“Nature says to a woman: ‘Be beautiful if you can, wise if you can, but be respected, that is essential.'”~Pierre Beaumarchais
Family was another contributor. On one side of my family there existed a more ambiguous portrayal of gender roles with shared male and female responsibilities; on the other side, such roles were more defined and expected. My maternal side of the family consisted of strong, intelligent women, who despite taking on the primary role of child caregiver, were also major financial contributors, if not sole financial contributors to their families. Both men and women assumed their definitive roles, but each transgressed societal standards. Men, along with women, both worked and took on child rearing and household responsibilities without question or expected praise.
My paternal side was an entirely different realm. Gender roles were both defined and expected, and anyone (women) who challenged these roles were looked upon with disdain. I don’t mean to paint a picture of women in my paternal family as being burned at the stake for challenging her maternal role, quite the opposite actually. The women of this family did challenge her roles, and the men began to evolve into more modern beings, but gendered roles and expectations still maintained their place. The women in this family may be strong, intelligent, and hard working, but we will always be first and foremost mothers, wives, and housekeepers. This is our ultimate ranking. This is, and should be, our ultimate objective.
So there I was, somewhere in between these two familial polar opposites. Drawn heavily to the strongest women who defied these roles and expectations (my childhood role models and heroes were always these women), and yet beat down by a society (and in many ways, family) who marginalized my gender and persisted in instilling this feminine debasement onto me. Part of me wanted to aspire to the role I was born into, since this is where I was likely to gain the most praise and acceptance. The other part of me wanted to rebel against such definitions, angry that I was expected to live up to a certain standard without regard to my own inner ambitions.
Equality for all is a fight that has been going on for decades, long predating our current century. Yet, the concept of women fighting for equality is, much to my surprise, still a ridiculous notion. The idea that women should speak out against their societal roles and the pressures of being defined by these roles, is a battle I had not expected to wage with women. I thought all women lived in my bubble (?). Certainly I expected to encounter resistance; internalized societal structures are not easy to alter. Structured gender roles are simply not something to be questioned or altered, and those who do are quickly vilified. I was initially shocked when women of my own generation (who are lucky enough to have had some of the toughest battles fought while we rested comfortably in our mothers’ wombs) were offended by my attempts to speak out against societal pressures put onto mothers and the objectification and ultimate vilification of young, single women. In my own naivete, I had actually expected many to come forward with “what a relief to have someone speak up!” or “I’ve always felt this too!!” Unfortunately my belief that society (strongly patriarchal) first defines our roles in the most subtle ways possible (refer to my above mention of varying forms of media…our bodies as seemingly government property…our reproductive rights…laws (!!),…I’m digressing…), thus conditioning us to live and act accordingly, is not shared by the majority. I am reminded through this reluctance/resistance that women are often the harshest critics of other women, and the most demanding when it comes to obeying gendered roles.
I have come to realize that my radical way of thinking could use some restructuring (at least rhetorically…I get a little too passionate, sometimes appearing misguided in my beliefs…or so it has been pointed out), yet I stand firm in my belief that female oppression is the root of many issues within our society. I do not condemn these so-called “rules” as bad per se, since the argument could be made (and has been made) that defined roles help maintain a sense of structure that benefits society. I simply question the pressures and expectations that are continuously put onto women and the ultimate judgments and scathing that result when one does not live according to society’s rules and expectations. Such structures far too often forgive awry male behavior, and yet assail women viciously for a multitude of ‘offenses’ that go against societal roles and expectations.
I struggle with the resistance from my own gender to challenge these roles and expectations, but what plagues me most is women suppressing women . We are our worst and most critical judges, much too often resorting to vicious name calling such as ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ while consistently judging each other on her ability to uphold the female moral standards set by our innumerable societal definitions. It bothers me beyond expression that my biggest hurdle to patriarchal sensibilities are not males, but females. It is the women I encounter, more than the men, who are the most reluctant to alter our definitions and structured roles. It is women who feel that her sacred role is under attack and in danger, and women who respond the harshest to any challenge to these defined views and expectations.
As we fight in the workplace and into the courts for equal pay and equal opportunities for advancement, and as we fight to have our voices heard without accompanying labels (‘pushy,’ ‘bitchy’), and as we fight to be viewed as intelligent, hardworking beings with families (rather than wives and mothers with hobbies and interests), we must remember to stop fighting each other. We must stop labeling each other, we must stop forcing moral judgments onto one another and instead embrace and empower one another. We must stop accepting our definitive roles as the commandments for female behavior and livelihood and be more understanding and excepting of individual existence. We must end unrealistic expectations based on unwritten (well, some written) rules and definitions. We are not, and never will be, ‘Stepford wives,’ but individuals with individual experiences, emotions, struggles, opinions, aspirations, ambitions, contributions, voices…
We must end the fight against each other.