Feminine vs. Feminist Part 1: That’s So Unladylike!

What does “femininity” mean? Growing up, being “feminine” meant keeping quiet while the boys were “just being boys.” It meant keeping my ankles crossed lest anyone catch a glimpse of my “foundational” garments because of the stupid skirt required as part of my parochial school uniform. It meant being demure and sweet and unobtrusive.

It feels weird to describe this, considering this was just during the 1990s, barely 20 years ago. But that was femininity in my world. Boys were allowed to be obnoxious, but humility and modesty were held as the standard for girls. We seemed to be the ones who were raised to be more responsible and accountable (even for things that were outside our control) and also more considerate. For example, how many girls volunteer to help cook and serve (though I really hate to use the word “serve”) Thanksgiving dinner and clean up afterwards even if they are guests in someone else’s home?

And how many boys will just park it on the couch and watch a football game, only caring about the score and the food that keeps magically appearing in front of them?

Rose Hackman describes this emotional labor in her article “’Women are just better at this stuff’: Is emotional labor feminism’s next frontier?” Most women are still the sole caretakers of the home and children while men claim they would help more if they were asked. This isn’t because women are more inherently inclined to housework and childcare but because until recent years these have been considered predominantly feminine tasks. The expectations for women to be more considerate, better managers, and better multi-taskers than men start early for girls and are further exacerbated by society’s biased opinions.

In my former circles, society determined that wives were to be submissive to their husbands and, while they were “allowed” to work outside the home, should preferably be full-time mothers and homemakers. Women could teach other women and, of course, children, but a woman was not supposed to teach a man, especially her husband. An unmarried woman is under the authority of her father until she marries, which is when her husband takes on the authority.

You think I’m kidding, don’t you? I wish I were.

I was told that “men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love.” So, ladies, I hate to burst your bubble, but the only reason he’s nice to you is so that he can get some. Dating advice that was given to the girls was to ask for help; it makes the guys feel more like men when they know they’re helping you with something. Yeah, makes total sense. Act helpless; pretend you can’t take care of yourself. Be the damsel in distress so he can rescue you and feel better about himself. After all, it’s about his ego, right?

As a kid, I asked why I would need to submit to a husband. What if he was making a really stupid decision?

“Well then, it’s not your responsibility. And, besides, if you marry a good man, he’ll know the difference between right and wrong.”

So essentially good men always know what to do. Wow, isn’t that a relief.

“Oh, of course your opinion will still matter! Your husband should take your feelings into consideration when he makes the final decision.”

I’m sorry. WHAT?! When he makes the final decision?

One lady actually told me that I should trust my husband to know what is best for me. Ummm, I have been living my own life for almost thirty years now; I think if anyone will know what’s best for me it would be, uh, ME!

But in my former life, which I have since left behind, that was considered the quintessential woman. The one who is submissive and always asks for help (but heaven forbid she asks for help with the housework since that is her “domain”). She always acts and dresses modestly so as not to attract negative attention from men who just can’t help themselves and struggle constantly with surges of testosterone every twenty seconds.

Apparently, according to the religious leaders of my childhood, men are more sexual than women; women are more emotional, and because of that, they are more irrational and do not make good decisions. Which is why husbands are supposed to have the final say so as not to introduce chaos into their households. (Apparently it’s so much better to have the person who’s allegedly more sexual making all the decisions.)

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the following statements when I was growing up:

“Men are natural-born leaders; women are naturally submissive.” I can think of a ton of examples of naturally-submissive men and naturally-assertive women.

“Men love the thrill of the chase.” So I’m just an object to be won?

“Let him lead; it makes him feel more like a man.” So either dumbing myself down or acting as if I can’t take care of myself makes him feel more masculine. That doesn’t sound a little controlling and possibly borderline abusive?

But there’s no way sexism still exists, right?

I understand that not everyone grows up with this kind of background and not all religious groups promote this kind of inanity; but this is still an attitude that pervades society. No wonder women have a much harder time than men in their professional careers. I sure do.

This type of indoctrination did not help my already naturally shy personality develop into confidence. If anything, I felt more that I had to rely on others’ validation of me to determine whether or not I was successful. I had always been a people pleaser and only willing to do things by the book. This is not exactly the type of personality that survives in STEM for very long.

Any STEM field requires tenacity, assertiveness, creativity, and the guts to do something crazy in spite of being discouraged on all fronts. This flies in the face of what society defines as “feminine,” whose definition has only served to perpetuate the double standard that pervades nearly every professional arena.

My one saving grace in all of this was my parents, especially my father. They chose the parochial schools we attended based on the secular curriculum that was taught, which was more rigorous than a typical public school. When I told them about the nitty-gritty details of the sexist religious instruction years after I graduated, they were livid to say the least.

I’m the youngest of a brood of four; my older siblings are all boys. My father wasn’t about to let me be pushed around for the rest of my life. Instead, he wanted to make sure I would never have to depend on a man for anything. He and my mother made sure I had both baby dolls and Legos to play with; Star Wars and Beauty and the Beast to watch; and Cool Tools and Pretty, Pretty Princess to entertain myself. He let me help him with his home improvement projects and enrolled me in a jiu jitsu course so I could defend myself (although my three brothers had taken care of that early on in my life).

And when the time came for me to apply to college, my father wanted me to go into STEM. He picked the most rigorous, male-dominated, “unfeminine” field possible: chemical engineering. After hours of arguing with him, he finally told me, “It’s my job to make sure you’ll be able to stand on your own two feet. And, besides, you have the mind for this; I don’t want to see you waste it.”

I can’t thank him enough for that.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

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