Since my teens, I have read many, many books about women. Of course, the theme changed over the decades, from documenting the status of women as The Second Sex as penned by Simone de Beauvoir in the late 1940s to the extreme critiques of feminism as outlined in Backlash in the 1990s by Susan Faludi. Certainly, I gained different historical perspectives on the role of women as I devoured these books; but at the same time, much of what I read made me angry. Whether it was lamenting our inferior and belittled humiliation as rape and domestic violence victims or lambasting men for blocking our avenue to the top by creating the glass ceiling. Then, there was the Superwoman too – women could have it all; love, sex, power and money! By the late 70s, I also started reading books about men; and I consumed many, many of these books too as I tried to comprehend what was really going on between the sexes. And no less than the woman books, these angered me, too. So much of what I read about women I just could not relate to; who WERE these women they were writing about; what society did they live in; and where did I fit in in the so-called battle of the sexes or the WAR against women as Marilyn French outlined (I couldn’t read more than just a few pages of this diatribe before I threw it down in disgust). Indeed, the men’s books were just as confusing as the many men I had worked with and befriended over the years bore no resemblance to the men written about between the covers of this non-fiction. Who were these men? Where did they exist? Were all the men and women living a secret inner life where their social personas belied this private torment?
I acknowledged that much of what was written about women AND men certainly made sense to me in an historical context; I learned a lot about other women and also too about some of the hidden and unconscious agendas that dominated our lives as females. These books helped clarify many of the issues that had perplexed me all my life; particularly Colette Cowling’s The Cinderella Complex and Jean Baker Miller’s Towards a New Psychology of Women (this was brilliant). So my reading was definitely not a waste of time. It certainly unlocked many of my deeper more confusing conundrums and went a long way to explain why I had had some sort of nervous breakdown (call it what you will) and could not find real support or help among the medical profession (women as well as men) as well as my family or friends. These books, and those on men, too, put my personal experiences into a subtext of understanding that not one other person I knew could provide. So without doubt, they all helped heaps. That said, they still left me angry.
As I related to much of what was written, there was SO much I just could not and did not relate to; and the men I knew (or thought I knew in some way at least) seemed nothing like the men strewn across the pages of their books, either. So what was THE problem? It seemed so obvious really; the words about women and men were ALL generalisations; GREAT generalisations that women were THIS and men were THAT as if never the twain shall meet. And it ALL seemed so glaringly wrong. Where was I as a unique individual with my own personal and private experience; where were all the other millions of women and men in this world of ours who all have their own histories, their own past, present and future? Very simply, there was no recognition of our individuality; no acknowledgement of our singular and very personal data and no room to discuss or even consider what it is that makes each and every one of us different! No two people are the same; not as women OR men; there can be as many similarities between the sexes as there supposedly is within the sexes and there can be just as many differences within the sexes as there supposedly is between them. There were many times when reading books about men I related to the so-called MALE experience; as much as I could NOT relate to the so-called FEMALE experience. And it became increasingly apparent that one of the MAJOR problems with all these books, and of course, with the attitudes and perspectives of many people in our society (however unconscious) was the generalisations that these attitudes and perspectives are based on! There seems to be no realisation that we are all individuals with our own wants, needs and desires, our own ambitions, dreams and longings, our own agendas for the way we want to live our lives. Instead, we’re lumped together as victims, failures, losers, or on the contrary of course, as successful and wealthy people who seemingly DO have it all. What one woman wants can be SO very different to what her mother wanted, her sisters wanted and of course, even her friends and working colleagues wanted. And to complicate the issue even further, what they want for her and more importantly perhaps, what they expect of her! And likewise for men!
In her book Towards a New Psychology of Women first published in 1975 by American psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller (and many female psychiatrists I consulted here in the 80s had never even heard of her let alone read her book) writes about how conflict makes us grow; by understanding that conflict and resolving it as much as we can but it is these very conflicts we all experience as we travel through life that are sadly denied by people in our social milieu. We’re not ALLOWED to be conflicted; we’re not allowed to be confused; and so often we ARE conflicted and confused by these same generalisations that label us as men and women as if being HUMAN doesn’t belong in the debate. We must conform to the traditions of being women; get married, settle down, have kids, live in suburbia as Betty Friedan penned in The Feminine Mystique in 1964 only for so many of these women to be swallowing valium to get through the drudgery of their days supposedly living in domestic bliss. And later came the career woman who jettisoned this path only to swell alcohol at night at home to drown her loneliness because she didn’t have a man as Bridget Jones Diary reveals. Is it all so general? This book was so popular because millions of young females clearly related to it; and the book Why Do I think I’m Nothing Without A Man? by Penelope Russianoff said it all! They’re all about conforming to a norm, the average, the ordinary, pigeon holing us so others can best deal with us. Woe betide any woman, or any man either, who fails to adhere to that norm or who defies convention and the conservative traditions that still wreak havoc with all our lives in this 21st century! We’re labelled as misfits, even mad as I know only too well. And at the root of all this is the same issue – the generalisations that prescribe this norm and this convention!
As I’ve written in previous blogs, I never liked labelling myself a feminist because it limited the development of self; moreover, like all labels, it lies about each and every one of us women who are so complex and unique; and impedes others from seeing us as the full and rounded human beings we all are; however riddled with conflicts and confusions. And do we call men masculinists? The very word is farcical; and so too is feminist. Yes, women need more rights to achieve real equal opportunity, equal pay and equal access to all things human. But many men miss out too because they don’t conform to the stereotypes that riddle their lives either; generalisations about who they are as men or who they should be can belittle them in exactly the same way as they do women. There’s an urgent need for a whole new approach to all of us and that is, for all of us to be understood and accepted and more significantly perhaps, to be respected as human beings first and foremost; individuals with our own bodies and minds that transcend the limits of all labels; be they male or female. A new paradigm of the sexes where we can share in our common humanity and bury the generalisations into the past corridors of history!