Read It And Weep: Why the Virgin Mary Is Creepy

Today is the 25th of March, a day on which the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary is celebrated in large parts of the world. Let’s reflect on that, shall we?

In my home town of Lund, Sweden, there is a magnificent 12th-century cathedral. Though a red-blooded atheist, I like visiting the cathedral sometimes. It is beautiful. It is peaceful. It once nourished the seeds of the university, where I have had the privilige and joy of gathering much learning. (It was also built thanks to the oppression of economically vulnerable people by a wealthy elite, but let’s leave that discussion for another day, shall we? “No slaves no naves”, as we say in cathedral-building circles.)

I hold no truck with religion. As Homer Simpson so eloquently put it, “I don’t even believe in Jebus!” However, the Church of Sweden in its current form is, to use Douglas Adams’s words in a sense he never intended, “mostly harmless”. It tends to support human rights, employs a large proportion of women priests, and flies rainbow flags rather vigorously. It has moved with the times, and the days when it publicly humiliated umarried mothers, condoned marital rape, and denounced women seeking gainful employment, are reasonably far gone. In short, I have nothing against the Church of Sweden in its current form. But one thing that makes me wish I had a bulldozer and a large army of enraged kamikaze warriors armed with blowtorches is the statue of the Virgin Mary outside Lund Cathedral.

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“Skyddsmantelmadonnan”. Image: Sydsvenskan.

According to the Lund Cathedral website, the statue, entitled Skyddsmantelmadonnan (“The Madonna of the Protective Mantle”), symbolises the Virgin Mary’s  nurturing function. This representation of Mary as the nurturing, protective mother has a long tradition, going back to the Middle Ages. The wizened children appearing along the slit in the Virgin’s mantle are supposed, we are told, to represent the defenceless, the poor and the needy.

My own interpretation is very different. Rather like the Water Mother at Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, Skyddsmantelmadonnan appears forced to give up her body to parasitic creatures. Her swollen belly seems to have been brutally cut open, exposing the mushrooming embryos within. Her body is being violated in a multitude of ways, yet she smiles serenely, having been socially conditioned to endure pain and abuse.

Poor Mary. An impoverished teenage girl, impregnated by an invisible being without so much as a by-your-leave. Perhaps the concept of consent didn’t exist in first-century Nazareth.  Even if it did, a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am conception, executed by a ghost, doesn’t sound like much fun. Imagine becoming a mother without even getting any of the fun of the traditional means of conception!

To then become a representation of motherhood, of mindless succumbing fecundity, must be extremely depressing. Imagine being celebrated, for millennia, for pushing another human being out of your vagina. Another human being that nobody even asked you if you damn well wanted to push out of your vagina. Imagine this being your legacy. “She was impregnated by a ghost, and then gave birth.” And that’s it. Everyone gets so obsessed with the fact that you gave birth, while being a virgin, that any clever thoughts you might have had, or any good ideas you might have had for making the world a better place, or any hangover cures you might have developed during a rich and interesting life, are simply not recorded.

Imagine being so entirely lacking in power that you can’t even decide if you want a child, and having a pregnancy forced on you by a magical sperm dispenser. Being that powerless must suck, right? (Here would be an excellent moment, by the way, to pause and ponder the very real denial of human rights happening in state after state in the U.S., with access to abortions and contraceptives being withdrawn.) This is the life story of one of the most famous women of human history. Being raped by a ghost, and having a child.

True, the Virgin Mary has some powers, all right. According to tradition, she is able to intercede with God on behalf of sinners. Yay. If she smiles prettily, she can ask the man in charge for small favours.

So hang on, why is Mary, Mother of God a virgin, again? As is so often the case for women in a patriarchal society, the access to power, however limited, comes at a price: You have to style yourself in a way that suits the system. Sex in a patriarchal system is all about the manifestation of male power, and therefore degrades women. The mother of a god can obviously never be degraded; she must be pure and holy. Mothers having sex – ick!  This means that, if you happen to be the mother of Jesus,  you have to present the conception of your child as a miraculous, immaculate one. As my own mother, who is well versed in the Classics, likes to point out, the concept of the Virgin birth is by no means original to the Christian tradition, but has been around since forever. Somehow, that doesn’t make me less depressed about the state of humanity.

The inability of the patriarchy to admit that a person presented as a deity was conceived the old-fashioned, tried-and-tested way has led to centuries of labour being invested in inventing an increasingly embellished story of divine insemination. And it’s not only poor Mary who has been subjected to this process of invention. Mary’s mother Anne also had to be included in the wild fabulation. Anne isn’t mentioned in the canonical scriptures, but the apopcryphal gospels are crawling with stories of immaculate conceptions, sometimes going back three generations. Man-hour upon man-hour spent sitting around inventing a story. Just to make the Virgin Mary palatable to the praying, paying public.

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Saint Anne Teaching the Virgin to Read. Image from the J. Paul Getty Museum.

Has Mary never been presented any other way than as a magic baby-making machine? Actually, in the Middle Ages, the Virgin Mary was often depicted as being taught to read by St Anne. Reading was not only an activity which required a certain amount of leisure, therefore indicating wealth and social status; it also symbolised devotion.  The word of God came to mankind through the Bible, and studying Scripture was an act of devoutness. Michael Clanchy, in “Did Mothers Teach their Children to Read?” (in Smith, Lesley, ed., Motherhood, Religion and Society in Medieval Europe, 400-1400: Essays Presented to Henrietta Leyser. London: Ashgate, 2011) discusses evidence of women in medieval Europe contributing to literacy, despite the patriarchal nature of society, in their role as mothers. The veneration of Anne as mother of Mary gained ground particularly in England and France in the fourtheenth and fifteenth centuries. Depictions of her tutorial activities appear in media intended for private use, like books of hours, as well as in public art in churches, in the form of statues and stained-glass images.

Quite possibly, depictions of Anne as teacher not only symbolise the teaching of religion, but could reflect a real tradition of mothers teaching their children, including daughters, to read. As Clanchy points out, however, the purpose of teaching girl children to read was less likely to be their intellectual development for its own sake, than to prepare them for their duties as mothers and bearers of (patriarchal) tradition. A rood screen from Thetford priory, now in the Musée de Cluny, shows Mary reading the text “Audi filia et vide et inclina aurem tuam quia concupuit rex speciam tuam” (Hearken, O daughter, and see and incline thine ear, for the king has desired thy beauty), which provides a rather depressing illustration of the use of girls and women as links, through marriage, in the forging of bonds between men.

The emphasis on Mary’s literacy in the Middle Ages may thus not have been intended to extol the virtues of women’s education. Still, if one were to create a representation of Mary for the modern age, why continue the age-old story of Mary the mother, whose only function is that of reproduction, of base biological utility? If one has a choice between depicting a culturally significant woman as either a thinking, reflective person engaged in intellectual activity, or one doomed to endless biological reproduction, why choose to emphasise her maternal function? Haven’t we got enough representations of women as nurturers? When will we get public representations of women using their intellect, and showing agency?

Simone de Beauvoir, when reflecting on the cause of woman’s subordination in The Second Sex, traced it to the immanence caused by pregnancy. Child-bearing, de Beauvoir argued, literally trapped women, and tied them to the domestic sphere. The public sphere of education, economics, and jurisdiction has historically been prohibited to women, indeed has been used by men to perpetuate women’s isolation. Whether pregnancy is, as de Beauvoir argues, the ultimate cause of women’s subjugation is a matter for debate. Certainly enough prehistoric bodies (this one, for instance, which was discovered to be female in 1970) showing evidence of both childbirth and activities traditionally considered masculine like fishing, hunting, and warfare, have been found to question whether women have always been considered mere docile nurturers, or whether that is a more recent development. What we do know for sure is that the constant emphasis on women’s value as mothers and nurturers is harmful.

The kind of rhetoric that describes women as guardians of the domestic sphere is nearly always a sign of a political movement that wants to bolster patriarchal values. This means upholding a masculinity based on brute strength, the concept of family honour, and ingrained violence. (Think Vladimir Putin, or a village clan in Afghanistan, or the Republican party in the U.S.) This kind of masculinity promotes an entirely homosocial society, where women have no value except as possessions, and as a means of forming bonds between men. In a society where women have no value, they are denied education and medical care, including reproductive healthcare and the ability to regulate fertility (this is why Conservatives in the U.S. are so keen to deny women both abortions and contraceptives). The inability to regulate fertility leads to women losing the power to determine their own destinies; to choose an education and a career; trapping them in domesticity. Women who can’t support themselves financially are frequently tied to relationships with abusive men whom they are unable to leave.When women are forced to give birth to children they do not want and cannot feed, it leads to poverty and starvation.

Mounting evidence from scholars shows that gender equality is crucial to ensuring peace, stability, and prosperity. When women are able to access education on an equal basis with men, and are paid for their labour, it has positive effects on all aspects of society. Denying women education and perpetuating social patterns of violence primarily hurts women, of course, but also damages society as a whole: domestic violence, for instance, has an enormous economic impact in terms of health care costs, lost working hours, and reduced democratic involvement. And, as we know, the patriarchy hurts men, too. It is in everyone’s interest to promote women’s education and equal participation in the work force.

This is why the Lund madonna saddens and sickens me. To me, it is yet another manifestation of the patriarchal subjugation of women. It behoves the Church of Sweden – like it behoves every socially and culturally significant institution – to encourage equality. This includes promoting representations of women showing agency – if she can see it, she can be it! So can we please see the Virgin Mary kicking some arse for once?  Gender equality: it’s not a closed book.

I like ending my blog posts with a themed music video. Here’s one I like.

From Random Dudes on the Internet Deliver Us, O Lord

I had a fascinating encounter recently with a dude named Jimmy.

I came across Jimmy in a friend’s comment thread on Facebook. Normally I don’t enter into discussions with misogynists and mansplainers because, hell, life is short and there’s only so much time left in which to drink gin. However, on this occasion an awesome male feminist friend of mine had expressly asked for my support, as he was trying to educate some asshats but felt like he was drowning and nobody was lending him a hand.

When I read my friend’s request I’d just spent an evening out with my feminist posse, drinking gin, cackling raucously, and ranting about the patriarchy. Feeling fired up and ready to tackle odious dudes on the internet, I bravely waded into the fray, graciously dispensing enlightenment and intellectual refinement like it was going out of style.

The topic was Emma Watson talking about feminism, and a friend of Jimmy’s – let’s call him Timmy – was arguing that Emma Watson is the wrong kind of feminist, and shouldn’t actually be raising her voice at all. The “real” feminists, according to this particular asshat, are women in business, because they work harder than other feminists, and are not highlighted enough. This, as any woman who has ever tried to voice an opinion knows, is a common silencing tactic. “I’m not opposed to equal rights,” the argument goes, “but you’re not the right person to talk about the issue”. A variation of the same tactic is “You’re not allowed to talk about your own oppression if you’re able to do paid work/haven’t suffered genital mutilation/don’t live in Saudi Arabia“. This is of course total bollocks. If critics of feminism care so much about women in Saudi Arabia, why don’t they take action themselves, instead of waiting for someone else to do it? Or, for that matter, why not do something to support women in business?

Jimmy, continuing Timmy’s thread, was convinced that the most vulnerable social group in the entire world is white heterosexual men. Feminism, Jimmy argued, is wrong, because it leaves out this important marginalised group. Jimmy seemed unable, however, to tell me why this group is particularly vulnerable, or give examples of how they are marginalised. I tried to find out if he in fact does anything to help white heterosexual men, but the response I got was just more ranting, not an actual answer.

As anyone who’s ever tried to maintain a discussion with a misogynist online is aware, you might as well bash your head repeatedly against a concrete wall. No matter how responsive, pedagogical, and open-minded you are, the only response you will get is “You are wrong and I am right”.

When attempting to reason with the likes of Jimmy, you will expend enough energy to light up New York for a week, and the result will be absolutely fuck-all. “You are wrong and I am right,” repeated, ad infinitum. One starts to suspect that Jimmy and his ilk are not, in fact, interested in making the world a better place, but merely like whingeing on the internet, and putting women in their place.

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Feminism is a movement that strives for equality between all people, regardless of gender, sexuality, skin colour, religion, or physical ability. It is called “feminism” (humanism, for the record, already exists and is something completely different) because it originated in a patriarchy, where women didn’t have the same rights and possibilities and men. The patriarchy is still going strong, hence the term feminism is still relevant.

As women have gained the ability to educate themselves, to express themselves and be heard, other injustices have come to light. Feminists the world over are vocal in their support of all marginalised groups – the disabled, the elderly, the LGBTQ community, the black community. In fact, feminists support everyone who is disadvantaged by the patriarchy. Including white, heterosexual men.

As the director of the Swedish organisation Kvinna till Kvinna, Lena Ag, says in an article in Göteborgsposten, the Women’s March on 21 January this year was “in support of minorities, and in defense of democracy and human rights, not least women’s rights”. However, Ag points out, some people seem unable to view the Women’s March as a demonstration for humanity. That women should represent the human race as a whole, not just women and “women’s issues”, is apparently still too controversial.

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For some reason, feminism invokes anger. It’s hard to understand why. Feminists are trying to help people. Not just themselves, but all of humanity. Why is this so provocative? Why are so many men so angry?

Dudes. Some advice for you. Feminism is a global movement. Feminists will continue to fight for equality. If you don’t like it, why don’t you start your own movement?

Nobody’s stopping you from starting a support group for white, heterosexual men. If you want, you can have a pizza party and talk about each other’s feelings (or, if you happen not to have feelings, about football) every time a woman is raped. Literally nobody would stop you from doing that.

Nobody’s stopping you from starting a men’s shelter. Women are subjected to more prolonged, more serious domestic violence, requiring more hospital care than men, but men are subjected to domestic violence, too. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers the world over, mostly women, work for nothing to keep women’s shelters going, in order to keep women safe from men’s violence. You can start your own shelter any day, and provide help and support for men who are exposed to violence. Literally nobody would stop you from doing that.

Nobody’s stopping you from starting a suicide prevention hotline for men. Women make more suicide attempts than men, but the attempts men make are more successful than women’s, meaning men top the suicide statistics. You could help save men’s lives. Literally nobody would stop you from doing that.

Nobody’s stopping you from arranging your own marches, to highlight things that are wrong with this world, and start a discussion about how to solve them. You could, like the organisers behind the Women’s March, arrange a demonstration with millions of participants, marching on every single continent. Literally nobody would stop you from doing that.

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Feminism is here to stay. Get used to it. Also, appreciate it! Studies show that gender equality, racial equality, and all other kinds of equality and diversity, are good for everyone. Men who are accustomed to male privilege have a hard time understanding this, but when one group of people has privileges denied to other groups, they have to work less hard to gain power and influence. When the people who have power and influence don’t have to work very hard, no innovation happens. When everyone competes on the same conditions, and nobody has an unfair advantage, people are forced to come up with good ideas.

Yes, women taking up more space means that men will have to work harder. As many men have discovered, meritocracy means having to make an effort. When women compete for the same jobs as men, men have to, in the words of Tesco’s chairman, “work twice as hard”. This is not because white men are oppressed. It is because, when the talent pool is expanded, everyone has to try harder. Men having to work twice as hard means that they will have to work as hard as women – who are already having to work twice as hard as men to be considered equally competent. When we all work harder, society gets better.

Dudes. If you don’t like feminism, start your own damn movement. Put your energy into trying to help someone, instead of criticising people who are already making an effort.

 

 

A stultitia fortuitarum personarum simplicium in Interrete vagantes libera nos, Domine.

Time to talk about Shame

This is an uplifting story about a girl’s opportunity to challenge some sexist dudes and realise that feminism is important. It is a coming-of-age story, a story about discovery, epiphany and a journey towards a newly-gained maturity. It has a happy ending, as the protagonist defeats the bad guys and wins the prize. This is the story of my abortion.

Having read Ingrid’s rant on the coupledom compulsion, followed by a chapter in Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman about her abortion, I thought I would weigh in on my experience. I’ve always felt women should talk more about abortions to normalise a topic that is taboo for silly reasons, but it’s kind of difficult to insert into a casual conversation.

I’d always been a feminist, of course, but I didn’t realise it. One of the reasons I didn’t think I needed to be a feminist is that my mom was so awesome. She told me daily how smart/pretty I was, how I could do anything I wanted, and I totally believed her. I met some dicks, and I had encountered impersonal sexism on a societal level, but my personal experiences with it were negligible. I need to point out that while I am very grateful for my mom for raising me this way, and it’s given me a strong sense of identity and confidence, actually she totally misrepresented the world.

Another important aspect of me is naïveté. My mom raised me an atheist, and I found out from the kids at school about Jesus, and, shortly thereafter, that I would be going to Hell. This was not particularly scary at the time, since I read a lot of fantasy books anyway, so I suspected they were delusional. I mean come on, a place of eternal fire and suffering is fiction. Under the influence of my grandmother (unbeknownst to my mom), I later read some bible stories … but they didn’t seem as interesting as the other things I was reading. I didn’t yet know that these beliefs could be forced onto others, so I didn’t feel threatened by them.

I never intended to have kids, and she never told me I would have to, or would change my mind, or whatever. She said I was too young to make important decisions for myself at the age of 14, so I couldn’t have a hysterectomy, but she has never put any pressure on me to be fertile. She also taught me that abortion was an individual woman’s choice, that it was a minor operation you could have to deal with a problem (if it was a problem to you or to your health). Abortion has been semi-legal in Canada since 1969; as the elder Trudeau said, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” Thanks to Dr Morgentaler, bureaucratic limitations and limitations of access were also removed in 1988. I heard about abortion protests and bombings in the USA, but again, this was something that happened in different countries.

When I was 25 or so, I got pregnant. I react really badly to pills and needles full of hormones, so after trying the lot of them over a 5 year period, I quit that, and was relying on a combination of various not-super-reliable methods. Actually, that worked for a surprisingly long time. Anyway, I was pregnant, that was annoying, I’d never had an operation before, but that was my only real concern. The boyfriend asked me what I wanted and said he would support me either way. I thought that was the right thing for him to say. I didn’t want a child. There was no moral dilemma here. I felt fine. I hate going to the doctor, but whatever, you gotta do it.

I was living in Germany at the time. I had this fantastic gynaecologist. He was really friendly and personable. He had found out right away I was from Canada and spoke a mix of French and English at me in between all the German. He was a nice guy. I told him I thought I was pregnant and could he check that out for me. I guess he could tell by my attitude (i.e. not excited), that I was not super into this, and his demeanor changed immediately. This put my back up, but mostly I was confused, because I thought abortion was legal and that while I’d heard of people being judgy, a doctor wouldn’t do that. Also he was always nice. Thus my naïveté caused me to tolerate a lot more bullshit than I otherwise would have. He did an ultrasound and said, “here, I will show you the baby.” But it’s not a baby. He printed out a picture for me and put the heartbeat on loud. I kind of smiled, because this is just such an obvious and cheap ploy, but I was also outraged by his audacity. What the fuck. If I had been uncertain about my decision, that cheap trick would have fucked with me. That is not how you help someone to make an informed medical decision, by attempting to apply emotional blackmail. What kind of doctor does that? Well, I asked him about the process for abortion in Germany, and without directly saying so, he made it really clear that this was a Bad Decision. He also proceeded to give me some bad advice.

The first thing he told me was about the restrictions. In order to get an abortion in Germany, you can’t just make an appointment. You need to first go and have a talk with and then obtain a signature from either a pastor/priest, or a councillor from the Pro Familia, the German version of Planned Parenthood. Then you must wait three days. After three days, you can go to your gynaecologist, pick up a prescription, and then make your way over to the abortion. You can imagine my rage. I think it is wonderful if counselling is offered in this situation, again especially to people who are not sure about their decision or unhappy with the decision they feel it is necessary to make. To force it onto someone implies that they are not capable of making such a decision, and that is ridiculous. I obviously was not going to a priest, and a society called ‘pro familia’ didn’t sound very objective to me, but whatever, I would go.

I also asked him about costs. He said I would have to ask my health insurance, which was probably a lie. For someone who was clearly as opposed to abortion as he turned out to be, you’d expect him to know the legalities, and in the end, he did. I expect he wanted me to navigate the system myself and find it as difficult as possible. In fact, state health insurance pays for abortions only if they are the result of rape, could endanger the life of the woman pregnant, or if she does not have enough money to support the child. The amount defined as ‘enough’ is 1001 euros a month. You must show your income in order to have it covered, and then your doctor must sign it off. Both these steps must happen before you can get the abortion.

Finally, I asked if he knew a place near where I lived where I could have the procedure done. He recommended a colleague. He also let me know that I had to have everything done by week 12, and it was week 10. Then he smiled. I guess he knew that it would be difficult to get everything done by then. On my way out I appreciated the dozens and dozens of baby pictures in the waiting room in a different light.

So I went home and started making appointments. An appointment with Pro Familia, and appointment with my health insurance, another appointment with my dick gyno three days after Pro Familia, and the appointment for a consultation with his colleague who will perform the abortion itself. Meanwhile I’m doing as much research as I can on the process and operation. The first appointment I get is for the consultation. I go in to meet … not the doctor who will perform the abortion. I meet the anaesthetist. The anaesthetist tells me how it will be done, Tuesday is abortion day, so I can come in Tuesday, he’ll put me out along with all the others, the other doctor will come by and ‘take care of everything’, and we’ll all wake up a few hours later. You don’t even need to meet that doctor. I was a little confused by this – from what I’d read, you don’t need to be put out for such a minor procedure, and I saw no reason to for anything but local anaesthetic. He told me (a lie) that that was not how it was done in Germany, that you had to be put out. I was confused by this, but since I had mostly done my research in English, I didn’t know he was lying. He then told me, ‘it’s better for the women anyway if they don’t know what happened.’ So I left. It’s better for the women if they’re not talked down to by assholes. I was very angry. Doctors should not make judgements. I went home and did more research, all in German this time. I still cannot believe he had the gall to lie to me.

Then I went to Pro Familia. By now, I was less naive. I had prepared myself for a conflict. I knew exactly what we were required to talk about, and I was prepared to be hostile if necessary, and I knew my exact rights. I met the woman, who was very nice, which caught me off guard – I was expecting a moral lecture on the rights of the unborn infant, more misinformation, or  another round of judgement. She told me that we could talk about anything I wanted, but we didn’t have to if I didn’t want to; the only thing she was required to tell me about is the state money that I am eligible to receive if I have a baby. I told her that I was a foreigner so not eligible for anything, and she said, that’s right, well what should we talk about then? You’re from Canada? I would love to travel there, please tell me about your home. Then we gossiped about Canada a bit and I got my signature. She also recommended a place to get the abortion in a nearby city where she’d heard really positive feedback from other women. It was the first time in this process I’d felt treated like a human. I am really grateful to her. I called them and got a consultation for the next day.

I then went to this clinic, and they were amazing. This was what I had expected the whole process to be like. The doctor and a nurse met with me in advance, they were warm and friendly. I remember he had funny brightly-coloured shoes. They explained the procedure, my options, what I could expect afterwards, and also offered advice for dealing with the health insurance. They also didn’t lie to me. They told me that I could be put under if I really wanted to, but with such a minor operation it would be better to have a local anaesthetic. They also told me they used a new (at the time) technique, which was a combination of the abortion pill given in a lower dose 24 hours in advance, which leads to partial sloughing of the uterine lining, and makes the whole procedure easier. They gave me the pill, told me when to take it, and the nurse gave me her personal phone number and told me to call her anytime for any reason. Sigh of relief.

The next day I went to get my health insurance sorted. I spoke with my (female) agent, who was very supportive and discreet, but unfortunately, I would need to get the form signed by her superior, who was not in just then. I knew exactly what my rights were and I had all the evidence with me … and he tried to hassle me about it and that it was his position to inform me about the consequences of this. I was able to tell him what I needed and what he needed from me and that that was all there was to it; he was legally required to sign off my form and not to give me any information whatsoever. My agent picked up the form from the printer and gave me a conspiratorial smile. It felt pretty good.

The next day, I had all the forms to go back to my gynaecologist and get his signature so I could finally have the abortion. I went in steeled. I thought it through, and decided I wasn’t going to provoke anything, and if he was pleasant or if just basically polite, I would say nothing. But I wasn’t going to take even the tiniest bit of crap either. So all I needed was a signature. I went to the secretary and asked for it – it was already prepared and she had it, but the doctor had instructed her that I needed to see him first, I couldn’t just take it and go. I suspected, because he wanted one more opportunity to let me feel his judgement. Dick. I had an appointment, I was not a walk-in, but he let me wait, and after about 40 minutes I had had enough. I told the receptionist I wouldn’t have time to see him, because my abortion appointment was in an hour, and I had to leave right away. Miraculously, he could make time to see me immediately. I went in to see him calmly, not with a huge smile, but confident. He was very silent as he filled out some form, just giving me dark looks. He asked if I was going to the doctor he recommended, and I told him I was not and gave him the reasons. He looked surprised but didn’t comment. He stood up and gave me the signed form I was there to receive, and I almost thought he was going to manage to judge me only with his eyes, and not with words. I don’t even remember now, what it was he said, with his hand already on the doorknob to leave. He wanted to get one last judgement in after all. I told him very politely that I didn’t think it was very professional for a doctor to judge me, and he started yelling at me. He opened the door and walked out of the room, into the hallway and towards the waiting room, yelling that he was not unprofessional in the least and had given me all the support I needed. This ‘shame’ tactic, for by the time he finished his short speech, we were in the waiting room, and there were 6 or 7 women waiting there, only works if you actually feel ashamed, and I did not. So I yelled back. I told him that he had not been supportive in the least, and that he had made his judgement clear from the moment I told him I did not want a pregnancy. I told him that his words and actions were judgemental, and that if I had been in a different place emotionally, he would have made this decision much more difficult emotionally, which is irresponsible. I told him that I would be looking for a different doctor in the future. Surprised by my resistance, he had made an about-face and was retreating to the privacy of one of his rooms. All the women were watching. He said in leaving that that was good, because I was no longer welcome in his practice.

So much adrenaline! I went to pick up my form from the receptionist (who had also heard everything), and she gave it to me with a broad smile. I smiled back.

Post Scriptum

Ha ha, I’m a bit of an idiot though. Despite all this planning and organisation, I almost messed it up. They give their patients a pill 18 hours before the op: it’s a lighter dosage of the RU-486, which begins light vaginal contractions in advance, making the abortion itself a little easier. I went to a friend’s place the night before and we stayed up late talking. Because I am the biggest airhead in the world, I forgot to take it. I called my nurse early in the morning in a panic, told her I forgot and what should I do? Would I have to reschedule? I could hear her kids in the background. She asked me if I was sure that I wanted to go through with it. That confused me, of course I did, I was just nervous about having to reschedule. She very diplomatically explained that forgetting to take such an important pill ahead of what can be an emotional procedure often indicated uncertainty. Oh yeah. So I told her, oh no no no, I am absolutely sure, do not worry. I really just am that ridiculously forgetful. I forgot to attend a final exam for my MA because I am that much of an airhead, believe me, there is no uncertainty, just idiocy on my part. She somewhat bemusedly told me to just take it now then, 8 hours wouldn’t make much of a difference. What a dope.

I got to the clinic, I felt good. The doctor and nurses were as wonderful as in the consultation. The doctor told me with all those tattoos, I wouldn’t even notice this, and proceeded to ask me questions about Canada and my studies the whole time I was there. My head was a little foggy with the meds they were giving me, so it took all my concentration to answer, and I remember feeling slightly frustrated I couldn’t ask him what was going on, which I like to do when doctors are messing around with my body, but otherwise I felt great. I went to chill in the recovery room for a half hour beaming. What an ordeal. I was so happy. There was another girl in the room with me, but she was facing away from me. I spoke to the woman with her who introduced herself as her aunt. I guess she wasn’t able to tell her parents. The aunt was very nice, she asked me a few questions, like how old I was. She told me her niece was ‘only 17, so this was the only option.’ In my post-op euphoria, that made me really sad. You should never have to justify an abortion. If it’s what you want or need, it’s the right decision.

I came out of this whole experience with a changed view of the world. Germany views itself and is viewed as being a secular society which is very advanced in terms of women’s rights. I did not find this process in any way progressive in terms of people’s attitudes or the legal requirements. I felt mostly anger throughout, but also frustration, confusion when I was lied to, and betrayal by doctors who were supposed to be helping me to make informed decisions. The only point I felt sad was for the 17-year old girl who felt ashamed. While I was able to deal with this fairly well, that is because a) I was a confident 25-year old woman (and not 17 or with low self-esteem or something), b) I was absolutely certain that this was what I wanted, and c) I have no moral qualms about abortion in the first place. I still cried in frustration at the process and the judgement when I got back from the jerk anaesthetist. I felt righteous ire with my gynaecologist, but if I had wanted a baby and decided not to have one for whatever practical reasons, or had been young with unsupportive parents, having the heartbeat unfeelingly blasted at me would have been pretty difficult.

My conclusion at the time was: good for my mom for misrepresenting the world! She made me believe that I am living in a place that is as we want it to be – equal for all. This gave me the confidence to expect to be treated this way and to be really pissed off when I wasn’t. I was very grateful to her during and after all of this. It also made me realise why it is important to be a feminist. I hadn’t ‘needed’ feminism previously. I had never noticed I was treated differently, I was confident and outspoken and asserted my rights if I felt it necessary (which was not uncommon). I had seen sexism, but I thought a confident woman can deal with that. Going through an abortion in a supposedly liberal country (and I don’t wish to defame Germany here, I loved living there and I’m sure there are similar issues with abortion in most countries, if not all) taught me that sexism is still institutionalised, and that even if it isn’t affecting me at the moment, it is affecting others, eroding their self-esteem, making them feel shame, or pressuring them into decisions they do not want to make. I didn’t feel any shame, but I was very aware of others’ attempts to cause me to feel shame.

And how do we change this? By talking about it.

written by Courtnay

Coupledom Compulsion

We have all seen Jennifer Aniston’s plea for respect for women’s integrity in the Huffington Post blog by now (or, if you haven’t, click on the link and be enlightened). Aniston, who is a hugely successful actress, literally can’t go outside without the press asking whether she is pregnant. As if the most important thing about this intelligent, successful woman is the state of her uterus: is it full or empty?  Aniston writes:

“For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up. I’m fed up with the sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily under the guise of ‘journalism’, the ‘First Amendment’ and ‘celebrity news'” […] This past month in particular has illuminated for me how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status. The sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time… but who’s counting) points to the perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children.”

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Jennifer Aniston: intelligent, funny, successful. Not pregnant. Stop asking.

We all know the old, old story of how single women are viewed differently from single men. Single women are, in the popular consciousness, sad, desperate, and lonely, and eat, for some reason, ice-cream straight out of the tub. Single men, on the other hand, are carefree, fun-loving, and free. This discrepancy is perhaps most poignantly illustrated by the Aniston-Clooney singularity. Long-time bachelor George Clooney’s engagement to Amal Alamuddin was framed by the media as a “victory” for Alamuddin, which she gained using “tricks”. As if George Clooney were Troy, and Alamuddin were the Greek army spending her days cunningly building a wooden horse, while giggling evilly. When Jennifer Aniston announced her engagement, on the other hand, it was reported on in terms of relief. As if Aniston’s single state was a huge calamity, with dire consequences for the country’s economic output. Once she was safely on the road to holy wedlock, everyone could relax, and maybe crack open a beer, safe in the knowledge that the world wasn’t about to end. As Jezebel put it: It is a far, far better thing to be a Clooney than an Aniston in this world.

The pressure on women to pair up and make themselves dependent on a man: I call it the Coupledom Compulsion. It is pernicious and dangerous, especially for women.   It leads to women being exposed to violence – sexual, physical, psychological, material and economic. In this blog post I am going to argue that the Coupledom Compulsion is a form of social control that limits women’s independence even when they are able to do paid work and are, to all appearances, free and autonomous human beings.

If one were conspiratorially minded, one would start to think that this cultural prison being constructed around women and their bodies exists to replace the conditions which, in the good old days, used to ensure a woman’s commitment to marriage and childbearing: economic dependency.

Historically, marriage has been a necessary form of protection for women in our misogynistic society. As I mused in my previous post on this blog, The Polite Female Listener, it’s not that long ago since a woman could not legally get an education or have a job. Economics, religion, legislation, and social control conspired to make women second-class citizens, doomed to a life of bondage and servitude. The only role possible for a person of the female persuasion was that of wife and mother, and manager of the household. A respectable woman, until well into the 20th century, could not show herself in public unaccompanied; only prostitutes frequented public spaces alone. It was thus impossible for a woman to hold public office, or go to work. If a woman was unfortunate enough to not have a man to provide for her, however, she might have to choose work over respectability out of dire need. If she lived in the countryside,  that entailed backbreaking work in the fields and cow stalls, with a high risk of being raped by a male employer, and then prosecuted for adultery. If she lived in a city, possible careers included those of seamstress, or maid, with a high risk of being raped by a male employer, and then prosecuted for adultery. Once the industrial revolution kicked off, a woman could work in a factory, where she got paid half what the male workers got, and there was a high risk of being raped by a male employer, and then prosecuted for adultery.  Ah, the good old days!

Many  single seamstresses and female factory workers found themselves in the unfortunate position of having to resort to prostitution to make ends meet – there is a reason why the word “seamstress” was often synonymous with “prostitute”. (See for instance Fredrik Tersmeden’s interesting account of a university lecturer in Lund who committed suicide with his lover, described in the English-speaking press as a “seamstress”, or “dressmaker”.) The financial incentive to get married was thus extremely high, and most women, unless they were wealthy (which hardly any woman was in her own right, due to the fact that women in most societies, in most time periods, have not been able to inherit or own property) were unlikely to turn down an offer of marriage. Marriage entailed life-long servitude to a man who in effect owned your body, and could legally beat and rape you. (Marital rape was criminalised in the UK as late as 1991, and is still legal in many parts of the world.) Historically marriage was important to secure economic stability. You’d think that, with greater economic independence, women would be able to finally enjoy independence. But they are still tied to coupledom.

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Luckily enough for modern women, legislation ensures that we receive equal pay for equal work, access to contraception and abortion (if we are lucky enough to live in the right country, anyway), and high-quality medical care if we do decide to have children. Apart from a few exceptions, of course. For instance, the British Equal Pay Act of 1970 is yet to be enforced, many U.S. states deny women access to abortion despite being legally obliged to ensure it, and a Swedish woman’s child died in the womb last year because she was turned away from the hospital. Then of course there’s the sexual harassment, and the femicides, and the prohibitively high costs of childcare limiting women’s ability to work in many countries. But apart from the many instances of rampant misogyny, modern Western women are free, and autonomous. We can have jobs. We can own property. We don’t have to get married. We are not legally obliged to provide our husbands or partners with sex, and they can’t force us to have children. We don’t even have to have a husband or partner if we don’t want to.

We are free to do what we want. So why do we end up being harassed, just for being single, so often? Helen Fielding illustrates the way single women are lambasted with questions about their marital state in Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (Picador, 2011):

“Oh! A celebrity, eh? And” – he leaned forward in a concerned manner – “are you getting the rest of your life sorted out?”
Unfortunately at that moment Sharon happened to be passing. She stared at Cosmo, looking like Clint Eastwood when he thinks somebody is trying to double-cross him.
“What kind of question is that?” she growled.
“What?” said Cosmo, looking round at her, startled.
“‘Are you getting the rest of your life sorted out?’ What do you mean by that exactly?”
“Well, ah, you know … when is she going to get … you know.. .”
“Married? So basically just because her life isn’t exactly like yours you think it isn’t sorted out, do you? And are you getting the rest of your life sorted out, Cosmo? How are things going with Woney?”
“Well I … well,” huffed Cosmo, going bright red in the face.
“Oh, I am sorry. We’ve obviously hit a sore spot. Come on, Bridget, before I put my big foot in it again!”
“Shazzer! ” I said, when we were at a safe distance.
“Oh, come on,” she said. “Enough, already. They just can’t go around randomly patronizing people and insulting their lifestyles. Cosmo probably wishes Woney would lose four stone and stop doing that shrieking laugh all day but we don’t just assume that the minute we’ve met him, and decide it’s our business to rub it in, do we?”

The generous interpretation is that the harassment of single women occurs out of concern for their happiness. Your happiness increases when you are in a relationship, right? Cinderella lives happily ever after once she has married her prince, Jane Austen’s heroines all achieve married bliss, and even Bridget Jones finally gets it off with Mark Darcy. Except – hang on – those stories are all fictional!

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Forget the fairytales for a moment and look at the people among your acquaintance who are unhappy because they are in a relationship (oh yes, I can think of a few, and so can you). The imperative to find a partner – the Coupledom Compulsion – makes desperate people hook up with dudes or broads who they are not compatible with. We all know people who have been so desperate to achieve coupledom that they have ended up clinging to a wildly unsuitable partner for years, just because the alternative – the single state – appears unbearable.

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Bridget Jones: the epitome of the modern single woman.

But if women are no longer forced to get married, and can choose whether to live with a partner or without, everything should be fine, right? Actually, women in long-term relationships suffer health consequences, and are often economically disadvantaged. Research shows that while men who are married enjoy better health and live longer, the same doesn’t apply to women. Women do twice as much unpaid work as men, including emotional labour – unpaid labour, that is, that benefits someone else. Traditional relationships leave women exhausted, sick, and unhappy. No wonder that most divorces are initiated by women. In defence of the institution of marriage, however, it turns out that the financial benefit to married women remains in the modern age – married women have better pensions, according to an American study. Of course, we all know women who have ended up in dire straits financially following a divorce, not uncommonly due to taking time out of their careers to care for children, so the financial benefit to marriage might only be applicable if you can still stomach your husband after thirty years, and he doesn’t leave you for someone younger. Marriage, simply, benefits men more than women.

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Evidently it is not in a woman’s best interest to achieve coupledom. Not only will it most likely damage her health and happiness, but in fact, by encouraging a woman to bag herself a partner, we could be endangering her life. Two women die from domestic violence every week in the UK. In Sweden, it’s one every three weeks. Before the mansplainers out there start on their usual objections that men suffer from domestic violence too: yes, they do. But most of the world’s violence is committed by men, and most of domestic violence is aimed at women. I’m going to let Rebecca Solnit clarify this one:

Domestic violence is the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and you don’t want to know about the dentistry needed afterward. Spouses are also the leading cause of death for pregnant women in the U.S. Pregnant women are not, however, a leading cause of death for spouses of pregnant women. There’s just no equivalency.

Research concludes that patriarchal norms are the root of gender-based violence. A report by the World Health Organisation states that the reason women are subjected to domestic violence to such a high degree is gender norms that permeate all levels of society:

  • At the level of the family and relationship, the male controls wealth and decision making within the family and marital conflict is frequent.
  • At the community level, women are isolated with reduced mobility and lack of social support. Male peer groups condone and legitimize men’s violence.
  • At the societal level, gender roles are rigidly defined and enforced and the concept of masculinity is linked to toughness, male honor, or dominance. The prevailing culture tolerates physical punishment of women and children, accepts violence as a means to settle interpersonal disputes, and perpetuates the notion that men “own” women.

There is simply no more dangerous place for a woman than the home. Research shows that while violence against men is most often committed by a stranger, in a public place, most violence against women is committed by someone she knows, and usually indoors. In the majority of rape cases, the victim knows her (yes, her – because the victim is most often a woman) assailant. If we really cared about women’s health and wellbeing, we would encourage them to stay away from all romantic relationships, and fiercely guard their independence.

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But we don’t. A friend of mine was recently forced, by a guy she dated, to participate in sex she hadn’t consented to, didn’t want, and which hurt. In my book, that’s rape. I have heard guys boast that after having sex with them, their girlfriend will either vomit, or bleed. Well, that doesn’t sound to me like she is having much fun. The Coupledom Compulsion leads to women accepting transgressions of their boundaries. Society does not condone female independence, and on the personal level, that means that many women don’t feel able to voice their desire during sex, or voice their objection when subjected to sexual violence. We ought to support women, and enable them to make truly free choices about their lives. Instead, we regard single women with suspicion, and try to pressure them into relationships that don’t benefit them, and may even cause them harm.

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It is not out of concern with women’s happiness that we pester them to seek coupledom. It is out of our own desire for them to conform. Conformity makes us feel safe, as a group, and as a community. Women who stay single challenge the status quo, and make everyone feel uncomfortable. Hence the sigh of relief when Jennifer Aniston finally got engaged. And hence the perceived need for her to be pregnant. Apparently, getting married isn’t quite enough: Jennifer Aniston must now confirm her adherence to patriarchal norms by also producing children. The need for this adherence is so strong that the press regularly invents stories about Jennifer Aniston being pregnant. This bizarre phenomenon is another aspect of the social control that includes Coupledom Compulsion.

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While a woman no longer needs to be married, or even have a partner, in order to reproduce, having children is still part of the approved narrative for women. Women are considered to have a biological clock, that sooner or later makes them want to breed. It is popularly assumed that all women are naturally maternal, dote on children, and are good at caring for children and meeting their needs. It is assumed that the natural order of things for a woman is to become a mother. This assumption leads to the further assumption that, if she doesn’t have children, a woman is unnatural. Childfree women are assumed to be unhappy, unwanted, left on the shelf. One can see how this leads to a pressure on women to have children – who wants to be considered unnatural and unhappy? The social pressure on women to have children further strenghtens the Coupledom Compulsion – to have babies, you need a man! While biologically a woman no longer needs a partner to reproduce, it is socially and economically beneficial to rear children with a partner, leading many women on a desperate search for one.

Of course if having children is what you want, and you have the economic and social resources to raise them in a way that won’t lead you to damage your health due to stress and economic deprivation, reproducing may well make you happy. But actually, research shows that having children doesn’t make you happier  (especially not if you are a woman, unless you are a widow). Having children may even increase a woman’s risk of being subjected to violence. A common strategy among men who subject their partners to violence is to make sure the woman gets pregnant – this limits her independence, and makes it harder for her to leave the relationship.

I challenge the assumption that a woman who doesn’t reproduce is tragic and unhappy. The weirdest claim of all, however, is that not having children makes you selfish. Actually, in my opinion there is nothing more egotistical than having children purely to satisfy your own selfish urge to reproduce. Bringing another human being into a harsh, hostile, and vastly overpopulated world without asking their permission first? The height of selfishness, if you ask me. The women I know who are childfree pour their energy into intellectual pursuits and social engagement, that arguably renders them more useful to society than if they had spent ten years of their lives being exhausted from nappy-changing and sleep deprivation. Quite often they help take care of nephews and nieces, and thus provide vital relief services for exhausted, overworked and sometimes financially desperate and/or psychologically vulnerable parents.

I consider myself extremely fortunate in that my friends and family don’t harass me about relationships. My friends know I don’t find children interesting (and know better than to pester me with pictures of theirs), and my parents are courteous enough to let me make my own life choices. But out of the friends I have asked about Coupledom Compulsion harassment, only one says she has also never been harassed by friends and family. All the others said they have been getting comments on their relationship status, and exhortations to “hurry up and get sprogged up, old girl” since their early twenties.

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And while my friends and family are unwaveringly supportive, other people frequently find my single state confusing. When unable to fit me into a familiar category – “married”, “cohabiting”, “single woman in her twenties” – they tend to either assume that I am a wildly tragic person, who has been unable to find a mate despite being well into her thirties, or that I am a lesbian. Just recently an acquaintance asked me if I was gay. I didn’t mind her asking (for one thing we were both extremely drunk at the time), but why do we keep framing single women as either tragic, or gay? Why didn’t my acquaintance elbow me in the ribs and utter a hearty, “So, you too think the patriarchy sucks, eh? Single out of choice? Good on ya!”?  Why is it considered unthinkable that a woman in her thirties should be both single and childfree out of choice?

b907b92c06f4609a3bfd83cf0a9ad93aWomen are exposed to constant coercion designed to make them conform to the social standard of what a woman ought to be. And what a woman ought to be, apparently, is dependent and controlled. The Cinderella narrative that we are all fed with during our formative years offers no scope for Cinderella to say, “Fuck you and your patriarchal norms – I refuse to get sucked into your creepy construction of the nuclear family”.

Centuries of unrelenting feminist struggle has led to people like me being able to choose whether we want to get married, and to choose whether to reproduce.  And the ability to choose entails the ability to choose not to do something. As Bridget Jones said,  in the first Bridget Jones film, “I have two choices: to give up and accept permanent state of spinsterhood and eventual eating by dogs, or not. And this time I choose not. […] Instead, I choose vodka. And Chaka Khan.”

Well, I choose not, too. I choose not to marry. I choose not to reproduce. I choose a permanent state of spinsterhood – and to totally fucking rock it.

Let’s all harden the fuck up, and calm the fuck down. Leave single people alone: we’re fine. Are you?

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Related Reading

Laurie Penny, in New StatesmanIs Marriage Worth It?

Tracey Loeffelhutz Dunn, in Yes Magazine: Why Not Getting Married Is Smart Economics for Women

Rebecca Adams, in the Huffington Post: If You Feel Bad About Being Single, It’s Not Because You’re Single

Erica Gies, in Forbes: Why I’m Not Having Kids, And You Shouldn’t Either

Sophie Gilbert, in The Atlantic: Why Women Choose Not to Have Children

Mary Ellsberg and Lori Heise, for the WHO: Researching Violence Against Women: A Practical Guide for Researchers and Activists

Tanis Day, PhD; Katherine McKenna, PhD; Audra Bowlus, PhD; for the UN: The Economic Costs of Violence Against Women: An Evaluation of the Literature

 

Written by Ingrid

The Polite Female Listener

Courtnay’s post yesterday, about the female hysteria feedback loop, led me to ponder another instance of mansplaining – the party-based mansplaining – which leads to a phenomenon I like to think of as the polite female listener.

How often do you end up, at a party, listening to a dude droning on and on about something in which you are not particularly interested? The dude talks at length on a topic about which you are by no means uninformed or lacking opinions, but which this dude renders completely uninteresting by his rampant condescension. Your eyes glaze over, your head lolls to one side, and you resemble nothing so much as a dead badger at the side of the road – flat, limp, and out of it.

Recently I was at a party with a female friend with whom I have often discussed this phenomenon. We ended up talking to this dude, who duly went off on a long, would-be-instructive rant. Staring at the table, nearly in tears from the sheer tedium of the monologue and the effort of not letting on how bored I was, I found myself thinking, “This can’t be happening? SURELY we can’t both sit here, silently accepting this guy’s barrage of condescending tripe, after we have discussed, on so many occasions, this very phenomenon?”

So why do we do this? Why don’t we just tell a man being boring that we would, actually, given the chance, rather spend the evening reading an 800-page treatise on East German taxation rates that listen to him mansplaining? It would surely be better for everyone – women wouldn’t have to suffer alarming levels of tedium, and men wouldn’t continue to make arses of themselves.

 

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A tweet from one of my favourite twitterers, Sophia Benoit.

 

Why does the dude not notice that you are completely uninterested in his soliloquy? Because you have been successfully trained as a polite female listener. Men are socialised to talk, and women to listen, which means that many – not all – dudes simply do not notice female boredom. They mistake silence for interest, and keep talking, while the woman suppresses vivid internal visions of strangling the dude with the table cloth or dropping cyanide into his glass – ANYTHING to get him to shut up.

Now, before you go off on a not-all-men rant, let us acknowledge that yes, women mansplain too. But, in the words of Rebecca Solnit, “The out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about”. Don’t believe me? Ask any human woman of your acquaintance.

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When is it ok to assume that you know more about a given topic than someone else? Follow this easy chart to find out! Image from The Privy Counsel.

One key contributing factor to the phenomenon of the polite female listener is men’s implicit assumption that they are more knowledgeable, on any topic, than a woman, by virtue of their sex. Another is the fact that women have been socialised to be polite, however boring, rude, or egomaniacal the man she happens to be talking to is. Politeness is often imperative not only to maintain a pleasant atmosphere, but to stave off violence. Stories of men resorting to violence and even murder when faced with a perceived rejection are too common to be considered mere coincidence.

Possibly these deeply ingrained gendered behaviours stem from those dark times when women were financially dependent on men, and needed to keep them in good humour at all costs. The Swedish historian Eva Helen Ulvros, who has conducted extensive studies of women’s letters from the 18th and 19th centuries, writes, in the prologue to her book Kvinnors röster: Livsöden från det moderna Sveriges framväxt (an English translation follows after the citation):

“Gud vare evigt lof för det Du är så nöjd med mig – vad det är ljuft att veta sig vara till den grad älskad af den man så hjertligt värderar.” De orden finns att läsa i ett brev från Helena, född Billberg men i första äktenskapet gift Hollström, i Alnaryd i Blekinge till fästmannen Vilhelm Faxe i Lund, daterat till den 15 augusti 1806. Citatet speglar hur viktigt det var för en kvinna att bli bekräftad av en man. Brevet skrevs för mer än tvåhundra år sedan, men uppfattningen att en kvinnas värde var beroende av mäns gillande kan kännas tidlös.

 

(“God be praised that you are so pleased with me – it is sweet to know oneself to be so loved by a person one esteems so warmly.” These words appear in a letter from Helena, née Billberg but in her first marriage taking the name Hollström, in Alnaryd in county Blekinge to her fiancée Vilhelm Faxe in Lund, dated 15 August 1806. The quote reflects how important it was for a woman to be validated by a man. The letter was written over two hundred years ago, but the notion that a woman’s value depends on the approval of men may appear to be timeless.)

 

This is a totally unscientific supposition, but my guess is that the inexplicable politeness of women in the face of tedious men stems from the days – not so far gone – when our very survival literally depended on the ability to fake enthusiasm.  Anyone reading Pride and Prejudice will be struck by the enormous energy expended by the Bennet sisters in trying to remain polite to Mr Collins, despite his vacuity of mind and staggering sense of self-importance. In their world, the only acceptable career for a woman is marriage, and though none of the Bennet sisters wishes to marry Mr Collins themselves, they yet have to show him respect, however little he deserves it. In the 1995 dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet, when she realises that Elizabeth has refused Mr Collins’s proposal, envisages the family being “left to starve in the hedgerows” as a result. The ability to put up with a man’s ways was, not that long ago, necessary to ensure a woman’s survival, and perhaps that of her entire family.

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For many women, subjection in a patriarchal society has led to exposure to physical and sexual violence. Image from Buzzfeed.

A woman’s place was in the home, while the public sphere belonged to men. Education, politics, literature, and history, were all the domains of men. Another Jane Austen character, Anne Elliot, illustrates my point when she says, in Persuasion, “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”. The world as we know it was shaped by men – perhaps it is no wonder that some men still think women aren’t really part of it, and don’t understand it.

Men’s opposition to women gaining access to universities, and the employment market, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was often fierce, brutal, and carefully organised. The Swedish lawyer Elsa Eschelsson, for instance, was bullied to the point of suicide by men opposed to women’s participation in society. Women demanding the right to vote were imprisoned, starved, beaten and sexually assaulted. Women presuming the right to voice their opinion are still threatened and harassed, and even daring to enter a public space often results in sexual harassment.

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Some men still think of women as parasites, and don’t seem able to make up their minds about whether they want women to remain in virtual slavery, or rise to be men’s economic equals. Image from Manfeels Park.

Virginia Woolf perhaps said it best when she wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. This means, to me, that in order to participate in society on an equal footing with men – to influence literature, culture, and legislation – women have to be men’s equals economically.

Women have had to fight hard to access education, suffrage, and the ability to control fertility and earn a living (although they still get paid less than men for doing the same work). We have come far on the road to gender equality, but there is still a long way to go. And cultural change takes time. Mansplaining, as Courtnay put it, is endemic. At the moment, it seems there is nothing we can do except recognise it. We live in a world where men’s perceived entitlement leads to up to seventy percent of women suffering physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Women have to negotiate all the different manifestations of male violence every day, in every social environment, and asking a man to stop talking is often not an option.

Our foremothers taught their daughters to fake enthusiasm for male vanity, and they taught them well. Hopefully, as we make ever greater gains in gender equality, gender roles will be erased and boy children will not be encouraged to think of themselves as experts on every damn subject just because they have  a penis, and girl children will not be forced to fake admiration for people less knowledgeable than them. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the phenomenon of the polite female listener will be but a faint memory from darker, drearier times.

 

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Hopefully one day soon, dudes will have learned to recognise this facial expression.

Written by Ingrid

 

P.S. For a video illustrating the concept of women finding their place in society, have a gander at Harry Enfield’s Women: Know Your Limits.

P.P.S. Is this where I add the compulsory caveat about how actually I don’t hate men, and have many delightful male friends? Anyway, I don’t, and I do.

Female hysteria feedback loop

Ingrid was just telling me Swedish feminists have started a SheForHe movement, arguing that because men are socialised to not show emotions, they therefore end up lonely and addicted to porn, making their lives severely limited, and pointing out that feminism helps everyone.
At the same time another friend of mine just got into an text message fight with this dude who is giving her unsolicited advice on how she must change a job application, and accusing her of being ‘prickly’ for not accepting his advice. This is kind of interesting, because the two are related.
Here is my friend’s response to the unsolicited advice, and the provocation for the fight:
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Dudes often tell girls that they are being hysterical/angry/irrational when they are not, perceiving an argument that was not there. This in turn provokes an argument. I’ve been there – you’re all like, what? How come you’re accusing me of some emotion I don’t have? Where did this come from? What a silly thing that we are now arguing, but I actually am angry now, and am now telling you I am angry.
What’s happened here, I think, is that you have offered some sort of disagreement or criticism, and rather than accept your criticism or differing point of view, the dude is defensively projecting it back onto you. He’s also mansplaining your emotions to you. Not cool, dude.
The thing is, you actually almost can’t avoid men like this. This reaction is systemic. Lots of guys do it. They don’t do it on purpose, lots of them, but they’ve been trained/socialised to believe that women are irrational and not to trust things that women say. Also, most people suck at receiving criticism. It takes real effort to do that well. These things combine together to create this feedback loop, where female criticism is doubly not believed, and then the dude thinks, why is she being critical? it obviously isn’t me. it must be her. she’s hysterical. And you’re like, what? Why are you calling me hysterical? Then you protest you are not hysterical. which sounds hysterical. Suddenly we’re having a fight about how you are/aren’t angry/bitchy/passive-aggressive/hysterical. Wtf.
Often, it’s so easy to get derailed by a comment like this, that you don’t even realise how the fight took this turn, or what provoked it. The dude is telling you why you are reacting in a certain way, and you are protesting that you are not, and the actual reason for the fight (whatever comment hurt his feelings) is not addressed. You might even question, am I overreacting here? Am I being a psycho? In fact, both participants in this fight are socialised to believe that a dude’s opinion is more valid than a girl’s, so his line of inquiry is followed.
When it’s me, I feel frustration. Sexist socialisation caused this non-fight that escalated into a huge fight. My dude couldn’t take a little bit of perceived criticism, or couldn’t show that his feelings were hurt, deflected it onto me, and I’m left feeling that my original thought or complaint or whatever is unheard and angry that he won’t believe me that I was not angry. At the same time, my dude’s perception of women as emotional tending to hysterical and therefore unreliable is confirmed.
Nasty feedback loop. yuk.
Written by Courtnay.