My partner, that is, my lover and friend, my dear companion, the person I live with and have sex with, but am not married to, always tells me that I can’t keep projecting the power struggles I have with my family as a reflection of how power plays out on a national level.
I can’t help it. To become the woman I needed to be, or wanted to be (I can’t tell the difference), I’ve had to be a bad daughter. Being a bad daughter has meant being more free, but also, perhaps, less loved, and certainly, less liked.
I was a ‘daddy’s girl’. If that sounds gross to me now, it’s because I used to revel in it, to be loved simply for being pleasing – for being a good daughter. My father and I used to drink whiskey and talk into the night. People praised us for having a great relationship.
My father was the cool one, the one to be with, who got things done. People respected him, and his decisions ruled our fates. My mother was the embarrassing, irrational, emotional person who cried, whose voice shook when she spoke in public. To be close to my father meant being closer to power. That’s where I got my power.
My feminism comes from the silence of my mother. I began to notice that my father doesn’t hear what she says. I notice that as she gets older, people literally do not SEE her. When I was out with both of them recently, people greeted my father and me, but not my mother!
And there isn’t enough time to tell you how often I have undermined my mother, refused to hear her, been embarrassed by her emotion or tears, her suddenly saying inappropriate things at awkward times. Just as I myself, and women I know, have been ignored, spoken over, undermined in meetings, or whatever, while colleagues, self-avowed progressives, have stayed silent, only to come to me afterwards, telling me they were sorry about what happened and had my back the whole time. And they(we) call them(our)selves feminists? Motherfuckers.
Even though I’m trying now, I feel as though I don’t have enough time left in my life to hear all the things that my mother has yet to say.
I don’t know how and when I started to notice this. I don’t know when I started to be a bad daughter, to hear my mother, and insist on her being heard, to combat my father but not love him any less, and to unwind this love from the power that he holds, and feels entitled to.
Men, I notice, suffer too. I have read that older, straight men especially, are chronically under-touched – they lack platonic skin-to-skin contact, which releases Oxytocin in the brain, important in combating depression and stress. When I found out my father was seriously ill, I remember feeling a strange pang of loss and fear, not for him, but for myself, as if his diminishment was my own. It made me wonder whether we allow the men in our lives to be weak or vulnerable, to cry? Or are we ashamed of them? Once, when my father broke down at a public event after hearing some distressing news, I remember my mother, scandalized, saying to him: ‘Don’t do this to me now’. And I have had strong, independent, women friends say to me: ‘I make decisions all day at work, when I come home, I want a man who takes charge.’
I grew up reading. My mother would leave me with a stack of books in her office for hours, while she taught classes at the university. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books somehow got into my bones. They made my soul, which books do when you’re young. Much later, when I was college, she continued the Earthsea series with Tehanu, which has been called (mostly unflatteringly) a revisionist, feminist fantasy:
‘“If women had power, what would men be but women who can’t bear children? And what would women be but men who can?”
“Hah!” went Tenar; and presently, with some cunning, she said, “Haven’t there been queens? Weren’t they women of power?”
“A queen’s only a she-king,” said Ged.
“I mean, men give her power. They let her use their power. But it isn’t hers, is it? It isn’t because she’s a woman that she’s powerful, but despite it.
“Why are men afraid of women?”
If your strength is only the other’s weakness, you live in fear,” Ged said.
“Yes; but women seem to fear their own strength, to be afraid of themselves.”
“Are they ever taught to trust themselves?” Ged asked, and as he spoke Therru came in on her work again. His eyes and Tenar’s met.
“No,” she said. “Trust is not what we’re taught.” She watched the child stack the wood in the box. “If power were trust,” she said. “I like that word. If it weren’t all these arrangements – one above the other – kings and masters and mages and owners – It all seems so unnecessary. Real power, real freedom, would lie in trust, not force.”
Is that when I started to notice things like my father and mother? To count, with almost pathological reflexivity, how many women there are included in any event, or on any committee? I can’t be sure.
My feminism has been an uncertain thing, a path in the darkness, burning my doubt like a candle to find the way. My mother led me to books, to Ursula’s books, which led me to feminism, which led me back to my mother’s silence and my father’s pain – a circular journey, leading out and back again, searching for ways to get out from under the power that holds things as they are. I have been led all my life, and I have followed, am still following, searching for the key and the door that leads to freedom.
This is the essay version of a talk I gave at ‘Performing Gender‘, a panel discussion held at Black Box, Publika on 11 April 2015.
About the photo – it’s identified on the internet as a wedding portrait from Budapest, circa 1920. I tried finding the source, but no luck. I first came across it in my Tumblr feed, via thenearsightedmonkey.