However, marriage is suddenly beautiful to me because it’s one of the only ways of getting official recognition for one’s chosen family.

In general, society acts as though those who are biologically related to you somehow hold more weight than those to whom you are emotionally close. People say that “blood is thicker than water.”

That is, people say that when they have the privilege of family.

When your family rejects you or disowns you…or isn’t safe for you, then the concept that blood is thicker becomes almost laughable.

The queer community has learned through experience that the people you choose to surround yourself with can be far more like “family” than the people who contributed their DNA to yours.

Marriage is one way that someone can stand up and say, “I choose to be connected to this person. I choose them as my family.”

I never want to be viewed as the ward, property, or “ball and chain” of my partner, but that is only one story of marriage.

I do want the world to know that we are a family. I’m proud of being family with him.

That is the story of marriage that I choose.

 

My Selfie-Confidence Trumps Your Narcissism

There are times when I feel like I’ve stepped into an alternate universe, a world where Donald Trump is celebrated for his lack of empathy and overt arrogance while women are slut-shamed on social media and called “narcissistic” for taking a selfie.

But then I remember that it’s just another day in patriarchy.

In patriarchy, no one is really all that concerned about a cis, white, straight male strutting around, stroking his ego, and ruthlessly attempting to crush anyone who makes him feel like less than the absolute most superior being in the universe.

Trump could be a stand-in for Narcissus himself, but cis, white, straight men are used to being able to indulge in self-grandiosity at other’s expense. No one finds it shocking when they do so because patriarchy has established that as a man’s prerogative.

However, women daring to self-validate—that indeed is a threat to society.

If women began to learn that they could appreciate themselves outside of the male gaze, they might decide that they don’t need to cater to the male gaze.

If women discovered that they could recognize and declare their own value—that their value came from within rather than from without—they might discover that respect and humanity is something they deserve simply because they are, not because it is “generously” bestowed upon them from the menfolk.

If women were able to love themselves and continue to love others, they might figure out that they don’t need to sacrifice their own well-being in order to be in relationship with others.

Selfies give women control over how they reveal themselves to the world and power to self-determine their own sense of who they are.

In the face of such a threat to the control of the other half of the population, patriarchy could only respond in a handful of ways—convince women that selfies are still about the male gaze and gaining approval from men or, when that fails, shame women for being self-absorbed.

If patriarchy is so threatened by women who self-validate by snapping a little picture, imagine what would happen if women became conscious of the power they have at the tip of their fingers….