On Allegedly Being Less Than, and Finding More with Feminism

Occasionally, I am struck with an opportunity to wonder at the extraordinary fact that any of we women manage to reach adulthood with a shred of self-esteem, that so few of us truly succumb to the anger inside us all. Even those of us who supposedly don't "care" or "pay attention," those who ostensibly think feminism is a crock, don't escape the unavoidable messages that tell us over and over and over that our bodies are filthy and shameful and less than, that our minds are simultaneously inferior and impenetrably complicated but naturally less than, that our ideas and talents and capabilities and humor and monolithic disposition are all inexorably, intractably less than. We are all, in all ways, less than.

Right down to, inevitably, what's between, or not between, our legs. I remember the first time I read Freud's theory of penis envy, and the hypothetical he laid out about two children playing "doctor." The little girl first sees the boy's penis, then looks at her own body and discovers "the horror of nothing to see." That description haunts me—the sense of women's bodies as missing something, as incomplete, as less than.

Women have but three options to manage a lifetime of being told they are less than: They can accept the pernicious myth, which usually entails hiding their resignation behind some conservative ideology that deviously attempts to make submission sound valorous, usually by disguising it at a way to honor men, children, and/or a god of some description. (Note: I'm not talking about all conservative/religious women or all stay-at-home moms or all women who prefer a division of marital labor along traditional gender lines; I'm talking about women who genuinely believe women are to submit to men and profess to be okay with that.) Intellectually, I can understand why this option appeals to some women. If you can convince yourself that you were put on the earth to get married, have lots of babies, and serve your family, to cook, clean, wash dishes, and scrub floors, and nothing else, if you can be happy being a second-class servant, then all the messages telling you you're less than won't bother you a whit, but instead confirm your identity. No struggles with the cognitive dissonance of being overtly told you're equal by society, while your equality and sense of self and personal autonomy and self-esteem are being constantly undermined by a steady drumbeat of negative messaging. No frustration at the lack of progress. None of the pain and humiliation of subjugation. Celebrate your oppression, and the world celebrates with you.

That's not really a viable choice for most women, however, which leads us to our other two choices. Try to ignore it all; try not to think about it; shove it down in your gut and pretend it doesn't matter. Or be an active feminist.

Active feminism can, in many ways, seem more upsetting, because you do have days of sheer despair. But ultimately it's healthier to have a method by which to process the stuff of sexism, because even though carrying it with you, addressed and understood and contextualized, is bloody hard, internalizing it is worse. That which tells us we are less than is corrosive, corruptive, toxic—and a lifetime of it left alone to fester can destroy a woman from the inside out, as she is slowly robbed of her self-esteem, her self-respect, her self-confidence, her sense of, trust in, and love for herself.

There are women who say they don't think about these things, and they may not, in the sense that an active feminist does, drawing connections between "the little things" and the big picture. But internalizing a lifetime of negative perceptions about your sex, your body, and inevitably yourself doesn't come without a cost. Women who don't think about these things nonetheless feel them. It's a mistake to believe that the "post-feminist" fun-loving gals at work or the local bar or populating the sorority house across the street, who claim ignorance at what all the feminist fuss is about or express hostility at the mere mention of the no-fun stridency of women's equality advocates, don't feel the mordant pangs in their guts when they are smacked in the face with the reality of less than. They do. And pity them truly that the fear of being seen as humorless trumps their desire to find a way to experience themselves as whole.

Feminists, one must realize, come to feminism because they feel these things and simply choose not to ignore them; it's not that that they experience something other women do not. Feminists find feminism as they search for a way to cope, to process, to deal.

Feminism is not, as is asserted by its critics, something women use to find issues of sexism, plucking them from thin air, but something women use to address issues of sexism, which already permeate the ether. The charges of "hypersensitivity" regularly levied at feminists often contain overt or covert reference to the notion that it is only because of feminism that women react negatively to sexist t-shirts, inequality in the workplace, "mankind," and all manner of offense and discrimination—as if no woman would ever take issue with these things were it not for the nefarious agenda of feminism to turn women into affront-spying machines, reacting with indignation as often as possible.

(Never mind the obvious logical query of whence, then, did feminism come.)

To a woman awash in a culture steeped in misogyny, the notion that we must endeavor to search out offenses is laughable. Meandering through a day untouched by misogyny except as I (inexplicably) seek and engage it does not describe my reality; it describes a transcendently utopian fantasyland. And it informs why feminism remains relevant and necessary.

Feminism is a framework and the adhesive of a community on which women can depend to support our intrinsic feelings of equality and its denial. Feminism is a gift which allows us to define who we are on our own terms, tells us we don't have to conform to anyone's expectations but our own, frees each of us of the obligation to be anything other than what we want to be and are. Feminism is hope, its history providing a reminder that progress is possible, progress is happening now, and so it will continue with our vigilance.

And feminism is, more than anything, a valve that lets escape the pressure of less than, lest we implode from the crush of its weight.

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[Parts of this post originally published in March 2007. I had occasion to revisit some of these thoughts after a lovely late-night chat with Arkades.]

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