How to like women

In conferences, my daughter’s third grade teacher mentioned that the girls in her classroom have developed a small kingdom with hierarchy and ranks that cause distractions in class. She laid out the structure for me like this:

  • Queen Bee–rules the roost
  • Sidekick–supports her
  • Banker–controls the currency–keeps track of information, gossip and tattle tales
  • Floaters–move among the different groups
  • Wannabes–strive to the upper tiers through negative immitation
  • and the Target–often only one child who receives the brunt of bullying.

If I’d had to guess, I’d have placed my daughter as a banker. When one of my boys mentioned that he didn’t want to be the classroom monitor because he didn’t want to tattle, my daughter was like, “I’d LOVE that job.” And one time I found a piece of paper on which she had written down about fifteen minutes worth of observations concerning her other classmates’ behavior: “Herbie picked his nose. Sally braided Sophia’s hair. Jordan scratched her privates…” Real examples, fake names. The girl is very interested in other people’s business, especially when that business is slightly sordid.

Which is why, when I asked her teacher which role she played, the teacher had to answer in sign language (rubbing her fingers together like currency), because the little girl who was supposed to be on the other side of the room, had very casually drifted over to where her teacher and I were talking, pretending she was doing something other than eavesdropping on our conversation.

The teacher began to mention some things we could do and discuss at home so that girl by girl, with appropriate parental guidance, the hierarchy might disassemble.

Spend one on one time with your daughter so she knows she’s loved unconditionally by the right people. Model positive relationships with other females. Be friendly, even with other women who are not friendly to you. “Your daughter’s a leader, which is a good thing that should be encouraged, but you might consider talking to her about positive leadership versus negative…I know your family goes to church…perhaps you could discuss it from the viewpoint of your faith.”

 

*

For the record, I’m as interested in other people’s business as the next gal. I’m also concerned about my appearance, and attracted to charismatic and beautiful people. I frequently say things that are hurtful without realizing they’re hurtful, and it’s only been as an adult that I’ve been able to maintain long-lasting female friendships. Girl dynamics still confound me sometimes, even after all these years–probably because I’m still confused about what happened between me and some of my female friends when I was younger.

Three particular occurrences come to mind that negatively colored my experiences with other females.

–Around fourth grade I became the faithful sidekick of a Queen Bee. I was never sure when I went into school each morning whether or not she would be my friend. Sometimes she wouldn’t talk to me for mysterious reasons, and I’d spend the day miserable, until inexplicably, I was allowed back into her graces.

Our friendship ended definitively in fifth grade, when I asked her why she was mad at me one day, and she answered, “When are you going to get it through your thick skull that I’m not mad at you? I just don’t like you.” She offered no explanation, just walked away with her new sidekick, who was ironically, a former friend of my own, whom I’d abandoned to be friends with the Queen Bee.

–In middle and high school, I had other friends, though there were periodic fallings-out in those relationships as well, often boy-related as we all grew up and the hierarchy was realigned based more on sexual experience and the social status of one’s boyfriend. Good girls waited, but the bad girls got all the dates, and that was frustrating. I fell into the trap of blaming other women for my lack of a date, the fast girls, without whom, I mistakenly believed, the entire male population might have remained incorrupt.

–In college, our Panhellenic president was a women’s studies major who opposed a relatively benign tradition on our campus which she deemed barbaric and demeaning to women.

On a campus of thousands of students, it seemed unfair for a committee representing all the women on campus to eliminate the practice based on one woman’s belief that they were against her feminist principles. It wasn’t a hero’s cause, by any means, but when the decision went to a vote, I spoke out publicly in favor of the tradition. The Panhel president considered my support of this tradition inconsistent, considering I had also spoken out against the practice of fraternities showing pornographic videos during rush to potential pledges.

It was inconsistent, because I really had no idea where I stood on feminism. I was not pro-choice. I was moving back towards a Catholic understanding of sexuality, and didn’t want to marry outside my faith or be in a contraceptive relationship. But I also knew, as a woman, how I did and did not want to be treated by men.

In any case, the Panhel president pulled me aside and called me “The worst kind of woman,” I assume because of my inability to toe the party line. That experience, combined with years of sorority back-biting, sealed the deal for me. I declared myself not a fan of women in the broad picture. I had a handful of favorites, but women, as a gender, hadn’t impressed me much.

 

*

It was the Church that helped me find my way back to liking fellow members of my own gender.

After college, I worked for the Church, and lived in a house full of Consecrated women who practiced poverty, chastity and obedience. Like many religious orders, these Consecrated women also made a practice of “universal charity” which meant avoiding preferential treatment towards any particular person besides Christ, and extending the virtue of charity to everyone you meet, whether you like them or not.

The first few months of my residency there were very difficult. I often attempted to lure people I liked into my confidences to point out hypocrisies, and complain about how difficult and inhuman the standards were under which we were supposed to live. Didn’t they realize that familiarity with other people is a tremendous comfort in a painful world? Didn’t they realize that when you’re away from your family, sleeping in an uncomfortable bed, eating donated food, and taking cold showers, you’ve got to grasp at simple pleasures where you find them?

Our superiors directed us to seek our comforts in the Lord–but I didn’t want to. The Lord, on his Cross, abandoned and alone, was cold comfort.

 

*

It was other women, to whom I now looked to provide me with affirmation and support, which was an improvement on my former negativity towards all women, but it was still nowhere near the practice of universal charity.  I was looking for allies to support me in my “us against them” view of the world. Without the world to war with, I had no problem warring with God against the restrictions his teachings placed on my life.

I had already come to terms with the fact that my faith asked me to abstain from a long list of illicit sexual activities. It was the supposedly “little” attachments and prejudices in my life that required purification now. I wasn’t comfortable being alone. I didn’t know how to let the injustice of other people’s annoying attributes pass by without notice. I wanted to be consulted and admired, but the other women there, many of whom were far more advanced than I was spiritually, had already discerned they would look only to Christ for guidance and perspective. They didn’t need my insight, and I didn’t realize how uncharitable it was to ask for their hearing.

Have you ever been pulled into a gossipy conversation, and found yourself agreeing with the complaints put forward just because you don’t want to offend the person you’re talking to? And then afterwards, you feel awful for having gone along with it? I was the person, going around making people uncomfortable by assuming they needed my input on other people’s annoying habits. I didn’t realize what a burden it was for other people to be the crutch propping up my self-regard.

 

*

Over the course of the year, I learned to be satisfied with less worldly comfort than I ever had before. Even though I wasn’t called to religious life, I firmly believe that living with other women under a firm order of Christian virtue was one of the best preparations for adult life I could have experienced.

It prepared me for long quiet days at home with my children, for a life in which the affirmation of others would be more and more difficult to come by. It taught me not to violate the dignity of others through gossip and back-biting, and put me in contact with other women who practiced the same.

 

*

While the austerity I experienced living in a religious community was mostly beneficial, I’m not convinced that I could, or should recreate such an environment for my children. I don’t feel obliged to fabricate a life of hardship for them when schooling in virtue can happen in less rigorous environments.

Also, while I love spending quality time with my daughter letting her know that she’s unconditionally loved, I don’t want to labor under any illusions: there will be a time when I’m not there to provide her with my affirmation, and before that, I foresee a time when she will cease to be satisfied with it.

What she needs to know now, is that she, and every other female she encounters, has dignity, not because they’re good girls or bad girls, but because God gave it to them. It’s wholly unearned–this dignity–and granted to everyone, which is why every little girl and boy in her classroom deserves her respect and kindness.

This same belief undergirds my own theory now, of what constitutes authentic feminism. My dignity as a woman doesn’t come from my ability to be a mother, or from my feminine nature, or from how much I get paid, or from how well I live out my own or someone else’s expectations for my gender role.

I have dignity because God made me, because he grants it to me, just as he created all men with dignity, and the aged, and the unborn, fat people and thin, the infertile and the prodigious parents, the imprisoned and the mentally or physically impaired. All created beings are equal in dignity, though we live out different callings under myriad different circumstances.

So much writing on gender today comes across as antipathy for one’s own or the opposite sex. And not surprisingly, it breeds more antipathy in the comboxes. My own experience in writing about gender made clear to me just how necessary certain aspects of the feminist movement really were/are. But any feminist thought that doesn’t take into account the dignity of all people could not possibly benefit women in the long run.

 

*

Over the past twelve years, I’ve given birth to four boys and one little girl. If all goes well, this winter, another little girl will join our family. Rearing boys has been relatively uncomplicated compared to the social complexity I’ve already experienced with my daughter. It’s tempting, with this first foray into girl-land, to throw in the towel and just say–that’s it–girls are just cruel to one another. That’s how I was as a kid. My mom says she was the same way. And now, here’s my daughter acting in kind.

But we can be better than that. Every soul needs tempering. It’s a good time to get my ducks in a row on the matter, paying attention to how I speak about other women in the media, in my family, and my friends. My little girl is standing nearby, and she’s pretending to do something else, but she’s watching, and listening…

 

 

 

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