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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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.

Pride, Accomplishments, and Degrees: On Being a First Generation Graduate Student

Women in my family don’t go to graduate school.

Women in my family barely get degrees at all.

Perhaps it wasn’t so unusual for the times that my grandmother never went to college. Even with a high school education, she was able to do a variety of things from teaching kindergarten to having a real estate career.

My mom received only slightly more education, obtaining an associate’s degree rather than the four year degree she had initially intended to get. Unlike many women in the cult, she didn’t go to her IFB school in pursuit of her M.R.S. degree (where you get a husband instead of a diploma), but like most women in IFB schools, she left with one.

I also didn’t go to Bob Jones University to find me a man. Even though the pressure to “date” was astronomically high for girls there (especially those who were deemed fit for being a preacher’s wife), I managed to avoid a serious relationship until my junior year.

When I dropped out just before beginning my senior year and got married, I seemed to be on my way to fulfilling the pattern set up for me by my foremothers. There was little expectation that I would get my bachelor’s. My mother clicked her tongue as she told me that I would regret my decision later.

Dire predictions weren’t far behind my vows:  “First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes baby in a baby carriage.” If betting were allowed, I suspect that half the cult would have put their money on my being pregnant within a few months.

I was still determined to graduate, though. In spite of, or perhaps because of, their anger, disappointment, and expectations of my failure, I fought like a banshee to transfer to a new university…a secular one, where I realized that the three years I’d spent previously at BJU were as good as wasted.

When I finally received my diploma, it didn’t strike me as particularly unusual…except maybe the timing. I was aware that I had broken “out of order” by marrying first and graduating after, but it never occurred to me that I was doing something momentous for my family history.

This past week, though, I realized that not only am I one of the few women who received a four-year degree in my family. I’m also one of the few who has received a secular degree from a non-religious school (even considering my extended family, I can only think of one other cousin, two if I count the men too).

Now I’m working towards a Master’s.

There’s a part of me that feels incredibly out of place with this realization. I’ve never considered myself on the spectrum of “first generation to go to college” before, but I suppose on some levels that’s what I am.

What is it that makes one generation conform to the norms and expectations that they’ve been taught and makes another generation break out and do things that have never been done before?

There’s nothing in my upbringing that would suggest I would leave a cult and fight to create a life that didn’t follow the religious, gender, or cultural roles I’d been given as a child…but somehow, even as I seemed to repeat familiar patterns, I changed them—changed me.

It’s hard to believe that in a time when women earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men that my realization is such a big deal, but it feels like it’s completely transformed my perspective.

I spent so much of my time as a child trying to be “the best”—to gain the pride, approval, and affection of my parents through my achievements and academic performance. But it was always in the shadow of my father’s accomplishments. If I got an A on a test, he would tell about getting an A+ on his seminary test. I simply couldn’t outshine him, but I continued to try. For some reason, I thought that would guarantee my parents’ love.

Of course, I realize now that basing my worthiness on my academic performance is ridiculous. My parents’ approval is tenuous and fleeting, and I’ve come to accept that they will never truly be proud of who I am since pretty much everything about me goes against their beliefs.

Nevertheless it’s a struggle that still crept in even just a few years ago, the childlike anticipation of praise when I finally got my undergraduate degree, followed by the bitter disappointment of realizing that it wasn’t good enough…just like everything else.

It’s ironic that my parents can’t recognize the accomplishment that I’ve already made. The nuances of breaking my own glass ceiling are lost on them.

But I see it. I know that despite how much of a failure they think I am, I’ve already done more than they have. And in seeing it, there’s a kind of comfort that even if I fail, I’ve already succeeded. For the first time, being proud of myself is all that I need.