The Social Construction of the Feminine (1941-1963): A Personal Memoir

In the 1970s, when NASA spacecraft performed docking maneuvers in orbit, the Apollo and Saturn modules consummated their couplings with the aid of a very large (but quite simple) male plug and female socket. The Soviet space agency of that same period equipped its Soyuz vessels with a male-female interlink almost identical to NASA’s. However for the linkup between Apollo 18 and Soyuz 19, in July of 1975, U.S. and Soviet aerospace engineers designed an incredibly complex (and inefficient) set of docking clamps that bore no resemblance to the genitals of any known sex. This was necessary for one reason only: on that historic “first date” between the two rival space agencies, neither participant was willing to take the “female” role, which would require its spaceship to be penetrated by the other nation’s male hardware.

Excerpt from a letter from F. Gwynplaine MacIntire printed in the February, 2000, issue of The Atlantic Monthly

In her book, Women’s Reality, Anne Wilson Sheaff reports that many of the women she interviewed for her book talk of feeling “that to be born female means to be born innately inferior, damaged, that there is something innately ‘wrong’ with us….that deep down inside there was something seriously wrong….that [women are] somehow worthless.”

I do not claim that my childhood was in any way typical. All that I claim is that it was mine. I grew up an only child in a family of adults. No doubt I was some sort of aberration, since not only the topic of reproduction, but reproduction itself, was apparently frowned upon. In addition to my mother (mother of one) and grandmother (mother of two), the influential women in my mother’s family included four great aunts — five if one included my great aunt Martha who was married to my great uncle Horace — and only four out of the five had given birth — to one child each, all of whom were grown. On my father’s side, my grandmother had had four children, but I was the only grandchild — my father’s sister and brothers having had no children at all. The only reference my mother made to childbirth was that thankfully she was knocked out which was OK with her, she really didn’t want to know anything about it.

The women in my mother’s family understood at some deep, unarticulated, unconscious level, that to be valued by the men who had access to and control of resources and who could ensure their survival — rich men — they had to put as much distance between themselves and their “animal femaleness” as possible; in short, they had to transcend their femaleness and all those disgusting associations with female animality and female reproductive behavior. They had to transcend these behaviors because they had no cultural value whatsoever. And they had no cultural value whatsoever because in the eyes of culture, these were not cultural behaviors; they were not learned; they were instinctive behaviors. And instinctive behaviors were associated with the animal world. And animal behaviors were not attractive, and they had to be attractive to survive. And if it were a choice between their own survival and the survival of the species, well, there didn’t seem to be much contest.

They accomplished this distance from femaleness, oddly enough, by choosing to be “feminine.” Femininity had to do with artifice and beauty and charm; femaleness had to do with reproduction and domestic labor. Feminine women were decorative and never hardened their soft, slender hands with real work. Females, on the other hand, were household drudges. To be valued by the men in their world, these women were supposed to transcend their femaleness. They were feminine; they were “ladies,” they were “girls.” One never used the insulting terms female or women in reference to them. Only by distancing themselves from their female bodies and from their reproductive work could they have any real value.

One way they could do this was by unloading their “women’s” work onto the shoulders of black “women” — who symbolically carried their bodily femaleness for them. Therefore, most of the physical labor — washing and ironing, mopping and dusting, and some of the cooking — was done by hired black “help.” This situation did not signify any special affluence, nor did it have anything to do with a heavy load of housework; it was just the norm for white middle class women in the South in the first half of the 20th century.

For example, when I was a little girl, my grandmother had two laundresses who came once a week to run the dirty linens and clothes through the washer in the basement, hang it out on the lines, and then iron the dresses and shirts and run the sheets through the mangle. In addition, she had a live-in cook-housekeeper. All this to help her look after one man and a two-bedroom house. My grandmother had domestic interests, but those interests could only be properly exhibited in household management — even though there was not much there to manage.

My maternal great aunts distanced themselves even further from the domestic. They were all musical, playing the violin, the piano, and the harp. I was closest to the two aunts who were the pianists — one of whom also wrote music and read Virginia Woolf and e.e. cummings. In the midst of this frenzy of artistic activity, the duties of the domestic life were pretty far down on their list of priorities. But what concern was that to them? They, like my grandmother, had “help.”

However, over the years as it became more and more difficult to “get good help,” these women were often “forced” to do their own housework. But, to maintain the illusion of their femininity and the distance from their femaleness, they did their women’s work secretly, behind closed doors with shades drawn, so no one would ever know — it was as unspeakable as sex — and believe me, when I was growing up, sex was unspeakable. And although their houses were as well kept as their bodies, I never once caught them “in the act.” For these women, doing housework was clearly shameful — a dis-grace.

Another way to combat their natural femaleness, was to make everything about themselves as man-made and artificial as possible. If they were naturally dark, they became blondes; if blonde, they highlighted and darkened; if hair was straight, they curled it; if curly, it got straightened. They permed and dyed, plucked and penciled, covered their faces in foundation, painted their lips and nails, encased their breasts and hips in stays and elastic and their legs in nylon, anything to distract attention from their underlying natural bodily selves. And over all this, they were always dressed “to the nines” (whatever that means). I never once saw them unless they were in “full body armor.”

This striving for a totally artificial, unnatural, disembodied existence extended to all bodily processes. I and other women of my mother’s family were not supposed to defecate, urinate, menstruate, or fornicate — which, of course, we did. Evidence of any of these activities was a dreadful embarrassment.

In spite of the fact that women’s embodied femaleness and its associated work was not valued and that these women themselves clearly bought into or accepted this devaluation, I don’t think it had ever percolated up to their conscious minds. I don’t think they had a clue as to why they did what they did — or that they ever questioned the wisdom of it. And, in spite of the fact that these women were some of the most intelligent and able human beings I have ever known — any man’s equal in that regard, they never even considered leaving the home and seeking value in the world of men’s work. They apparently perceived that to be the most socially degrading of all — almost a fate worse than death.

My mother was the most perfect example of the disembodied feminine I have ever encountered. She had been brought up in almost perfect ignorance of her femaleness. Menstruation came upon her with no warning, nearly frightening her to death, and, up until the time of her marriage at age 21, she had no idea of how babies were born. It fell to her husband to explain it to her. She told me later that she had imagined the process as being somewhat like a persimmon bursting open. Understandably, that also terrified her. How to explain such willful ignorance and determined lack of curiosity? Perhaps this lack of interest was part and parcel of her total denial that she in any way participated in female animality.

For her, to be a woman was to be perfectly sweet and perfectly ornamental. In her eyes, my father’s role was to provide the perfect setting for her sweetness and ornamentality. Unfortunately, he fell far short of this goal. With changing economic conditions — both national and personal — my mother had to do most of the housekeeping and childcare herself. These were not tasks she took to gladly, and, as a child, I felt the degradation she felt when faced with mopping a floor or cleaning a bathroom. She was also “forced” to work outside the home when my father ran into financial difficulties. This was not looked on as being liberated, but as being greatly “put upon.”

Her marital relationship was conventional in that my father was the dominant and “independent” husband, she the dependent and subordinate wife. She could never take a step without his permission. She was the child, the little girl, and he the adult. This attitude was supported by my mother’s unshakable, traditional Christian faith. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, she believed that “God’s in his heaven and all is right with the world” (or that it would be if everyone obeyed God’s law the way she did). Her faith in God extended to all persons and institutions in authority (males, of course) in whom she also devoutly believed, as she truly saw them as representatives of God on Earth. This adoration naturally extended to my father (at least in the early years of their marriage), which must have made my mother very attractive to him.

Interestingly enough, these roles and attitudes were never articulated and, although my mother complained bitterly that my father would never do certain things, which she wanted, done, she never showed any inclination to want to “take the reins” herself; and, although she often complained about him, she never complained about “men.” I also never once heard my father make any disparaging remarks about women. Indeed, his relationship with me, which was characterized by a refreshing equality, led me to believe that his behavior toward my mother was a result of her own ultra-feminine, childlike dependent personality rather than any negative feelings he might harbor about women. I think my father had very ambivalent feelings about women, being drawn to the childlike femininity of my mother, yet also valuing a very different kind of woman, one much more like the women in his family. I’m also sure that his ambivalence had an enormous effect on me.

In contrast to the women in my mother’s family, women in my father’s family worked within the home and outside of it, but the major portion of the work was done outside. By choice or chance, they looked to society, rather than the men in their lives, to give them value. And they counted on their intellect, rather than “femininity,” to gain them that value. That is, they counted on their intellect to distance themselves from their femaleness. Perhaps this was the only ploy open to women who did not have the financial means to “hire out” their femaleness or to spend hours hiding their femaleness under a cloak of artificiality, but who were educated and had some pretensions to intellect. If society valued intellect in men, it should logically follow that it would value intellect in women. Having intellects, they used them to argue themselves to this logical conclusion. But, like many other women before and after them, they were gravely disappointed. A key term of the argument was invisible to them and everyone else it seems; society values intellect in men. Being women, they weren’t even in the running.

My grandmother was “forced” to go to work when my grandfather died in 1917, leaving her with four young children to support. My father’s sister graduated from law school in 1929 and worked both before and after her marriage. My grandmother, essayist, poet, and valedictorian of her high school class in Magnolia, Arkansas, labored as an office clerk for forty years, and my aunt, even with her law degree, never got beyond secretarial work. I never felt that either my grandmother or my aunt really ever found work, which was up to their abilities or that they ever, really enjoyed their employment outside the home. When my aunt was able to stay at home, she did.

Oddly enough, I never heard either my grandmother or my aunt fault the system. They always identified closely with men and had a very low opinion of women — especially non-working frivolous “feminine” women like my mother and the women on her side of the family. Faced with believing in themselves and devaluing the system or valuing the system and devaluing themselves, they chose the latter. Perhaps they told themselves that their intellect set them apart from other women. But at some level they couldn’t escape knowing that their low opinion of women included themselves.

In all my years growing up around the women on both sides of my family, I never even heard the word feminist; I never heard any criticism of men or the system; I never heard a whisper that these women ever in any way believed themselves to inhabit any sort of devalued position. However, no one had to say anything. Actions do speak more loudly than words. The fact that my female relatives put a lot of effort into being psychological contortionists and bodily illusionists was not lost on me, and I, too, began my apprenticeship in psychological contortion and bodily illusion, settling on an illusion of ethereal femininity as the most appropriate for me to strive for. (However, somewhere along the way, my wires must have gotten crossed, because in my case, at age 12, the contortions manifested themselves physically instead of psychologically in a curvature of the spine, my body bowing to the patriarchal values that my mind refused to acknowledge.)

My liberal arts education only increased my striving for ethereality. If I had know about eating disorders, I’m sure I would have become anorexic in a last, desperate effort to de-female myself. In chapel, we worshipped the God of the spirit; in classes we exalted the life of the mind. I read poetry and pursued intellectual young men. I aced all the courses — at least the ones I cared about. I was mentored and encouraged. Through my intellectual talents, I transcended femaleness, but I also maintained my femininity; I got to wear pretty clothes and go out with boys. I had the best of both worlds. My success only increased the exaltation of the intellectual at the expense of the domestic, the spiritual at the expense of the physical, and — still unrealized by me — the male at the expense of the female. I never doubted the reality of the liberal image of a transcendent unsexed androgynous God and the transcendent unsexed human made in “his” image.

When I graduated in 1963, I had gotten and was giving a very mixed set of messages. I was male-identified in that I identified with my father rather than my mother; he was clearly the superior partner in my parents’ relationship; he was logical where my mother was illogical; he was competent where my mother was incompetent, etc. I was male identified in that I was a product of a liberal arts education which celebrated the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome and all the humanistic (male) virtues. I was male-identified because I valued the life of the mind over the life of the body and had spent four years honing my intellectual skills.

Yet, I would have argued anyone down if it had been suggested that I was male identified. In my own mind, the qualities I admired were human, not male — I was “human” identified and that was as it should be. Interestingly enough, none of my philosophy or theology courses led me to believe anything else. Had all the anti-female thinking from Aristotle on been bowdlerized — or had it been there all along and my not seeing it was just part and parcel of the denial I lived in everyday?

But my lack of identification with the female, my contempt for the vapid and artificial feminine as well as for woman as the female pack animal (”Asses are made to bear and so are you.”) leads me to the inescapable conclusion that I must at some deep level have known that femaleness was not included in the human identity and therefore, in identifying with human qualities, I was indeed male identified.

Yet, in the midst of all this male-identifiedness, I also identified with my artistic and intellectual great aunts and made a project out of being feminine — the artistic, eccentric, bohemian feminine — putting enormous care into hair and dress (a studied “sweet disorder”) and making sure that my intellectual skills were only used to make me more interesting and entertaining to men — knowing that the value of my intellect for them primarily resided in the fact that I had the wit to value theirs. But why was I doing this? What did I want?

Well, I know what I didn’t want. I was absolutely terrified of making the wrong marital choice and losing myself in the vortex of domesticity. I was absolutely terrified of winding up with a man who expected me primarily to be a wife — a man who would turn me into his maid and housekeeper — a man who could care less about what I thought or what I was reading, but was only interested in what I might put on the table for dinner — or how clean his house was. One talented young philosophy student ruined everything when he sweetly told me that when we were married he would make sure I had a washer and a dryer so I could take good care of him. Clearly he didn’t know who I was. That was the end of that relationship. A promising young law student took me home to visit his parents and I witnessed his mother rising early to cook breakfast for the men of the family, going to early mass, taking a bus across town to work, and returning home early enough to provide a variety of baked goods for her husband and sons at dinner. She also stood during meals and served, having eaten earlier herself. Her husband rose much later, ate what she had prepared, went to the heated garage and drove three blocks to work. It was a truly horrifying experience.

But what I feared more than being a wife, was being a mother. In my mind, becoming a mother meant the end of freedom, it meant the end of books, it meant the end of friends, it meant the end of just about everything. At 22, given my peculiar family arrangements, I had never even been close to an infant, and I wanted to keep it that way. But I did enjoy the company of young men and keeping company with a young man often led other girls to exactly what I did not want. But being valued by men was what it was all about. What a dilemma!

Like many young women who had grown up in the sexually repressive 50’s, my sexuality was terribly conflicted. When I had started dating seriously in college, my father took me aside and sternly warned me that the family honor was in my hands and that if I ever got pregnant I would find myself out on the street. I didn’t speak to my father for three weeks after this admonition. How could he underestimate me so? Didn’t he realize that I didn’t need his warning to understand the seriousness of the offense of pregnancy outside of marriage. No one had to convince me that pregnancy spelled disaster — and it was something that I wanted no part of.

I had known this for some time. The Florence Crittenden Home for Unwed Mothers was across the street from my grandmother’s house in Little Rock, set far back from the street and surrounded by a high wrought iron fence topped with spikes. As a child, I had spent hours in fascinated horror, straining to get a look at these disgraced young women whose lives were irretrievably ruined. I assumed that these stained young women were incarcerated for their crime and, since no one ever talked about “it,” no one told me any different. It was a terrible fate to contemplate.

In addition, I believed that only virginal purity or the illusion of same would catch the kind of man I was interested in. And clearly, it would be difficult to sustain that illusion in the face of unwedded motherhood. But to be popular, one had to be sexually attractive, and to continue to get dates, one had to engage in a certain amount of sexual activity. And to make matters worse, one’s own body seemed bent on betrayal. The trick was to be able to sexually attract males, to engage in sexual activity, which skated perilously close to disaster, but to stop just short of risking pregnancy.

But, besides having to be responsible for the family honor and the desire to avoid social condemnation, I had my own personal messages which made me want to avoid pregnancy at all costs — either within or outside of marriage. To me, becoming a mother meant the end of life as I wanted to know it — the end of life as a human being — and nothing in my family experience argued against these feelings. If motherhood overtook me, then I could no longer escape my female identity — an identity which I had assiduously avoided by maintaining the illusion of undeveloped girlhood and escaping into the life of the mind.

What I did want desperately was to be valued — but valued how? By a man or by men (society in general)? I desperately wanted to be happy, and I had the strange idea that happiness came from being true to one’s nature. But how could a woman be valued (by a man or society) and be true to her nature if value depended on distancing herself from her femaleness? And how could I specifically be valued? As far as I could see, there were only two paths open, and neither was attractive. The first one meant assuming the role of the “socially acceptable feminine” — that of “the lady” as represented by my grandmother and great aunts or the more updated version, the “perpetual girl,” as exemplified by my mother. The second one meant assuming the role of ersatz male.

So, should I prove my worth by striving for the feminine ideal and hoping to catch a rich man, or should I strive to prove my worth by demonstrating my intellectual capabilities and hope to get direct access to resources? Put another way, should I try to find worth as a woman or as a man? The seriousness of this dilemma (and the consequences of choosing wrongly) was brought to mind when I read that one of Georges Sand’s lovers, awakening early to find her up and crouched before the fireplace engaged in the task of starting a fire, was so repulsed by seeing her in this unfeminine pose and engaged in this unfeminine activity that he leapt out of bed and left her on the spot. Even Georges Sand had to deal with this??!! During my childhood, my own mother seemed to be a little more up on things than George Sand. Intuiting the necessity of maintaining the illusion that houses were magically cleaned, dinners magically cooked, and “ladies” were always perfectly dressed and made up with no expenditure of physical labor on their part, she made sure that she and I were both bathed and dressed, and sitting prettily in the front porch swing to greet my father when he came home. Illusion was all.

In choosing the “feminine” path to female worth, a woman was viewed as being true to her nature by denying her femaleness — by being true, instead, to the feminine ideal. But what was the feminine ideal and how did it come about? In patriarchal culture, the word Man and Human have traditionally been understood as synonymous. If, by extension, the word male is synonymous with human, and females are by definition not males, then females are not human. If females are not human, then they are by default animals. If nature requires the mating of males and females for reproduction to take place, the cultural subtext is that it is requiring the mating of humans and animals. From the male perspective (what other perspective is there, after all?), this constitutes bestiality. Although this may be a perverse erotic “turn on” for some, for most transcendent males, it is a real turn off. What to do? How can a male meet the requirement of mating with that which is not male ( not human), but that which is also not female (not animal)?

The answer has been the social construct of the feminine. The feminine is neither male (human) nor female (animal). It is something totally artificial and man-made. It has been made by men for men, in much the way that Eve was constructed from Adam’s rib. A man could safely be intimate with this artificial being and maintain the illusion of his own transcendence.

To ensure that this construct was “not animal/female,” involved excluding or disguising all qualities and activities which human women had in common with other females of the animal world (qualities which, not coincidentally, enabled other females to thrive and survive and to ensure the survival of their offspring). Coifed and dressed, shod and hobbled in high-heels, this “unnatural” being bore no resemblance to her animal sisters. Pregnancy and the labor of childbirth, like the labor of housework, were hidden and disguised and never mentioned. Babies were delivered by the stork or found in the garden under cabbage leaves.

To ensure that this construct was “not human/male,” involved including a set of artificial qualities — which could be grouped in the category “not-male.” These qualities not coincidentally enhanced and ensured the male ideal: feminine weakness and fragility set off male strength; feminine childlikeness and dependence enhanced male wisdom; feminine helplessness provided opportunities for the demonstration of male competence.

Perhaps this is the real meaning of the story of Pygmalion; that human men created the feminine ideal and then fell in love with their own creation — i.e. eroticized it. Then women, themselves, having no alternative but to buy into the male scenario (there was no female scenario), experienced the erotic in their own feminine surrender to the superior male — accounting, no doubt, for the continued wild popularity of the romance genre known as “bodice rippers” — where men are men and women are women — depicting situations which, in the real world, can in an instant degenerate into domestic violence.

The trick for women was to distance themselves from their own natures as much as possible without risking the total disintegration of the personality — a disintegration which happened far too often if books like Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness are to be believed. One thinks of Camille Claudel and Vivian Eliot, Tom’s wife. I think I knew all of this then, but could not risk bringing it to consciousness.

The second path was to reject the feminine ideal in favor of the ideal of the intellect. This path required the belief that the term human included women. But let’s take a reasonable look at this. If western culture is rooted in the concept that humans are separate from and superior to nature and the animal world and what separates humans from animals is the human intellect and that only males are human, then to have intellectual aspirations, to have human aspirations, is to have aspirations to be a male. And if value for women is tied to the male erotic and the male erotic was evoked by the feminine ideal, and the feminine ideal is constructed from those things that are “not-male,” then taking the path of the intellect seemed to ensure the loss of male value, just as surely as failing to distance oneself from one’s femaleness. It meant risking the loss of marriage and children and home. It meant being lonely and outcast. If she was good enough, this path might win a woman an income and some minor acclaim from society, but the costs were much too high.

Understanding what was valued and not valued and never questioning the rightness of this social evaluation, I decided to opt for the feminine, but not the female. The world I was striving for was the world of poetry and art and music — not loading the washer or hanging the clothes on the line — not changing diapers or staying up all night with crying infants. But in opting for the feminine I felt like a complete fraud, for my femininity was as completely superficial as it was artificial. And, although I achieved the outward illusion of the feminine — or at least I think I did, I certainly tried hard enough — inside, having been so successful at emptying out and eradicating my femaleness, I wasn’t anything at all.

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