Thursday, January 22, 2015

The privilege of being a woman?

My only sister is getting near "that age."  Meaning, the age when we have to explain to her the facts of life.  This is supposed to be done in a positive and affirming way, but I'm really struggling to find a way that doesn't sound like breaking her the bad news.

"Congratulations!  You know how you've always been comfortable in your own skin and your body never gave you the least bit of trouble?  Yeah, well, those days are over."

As her big sister, I feel I'm supposed to be able to reassure her about being a woman, but it just brings home how uncomfortable I tend to be with the idea myself.  I was fine as a teenager and young adult -- I figured the downsides of female biology were just the price I had to pay to get to be the lucky one that would get to be pregnant and give birth.  Now that I've actually had to do those things, I'm beginning to suspect there's no good news.  Womanhood, even apart from any cultural issues, involves some suffering.

But now I'm the mother of a girl and I feel even more intensely the necessity of getting this right.  I can't, I must not, teach my daughter that she's unlucky to be a woman, that it's a disadvantage or a burden.  I want to show her a model of womanhood that will make her feel privileged to be who she is.

Motherhood is hard.  It starts with queasiness and back pain, then you pass through the anguish of labor, then you lose a lot of sleep and baby only wants the one with the breasts, and after a few years of that the bond with the baby is so strong that their whole life, they're very likely to want you most, especially when they're hurt, angry, or vomiting.  And because, likely as not, you're blessed with an extra helping of empathy, you're going to find yourself going to truly ridiculous lengths and ignoring your own heath and well-being to help your kids with their problems.

G. K. Chesterton is one of the few men I know of who can say "women should stay in the home" and make it sound like a compliment.  He says that being a wife and mother is a good deal more demanding and requires more skill than most other occupations, so putting the burden of childcare and housework on women is asking a great deal of sacrifice, but it has nothing at all to do with saying that women are dumber or less capable than men.  It's saying that they are smarter and stronger.

However, it's kind of cold comfort to be told "you have to suffer more and work harder because you are better" when you don't really feel you are better.  When plenty of people don't mind saying it's because you are worse, because you aren't capable of making good decisions, because Eve ate that dadgum apple.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that culture has two ways of getting some people to take on a disproportionate amount of burden for the good of the community.  Way #1 is to take away the rights of that group.  Take serfdom or slavery.  "Our society needs somebody to pick the cotton, that somebody is you.  Because you'd protest at this if you had rights, you now have none."  And historically, this has been a lot of what has happened to women!  Society will suffer if mothers don't want to get pregnant, don't want to give birth, don't want to breastfeed, don't want to help with the homework and wash the dishes and so forth .... so let's make sure women have no other options but those things, and then we can count on them sticking with it.  If they can go to college, run for office, win the Nobel Prize .... why would they stay home when that requires so much suffering?

Yes, I am agreeing that sexism had a very real purpose.  It was to make women keep doing the massive body of work that no one else could do or wanted to do, without which society could not function.

There is another way, though.  There is the prestige group.  Take, for instance, the Marines.  The Marines never lack for recruits, even though being a Marine requires all kinds of miserable work like running for miles carrying heavy backpacks and bunking out in the cold or heat.  The reason is that being a soldier has high prestige in our culture.  It's understood that this is hard, that it takes real skill to do it, and that society relies on it.  We feel the same about police officers and firefighters.  We know that these are the people who make society function, and they do it by sacrificing more than we do, and so we give them respect and honor.

I think, to some extent, the reason women get so frustrated, especially stay-at-home mothers, is that we really are giving up a lot in order to do what we do, and yet our occupation is given very little respect.  Being a mother is hard, takes real skill, and society relies on it, but there are a million reasons why mothers aren't respected.  Partly it's a desire for control -- mothers aren't doing their jobs right, the way we think they should, and so they don't deserve respect.  (Hence all the shaming for working moms, stay-at-home moms, poor moms, moms with nannies, homebirthing moms, non-vaccinating moms, helicopter moms, attachment parenting moms, tiger mothers, and so on forever.)  You are a domestic goddess, until you question your doctor, and then you're "just a mom with an internet connection."  You are the heart of the home, until you let your kids walk to the park, and then you're irresponsible.  Your work is vital for the survival of the next generation -- until you're poor, at which point it doesn't count as work, as far as the welfare system is concerned, and you have to be seeking a "real" job.

I understand this, I really do.  Like sexism, mother-shaming has a purpose.  Since mothers are doing work on behalf of all of society, everybody's got an opinion about how they should do it.  However, I'd a million times rather have a little bit of help than a lot of advice.  And I wouldn't mind a bit of respect.

I understand, it's hard to respect mothers when they have a job that isn't at all exclusive -- just about any woman can do it, and women are half the world.  And it doesn't come with all the skilled, creative tasks it used to, like gardening, spinning, weaving, and brewing.  (Well, except in my case.)  And it looks an awful lot like the work a daycare worker does for minimum wage.

But I maintain that the grueling, life-changing, heart-opening work that is motherhood actually makes you stronger, smarter, better.  Like any of those other demanding, service-oriented jobs, it forces you to overcome your limitations and transcend your self-love.  The skillset is different that it used to be -- we are now experts on height-weight charts and gluten-free diets instead of on sock-darning -- but it was never about the skills.  It's about what it means for a person to take on more of the burden of society than average.

And that respect, most of all, comes from within.  A Mother's Day card doesn't make up for the lost sleep, catching vomit in your hands, the agony of birth and having to listen to them talk about spaceships for years on end.  But when you see what you do as a sacred calling, as a special thing that not everyone gets to do and not everyone can, it gives you a sense of purpose.  I've found and lost that sense of purpose more than once.  I don't know how to hold onto it more firmly.  But it makes all the difference in the world.

Yes, I know, I started off talking about women and I've only talked about mothers.  I won't apologize for being exclusionary, because that's sort of the point of a prestige group -- it's exclusive.  However, I will say that the main disadvantage of being a woman comes into play when you have kids and find that it's not just a tangential addition to your life, like it might be for a man, but winds up changing you in ways you didn't expect.  And, of course, all the differences between women and men are ordered toward parenthood.

But even if you never have kids, being a woman might require some suffering, and like all suffering, it has the possibility of making you stronger and wiser.  For instance, periods.  They aren't fun.  I don't like them.  But I think there's something in having them that makes us stronger.  It teaches us that we're not always in control, that stuff happens.  It teaches us how to suffer and how to nurture ourselves through it, on the one hand, and put a brave face on it, on the other.  Men don't seem to know how to be sick.  Either they take to their beds and whimper whenever they get sick (the classic Man Cold) or they try to power through it because sickness is weakness (which is what John does).  Women know about having a cup of tea and going to bed early but still showing up to work.  We know that sometimes our feelings might be irrational and so we know that sometimes, there's no choice but to ignore them.  We know that we are not in total control, but we learn not to let our bodies be in total control either.  We learn to sympathize with others.

It's a kind of wisdom you develop over years and years, something I wish there were no need for, but I can't regret that I have.  Despite all my complaining about the sacrifice and suffering involved in being a woman, deep down, I don't want to be a man.  I feel that I'd be losing something important.  True, all the "gifts" of being a woman aren't really gifts that benefit ourselves.  Like the power of the priesthood, they are gifts at the service of the community.

But still, there's a pride in saying "I have given something very special to my community, something not everyone could give or has given."  I think every person who has done anything really selfless understands this.  It is a privilege, even if all it means is that we give and give and get nothing back.  It's a privilege, even if we didn't choose it.  It's a privilege because service is something special.

I hope my sister and daughter learn this -- that throughout all their lives, whenever they suffer the disadvantages of being women, they feel in their bones that it's a privilege too.


Allison said...

this is a really good post! I totally agree with it.

Julia said...

"You know how you've always been comfortable in your own skin and your body never gave you the least bit of trouble?"

Nope. I never had that -- not beyond the age of about 7.

Ariadne said...

Yeah, I never had that either. I've had asthma since I was 1 year old, and it was a very serious problem in my first 6 six years of life.

I'm quite happy to be a woman, though. There was a time when I was growing up that I thought it would be more fun to be a boy because girls couldn't do so many cool things. Then I grew up and found out I was wrong about that.

Sheila said...

My sister's very athletic, like I was. Her favorite things are swimming, gymnastics, and riding bikes. She's pretty much never sick. I remember how very upset I was to have that zero-maintenance kid body replaced by this awkward, jiggly, unpredictable woman body.

Enbrethiliel said...


I don't have time for a comprehensive comment, but the instant I read your title, I thought of Alice von Hildebrand's book The Privilege of Being a Woman. Have you read it, Sheila?

Sheila said...

Bits. I admit to plagiarizing her title. ;)

Enbrethiliel said...


My childhood experience was close to Ariadne's. I had adults tell me to my face, though not in a mean way at all, that I couldn't do certain things I was attracted to because those were just "for boys." And it really did make me want to be a boy as a child.

But when my body started changing, the real source of trauma for me was not being beautiful--not even close. During my early teen years, I still had the huge burn scar I got as an infant (back when burning hemangiomas was still standard medical practice); and after that, I had the scars of major reconstructive surgery. And it really hurt that none of the boys liked me, due to something I had no control over.

Anyway, back to your post. I think it's only logical that you started talking about women in general and ended up talking about mothers--if only because becoming a mother makes all the inconveniences of having a woman's body worth it. Well, yes, as you point out, motherhood also exponentially increases a woman's stress and suffering . . . but let's stick with the first point until the day I join your sisterhood and become an expert vomit catcher myself. ;-P

As with many of the things that you write, Sheila, the issue of prestige overlaps with something that I've been thinking about on my own. After you e-mailed me about indigo, I looked it up and learned that a former First Lady of the Philippines had tried (and sadly, failed) to make indigo a significant crop in the agricultural sector once more. And it made me think, "Oh, man, if I were First Lady, what wouldn't I be doing?"

(It occurs to me that the "feminist reading" of my last paragraph would critique me for wanting to be First Lady rather than President. LOL! But I do think that these two roles empower people in different ways. And I'd really rather focus on culture over politics.)

If I were First Lady, the shampoo companies would hate me for promoting "no poo" alternatives. =P Heck, companies from several different industries might have something to say about my personal commitment to make as many of my personal care items as possible from raw materials. But the weavers and the dyers just might love me. And yes, I'd try to make knitting cool as well. Also, if I had an infant (though First Ladies usually don't), two words: baby wearing. Four more words: with pina-cotton blend wraps. And so on . . .

Enbrethiliel said...


All this is related to what you were saying about prestige. It really does help to raise the profile of certain activities when a highly visible and (dare I say it) glamourous person openly chooses to do them. (In my First Lady fantasy, I take for granted that I'm glamourous. =P) This is where I think motherhood has its biggest PR challenge. The Marines are cool because, no matter how miserable the work they have to do, a man in uniform still looks kind of hot. (Another feminist critique of my writing would point out that there are women in uniform, too. But I wonder whether they are having an effect on the military similar to the effect woman are having in that other field of paediatrics.)

Are there PR lessons to be learned from this? Is there a "uniform" that mothers can wear, which will signal their membership in an elite corps? (I've read that denim jumpers are practically a uniform of Catholic homeschooling mothers in America, but not everyone likes this look. =P) Riffing off a cliche that would seem to explain the appeal of a Marine--that men want to be him and women want to be with him--is there something that a mother can do to make men want a wife like her and women want a life like hers? It's natural for women to want to have children, of course, but what can a woman do that will make teenage girls want to be young mothers rather than putting it off until their late 30s. She shouldn't do it primarily for the PR, of course, but she should be aware that it sends a message. And yet it's very unfair to mothers to expect them to do their jobs well and still look nice.

Having written all that, I want to repeat what I said in the feminism thread: that I think going after "prestige" means nothing unless we can set measurable objectives for this goal. And there is the built-in problem that prestige "moves"--so having gained one generation's mark of prestige, we may often find that the next generation isn't very impressed.

But I do want to propose one sort-of measurable objective: an increase in the numbers of women and men who identify as devotees of Mary. In Mary, what women do becomes less important than what women are. And that's good because, as you've noted, many of the actual tasks of a mother can be palmed off on a minimum wage worker. This also demolishes the unfortunate political divide between stay-at-home mothers and working mothers, because the conflict between them seems to boil down to who is doing the right things.

A non-Catholic former acquaintance of mine once asked me how Catholic women could stand having Mary held up as a model to them, when none of us will ever even come close. I wish I had had the answer for him that I do now, which is that being a member of the Mystical Body means that our striving to be like Mary is not something we do alone, but with Mary. So a baptised Christian can be very Marian just by trying (even if she fails a lot), while a non-baptised woman will always be in the position that that acquaintance had in mind. I'd add that all motherhood really only makes sense in the light of Mary's motherhood. This is its true prestige. And Mary is really the only mother "glamourous" enough to show this vocation as the beautiful choice it is.

Sheila said...

Ah, a maternal First Lady! For some reason First Ladies around here seem to downplay that role. Though I think part of it is that the wife has to "run for president" along with her husband and that's a miserable job with a baby. (Town Council elections were intense enough!) But there's always Duchess Kate! :D Who has, in fact, given a LOT of prestige to motherhood, to the point that I think she must have boosted the birthrate.

When I think of prestige, I don't just mean the outward kind, where outsiders respect your group, but also the inward kind, where insiders are proud to be a part of it. Now that I think of it, this sort of "prestige group" attitude is what makes altar serving so special. Not that it's all boys -- but that it's NOT "just anybody." Ditto school plays. If you are good enough to get a part, you get to be part of this special insider group -- a group with skills and knowledge outsiders don't have.

And I'm not wholly complaining here. Women DO, in fact, have that sort of cliquishness. There are all sorts of articles about "what having kids is like" and an understanding that, if you haven't, you just don't get it. I got it lots when I was a teacher, and the mothers all looked down their noses at me a bit. It wasn't pleasant at the time, but now I kind of get it. As soon as I got pregnant, I got the "now you are one of us" vibe ... because it was something they felt I'd *earned.* I'd suffered enough that we could commiserate, while at the same time realizing that outsiders wouldn't really understand.

Sheila said...

And within the natural parenting "tribe," there's a huge prestige group thing going on. Outsiders hate it, hence all the nasty articles about "mompetitors" and overachievers. It's not about competition or overachieving (mostly), it's about taking pride in your work. You learn the lingo (specialized jargon is a big group-binding thing), you sport the style (baby wraps and slings), you have some of your closest friends within that community. And why not? If you have to pick a friend, isn't it better to have someone who says "what you do every day is valuable and skilled, and I know because I do it too" rather than someone who just overlooks the most important part of your life?

That said, it would be bad to be TOO exclusive, because then you're just being a snob. And if part of taking pride in motherhood is making adorable Pinterest things, that's fine, but not if it's a competition.

For outside appreciation, I have to say, most of the people I know are amazing at it. At social events, people insist that I sit down while they bring me a drink. Christendom people in particular treat me with the same sort of awe they otherwise reserve for their professors.

It suddenly occurs to me that this is the REAL reason for chivalry. I tend to be unimpressed by symbolic "chivalrous" gestures, because they are often done by sexist guys who think I must now look up to them because they opened the door, but Chesterton (him again!) says he raises his hat to women to acknowledge that in general, women have had a harder time. I *do* appreciate it if it's meant like that!

Of course Mary is the prime archetype for womanhood. She can't be the only one for me, simply because I don't know enough about her to feel I can imitate her. But one of the really neat things about being Catholic is that the things despised beforehand -- children, mothers -- are revered now. Putting Mary as Queen of Heaven is a prestige boost for all women, for sure!

Sheila said...

Re: mother uniform - a blogger I read suggested bringing back the apron! I don't even own one, but I have to say I'm a fan theoretically. Something you always have, that you can use as a potholder or a nosewiper or whatever else you need, which your kids can develop an attachment to simply as a proxy for you! (As in: tied to the apron strings ... but I've also read wistful recollections from older people about their mother's apron, how they used to bury their faces in it when they were sad, and so forth.)

Me, I stick with my trusty mei tai ... I wear it daily "on the job." But you know how I feel about pashminas too.

I'd say most mothers go for yoga pants, and I do love them; they are practical for the things I do. But there's something of a movement (What I Wore Sunday linkup, for instance) of trying to dress nicely to break the stereotype of the denim jumper and make motherhood look glamorous. I don't think I am the one to bring glamor to motherhood ... but I did get a nice haircut the other day. I do think there's something to be said for letting younger women know, you don't HAVE to give up pretty things when you have kids.

Another respect tip: I would wholeheartedly back the total abolition of the word "mommy" (or "mummy") to refer to anyone besides your OWN mother. This is not a "mommy blog." It is a blog belonging to a mother. Cutesy nicknames belittle my intelligence, my status as an adult, and the importance of what I do.

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