Where I started from

As the Occupy Wall Street movement gains momentum around the US and around the world, we gain new recognition of the simple truth that the personal is political and the political is personal. The 99 percent of the US population that is losing out under the current system comes from many different perspectives and has many different stories. Here is where I'm coming from. This was originally a paper I wrote for a women's studies class last fall when I was exploring the possibility of going back to school:

What I’ve Been Taught About Being a Woman, and Its Impact on Me

     I have written about this topic many times before. It's one of the important questions of my life. I have written about this so many times that I would expect writing about it to be easy, but it's not. It always feels like a life and death struggle. In my mind, I listen to the sentence that I've just written, and it sounds way too dramatic, but it's a true. Can I explain why this topic is so difficult, painful, and crucially important to me? Do I have to explain? Judith Lorber says that "Gender is so much the routine ground of everyday activities that questioning its taken-for-granted assumptions is like thinking about whether the sun will come up." (Lorber 54) Can this be true? I think about gender all of the time, and I always thought that everyone else did, too.
     Okay. I'm taking a deep breath, trying to figure out how to frame my thoughts coherently.
Maybe I can start by comparing being taught about being a woman to other things I've been taught. Someone taught me how to tie my shoes. (Tying shoes is complicated. It took me a while to learn.) Someone taught me how to read, how to do arithmetic, how to ride a bicycle, the "proper" way to hold a fork, how to tie a square knot, how to pitch a tent, how to sharpen a pocket knife, how to drive an automobile, how to write a DOS batch file, and so forth.
      Being a woman is different from any of those things. It's not quite real. Academics are fond of quoting Simone de Beauvoir's statement that "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman…" (Lorber 57). Because I was born into a female body, I am one of the people who has been expected to become a woman. The way it feels, becoming a woman is something that is done to female people under patriarchy. Of course, it's more complicated than that. Human sexual biology is so much more messy and various than a simple dichotomy, male or female. Gender--male or female--is the binary straightjacket that has been imposed on all of that messiness (Dworkin 182-183).
     So then we have the gender stereotypes, the idea that men--the male people--are rational, physically strong, brave, adventurous, and in charge of the women, the female people. And women are supposed to be gentle, nurturing, supportive, but not very bright, assigned to taking care of the men and the babies, and always in need of protection, always dainty, delicate, fragile. As I'll discuss in a moment, gender is partly a set of skills. But mostly, there's an abstract ideology at work here. This is the way the world is supposed to be. We are told that it has to be this way, it can't be any different--so we have to suppress all of the people who are different, who don't play by the gender rules. Isn't that a weird contradiction? If gender is so natural, why does "society" work have to work so hard to enforce it? No one has to enforce the law of gravity.
So how did I learn about what it means to be a woman?
I think I learned it from my Aunt Libby.
I need to set the scene for this. It's Philadelphia, about 1960. My parents were white working class people who got lucky, who got some education, and who also benefited from efforts to enlarge the US "middle class" after the Second World War. They met at work at Frankford Arsenal, a US Army facility that developed small-arms ammunition. Their first child, my older sister, had a serious heart problem. My mom stayed home and took care of her. My dad worked days at the arsenal, and worked nights fixing watches, trying to save money for an operation to fix my big sister's heart. They couldn't afford another child, but my father insisted on rhythm birth control, and I was the predictable result.
     I don't remember my father, but I believe that he worked himself and drank himself to death. Between 1959 and 1960, he suffered a series of strokes and was hospitalized the whole time until he died. My mother went back to work at the arsenal.
     That's where Aunt Libby came in. She lived across the Delaware River in Pennsauken, New Jersey. Aunt Libby dropped out of high school, and supported herself as a waitress at a dime store lunch counter until she met Uncle Roy, who was a middle manager for Western Union. She obviously loved Uncle Roy, but she also loved the affluent life style that he was able to provide for her. Her one great sorrow was that she was unable to have children. Before my dad died, my sister and I went to live with her for the year that he was sick. I think that was probably the happiest year of her life.
     That was the year that I learned about gender. That was the year that I learned what it meant to be a woman. That was when I started saying that I wanted to be a boy.
     I know that I adored Aunt Libby, despite the fact that she screamed at me a lot. I know that in her own self-absorbed way, Aunt Libby adored me. My sister Christina was precious to her, but my sister was often ill. And Christina, who was eight or nine then, was already fairly well formed as an individual. I was the baby that she wanted and couldn't have. She tried to turn me into a life-sized Shirley Temple doll.
     For a little female human, learning what it means to be a woman, womanliness is both a concrete skill set and an abstract ideology. The skill set includes things like how to put on makeup, how to shave your legs and armpits, how to flirt with boys. Today, very little girls are taught to do all these things, and more. Sometimes their mothers come in to the copy shop where I work and copy photographs of their daughters in skimpy outfits and sexually provocative poses. 
     In 1960, the situation was more subtle. My aunt tried to teach me to be a little lady, to be quiet and clean and well-mannered. She also tried to teach me to aspire to womanhood, to yearn for the big, strong, handsome man who would come along and take charge of me and protect me.
     I wouldn't have it. I rebelled. I didn't have words for the way it felt, but it felt like a war to protect my soul, my humanity. I demanded toy guns and a short haircut. I think I remember one episode when my aunt wanted to dress me up to take me out to dinner with Uncle Roy, Christina, and her. I didn't want to change out of my pants and shirt, and she chased me all over the house screaming at me.
      Gender is a war that I've been fighting since I was three years old. Any time anyone asks me how I learned about being a woman, there is part of me that feels three years old and desperate and frightened again. The worst of it was that Aunt Libby was sure that wanting to be a boy was just a phase I was going through. Someday, that mythical big strong man would come alone and sweep me off my feet, and I would be happy to be submissive and feminine. I thought that I wanted to be strong and independent, but Aunt Libby said that wasn't what I wanted at all. The idea of being forced to want something that I didn't want made me feel that I was going to be brainwashed and deprived of my very Self.[1]
     I think I learned something about being a woman from Uncle Roy, too. I can only speculate about what this might be. He made quite a few vaguely creepy home movies of my sister and me. I threw them away years ago.
     When I was a little girl, the only way I knew how to resist being a woman was to say, "I want to be a boy." I had no way to question the idea of gender itself. The idea that this was natural and unchangeable and created by God was everywhere--in church, in library books, in the musical comedies that I watched on my mother's black and white t.v. When I was little, my being a so-called tomboy was considered cute. As I entered puberty, the situation changed. Instances in which other people were unsure of my gender started to become more threatening and dangerous. 
    I didn't know what I was going to do. It was clear that I wasn't male, and wasn't going to become a man. I couldn't imagine how I was going to manage to get through life as a woman.
     And then, one day, on a bulletin board of my junior high school, I found a flyer about something called women's liberation. It said that sex roles were not innate, not a part of nature, not ordained by God, but artificial and subject to change. Nothing radical by today's standards, but it made the possibility of continued life open up for me. It felt as if women's liberation saved my life. I could be a whole human being, rational, emotional, creative, strong, independent, receptive, loving, sensitive. Everyone could be a whole human being. There didn't have to be a boss. There didn't have to be a controller and one who is controlled. There could be freedom. There could be joy.
I take it back, the part about this flyer not being radical. I guess I don't know if the flyer was liberal or radical, but over time, this insight made a radical out of me. It was the thing that told me that all forms of domination are wrong and unnecessary. It was the moment that put me on the path to question capitalism and institutionalized racism. I knew what it was like to have that awful feeling in the pit of my stomach, that fear of losing my Self. I knew that no one ought to have that feeling. That flyer held out to me the possibility of a world in which everyone could be equal and free.
     I have gone on for too long about what and how I learned about gender in the first 13 years of my life, which means that I don't have space to say much about the 40 years that has followed after that. But after that, gender was not something that I was taught, or even something that I rebelled against. After that, I was in position to join in a movement that meant to change the entire paradigm. In that time, we were not merely going to bend gender, we were going to break it. Today this line of thought is considered strange, even authoritarian. People want to have the freedom to choose their gender. The idea of doing away with gender entirely is almost unthinkable.
     I say almost unthinkable, because there are a few of us who still think and work and scheme to smash the prison of gender entirely.

Works Cited
Dworkin, Andrea. Woman Hating. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1974.
Lorber, Judith. “`Night to His Day’: The Social Construction of Gender.” August 25, 2010 <http://www.csus.edu/indiv/s/shawg/courses/033/readings/social_constructions.pdf>. 

[1] I am inspired to capitalize the word “Self” by the usage of feminist philosopher Mary Daly.