Friday, October 15, 2010

"The Cinderella Syndrome and Other Tales of Gender Conditioning"

While pondering the role of gender in society -- I happened to find a paper I wrote last year.

At that time, my journey into women and gender studies was just beginning. I was not yet the angry feminist I am today :)

As we progress intellectually, it's interesting to look at some of our early works to see just how far we've come in our thinking.

When I found this paper, I can tell I did not possess all the knowledge I have now, but the fundamental premises are correct.

I still believe this is a solid, honest work and I would like to share it with the universe.

Here, then, is "The Cinderella Syndrome and Other Tales of Gender Conditioning" by Cherie W. Rolfe -- written in March 2009.

My friend divorced the same year I married. Shortly after the birth of her daughter, she found herself alone with two small children after eight years of marriage. At the time, I remember her saying, “This wasn’t supposed to happen, if I’d have known it was going to end like this, I would not have done it (married and had children).” Her experience altered her perception of the myth of marriage, and understandably so.

When her daughter, who is now 13, asks if she will be able to get married and have a family someday, my friend responds with the realistic, honest answer, “If it’s possible.”

Female children are susceptible to the “Cinderella Syndrome.” Little girls are still conditioned early on through films and literature to expect that a prince will come, rescue them from their current situation, marry them, take care of them, and together they will live “happily ever after.” The Disney versions of the classic children’s tales reinforce this idea not only through books and film, but also through mass marketing. My friend and I were sold a bill of goods as female children; we were conditioned to believe would marry, have babies and live “happily ever after.”

Gender conditioning for both males and females begins at birth and is perpetuated through the social institutions of family, school and church. It shapes our self perception and our perception of others. The 19th century ideology of separate spheres still exists today. The home, the family, and the private belong to women; the public, the political, and the economic belong to men. Two centuries later, the spheres have been negotiated, but not fully integrated.

My family was traditional in the extreme sense and kept the gender roles and separate spheres well intact. Mom and dad married young and children followed. My father worked. He was the provider. He paid all the bills and controlled the finances. My mom stayed at home, cooked, cleaned, washed and cared for the children – that was her sphere. Dad’s sphere was the working world and all things traditionally defined as masculine – the outdoors, cars, lawnmowers, tools – and never did the two spheres meet.

Dad never helped around the house. “Why should I?” he said, “I have three daughters and a wife.” When my dad joined Weight Watchers, he told me that, “a man gets four slices of bread per day (a woman was allowed two) because a man works.” To him, it was just that simple and clearly defined.

Mom had no desire to work outside the home. Dad “took care” of her. I looked to their marriage- although it was hardly idyllic - as an example. I assumed that my marriage would be the same. It took me years to finally realize that the world had changed, but mom and dad had not.

Additionally, there are no healthy relationships where one partner “takes care” of the other. A healthy relationship is mutually supportive.

I recently found a piece of paper I wrote as a child. “When I grow up I want to be a mother to a little boy or a little girl” it said. My mother wrote on the back, “Second Grade, 1972.” Obviously, the gender conditioning was taking root.

My parents were completely unprepared to step into each other’s roles. This became painfully evident when my father was hospitalized for almost two months. My mother had no idea how to handle the household finances and struggled when the car broke down. “I don’t know what we’d do without your father,” she lamented day after day. At the time I remember thinking, “I never want to be like her, entirely too dependent on someone else.”

Yet, I’m sure she was a victim of her own gender conditioning just as my father was a victim of his. Their situation reversed a short time later when mom died shortly after dad returned home from the hospital. Dad was suddenly alone and had no idea how to cook or wash his clothes. He called me on the phone one day to ask, “Cher, do you know how to run the washer?”

I was the youngest of three children – the baby of the family. According to the story, I was my parents’ last hope for a son after two daughters. In fact, the obstetrician told my mother I was going to be a boy. When I was born, my mother said, “Where is that boy you promised me?” The doctor just shrugged.

As a result of my sex and my birth order, perhaps my parents’ expectations were lowered; here was yet another girl who would need “taking care of,” at least until she found a husband to take care of her. Then, she would have a home and family of her own. What never occurred to them was that the world was changing. What if that perfect scenario did not happen right away – or never happened at all? Shouldn’t she have a contingency plan?

I received an eye-opening in school when my sixth grade teacher told the class, “I believe men should be able to cook, clean and take care of the children, but women should also be able to earn a living and be self-reliant.” This was startling on two fronts; firstly, this teacher was a man and secondly, he was expressing the idea that the separate spheres should at least overlap. I was amazed at how different and enlightened he was.

Yet, this was the scene at home: I was sitting at the kitchen table working through my high school algebra homework. “It makes you think, doesn’t it,” said my father, on his way out to accompany my mother on a shopping trip. Right behind him, mom chimed in, “It’s harder for girls,” meaning higher mathematics. Her words stuck in my head from that moment onward.

I accepted her statement as the reason I did not excel in math – although I did not suck at it either, an insight I lacked at the time. From that point on, I felt discouraged to continue studies in math and subsequently science, since they overlap, thinking that those courses would be “too hard” for me because I was female; although, some of my female peers seemed to catch on to the concepts with no problems at all. What did they have that I did not? I wonder if my peers had mothers at home who told them math was hard for girls.

Everyone has different individual gifts and different strengths and weakness; and yet, if my mother had not spoken those words to me, would it have made a difference in the way I viewed my math and science studies? Maybe. I truly believe that this significant shift lowered my self expectations and as a result, perhaps closed avenues of opportunity that would have otherwise remained open to me.

My cousin recently told me that she chose Wayne State University because, at the time she enrolled, there was no math requirement. “We’re just not a math family,” she told me. Recently I took a math class at Oakland University as part of my general education requirements. I could have skirted around it and filled the requirement with a course other than mathematics, but I felt the fear and did it anyway. I passed the course a little above average, but I did pass, and learned some interesting and useful information along the way.

The perception that women are somehow lacking in the area of mathematics still persists today. At Oakland, I see many of my younger, female classmates trying to schedule a way around a math requirement by selecting an alternate class or enrolling in an alternate program. I try to encourage them to take a math class, because I’m proud that I did it.

My parents did not encourage participation in team sports; in fact, they totally discouraged it. Mom considered sports, any sport, too risky and feared that I might be injured. Yet, risk taking is essential for success in life. Would sports participation have helped me to become more confident and socially developed? Would my parents have encouraged a son to participate in sports? Over protection, it seems, is a definite hindrance in the development of daughters which occurs much less frequently in the development of sons.

My parents did insist on life skills, which have served me well. Part of self-reliance is being able to prepare a meal and feed oneself, shop economically and maintain a living space. I also learned traditional crafts, such as crocheting, which I still enjoy today for relaxation. My husband, who grew up in a family environment similar to mine, told me those were some of the traits he wanted in a wife and partner. Because the traditional gender roles and separate spheres remain in place, traditional feminine, and traditional masculine, qualities remain attractive and desirable, if only on a subconscious level.

Because my parents refused to send me to college after high school – they did not think I needed to go since I would eventually get married and be taken care of - I wandered through a series of low-paying, unfulfilling jobs. At 20, I was wearing support hose because I stood on my feet all day in a department store. “If you can just type, you can get a job,” my mom told me, “you don’t need a degree.” Sadly, I bought into it. So, I took up office work – another female avenue to the “pink collar ghetto.” I also found this unfulfilling. I found one “sticky floor” job after another with no possibility of promotion.

I have since learned that it takes much more than typing to get a job – today‘s world requires technological skills, knowledge, ability to adapt to change, and that degree that mom told me I didn’t need, thus I returned to college at age 43.

If I had been that “promised boy,” I wonder if my parents would have been more supportive of higher education? I suspect I would have been encouraged to take up a trade. My parents believed in work after high school. My dad worked in a tool shop and most likely he would have followed in his footsteps. Yet, as a daughter, maybe I did not need to have the financial security or greater sense of self worth that a trade would have provided.

The brainwashing I received from my fundamentalist religious background furthered the female subordinate gender conditioning. Headship was the rule, based on a scripture 1 Corinthians 11:3 that says, “But I want you to know that the head of every man is the Christ, in turn, the head of the woman is the man, in turn, the head of Christ is God,” (New World Translation).

Women were not allowed to hold positions of church leadership; this was reserved for the “capable brothers.” Women were not allowed to teach in the congregation or give public discourses. Slacks were not allowed to be worn at meetings as they were considered to be the dress of a man. If a woman conducted a Bible study or on occasion had to perform a function usually performed by a man, she had to do so with a head covering based on the scripture at 1 Corinthians 11:7, 10: “For a man ought not to have his head covered as he is in God’s image and glory, but the woman is man’s glory…that is why the woman ought to have a sign of authority upon her head …” (NWT.)

Once in awhile the women of the congregation were pacified with the scripture at Psalm 68:11 which reads, “The women telling the good news are a large army,” (NWT). Indeed the women were a large army, but a subservient one under the headship of men.

To their credit, however, my parents never imposed any of society’s artificial standards of beauty on me. While there was pressure on young women to be thin when I was growing up, I was always encouraged to be healthy. My mother always worried that I was getting enough vitamin C rather than if I was able to fit into a size 4. Subsequently, I always had a positive body image. I wasn’t skinny, but I wasn’t fat, and I was happy that way. I was never told that I was anything but beautiful. If this was the only bite of positive conditioning my parents afforded me, it was an important one. It wasn’t until later when I put pressure on myself to maintain society’s ridiculous standards of beauty out of self-imposed insecurity and fear of abandonment after my parents died.

Growing up female allowed me to develop a strong feminine relationship with my maternal grandmother in my formative years. She lived with us and taught me appreciation for the earth and nature as we gardened together and I learned the names of the flowers. Through her I established a connection to my family and heritage that I might not have had if this feminine bond not been established. Grandma was thoughtful and saved letters, cards and Bibles that tell our family’s history.

I love being a woman. I am comfortable in my own skin and in my psyche, and I am happy. Yet, I sometimes feel resentment that conditioning was imposed on me and that I bought into it. I feel cheated out of years of life that might have been more productive, contributory and intellectually stimulating. Paradoxically, there is still a part of me that wants to be “taken care of,” that would like to remain at home in the domestic sphere. Perhaps the biggest battle we fight as 21st century women is internal – finding a balance between our own spheres once we become aware of the effects of gender conditioning.

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