I remember the first time I was outraged by gender inequality. I mean legitimately outraged. It was 1996 and I found out that a male counterpart of mine was being paid a significant amount more than I, and I was completely shocked. How could this happen? How could this be permitted? Why was I being dismissed by my boss when I brought this obvious mistake to his attention? He was more concerned with how I found out than the fact that I was working my ass off and getting paid a fraction of my worth.
It was a slap in the face. I felt betrayed, and I remember thinking, twenty-three years ago, “It’s 1996 for godssake.”
It may have been the first time I acknowledged feeling betrayed or let down due to gender equality, but it was hardly the first time I felt that sting, that punch in the gut when, due to the fact that I was born the less “worthy” gender, I would be dismissed, laughed at, or violated with a slim chance at vindication.
It was my lot, you see. It was all of our lots, women who were “permitted” to receive an education, women who were now “allowed” in the workplace, taking jobs that were, in many people’s minds, rightfully men’s. “That’s just how it is,” I would hear. “You don’t see me complaining about it,” she would reply. “Boys will be boys,” they would say with a knowing nod. “Don’t make a fuss, no one likes a troublemaker, you should feel lucky you’re even here, because back in my day…”
Keep your mouth shut. Don’t be difficult.
But don’t be easy.
Don’t “give it up” to men. Don’t show too much skin, you don’t want people to think you’re “loose.” That’s how you get a reputation, and then no one will want to date you, to marry you.
But don’t be a prude. For crying out loud, don’t be a prude. You should feel flattered when men pay attention to you. Yes, I know he’s touchy feely, but it’s not hurting anyone, don’t make a fuss. They’ll think you’re frigid.
Women spend a lot of time during our childhoods fielding these mixed messages, all the while receiving loud and clear the most important one: Women are lesser. It took many years before I even batted an eye at comments like, “Ugh, don’t be such a girl, don’t act like a woman,” always said with mocking and/or venom. No one wanted to be told they do ANYTHING like a girl, even girls. “I do not,” I’d say. I’d show them that I wasn’t inferior.
“You should feel lucky,” I was told, ” because in some countries, they only allow you to have two children so people kept the boys.” It was shameful to have girls which seemed so strange to me since I knew that you NEEDED to have girls to carry on giving BIRTH to girls. “What happened to the girl babies?” I would ask, only to be told that we were disposable, that the girls were often killed immediately or, if lucky, abandoned, which often meant they were left to die.
I’d hear about men we knew who were ridiculed for only being able to make girl babies, as if that somehow detracted to their all-important manhood…whatever that meant. Yet, at the same time the women were berated for not producing the superior male infant.
Once I hit puberty in the 1980s, I spent a lot of time in an internal war with who I was and how I was supposed to be ashamed of it. I wanted to be desirable to men like the women on television, like the older girls in my school. I knew I was supposed to present myself in a manner for men to consume, and I knew it was shameful for me to reciprocate that desire. Without being told, I knew that it was important to please a man, but that if I demanded sexual satisfaction that I would be considered greedy, unreasonable, and a slut who “got around.”
When my first serious boyfriend in high school broke up with me to date another girl (who, hilariously enough, wanted nothing to do with him), I went on a movie date with a boy who had recently graduated from our school. When the boyfriend who rejected me found out, he and his friends referred to me as a “syphilis infected bitch,” or SIB for short. It was all very clever. And very much meant to send the message that because I had not sat around waiting for my boyfriend to reclaim me, that I was a disease-ridden slut, and no longer desirable. Until he was gracious enough to take me back.
As a teenager, I was groped, grabbed, penetrated by eager fingers I wasn’t strong enough to fend off. After being offered a ride home from a school function, kidnapped (though I wouldn’t call it that at the time) by another older boy with the intention of sexual assault. I was chastised for not being mature enough for “an adult relationship” when I resisted. When I tried once or twice to tell someone what happened because I was struggling emotionally with the after effects, I was told I shouldn’t have gotten into his car. What did I think was going to happen?
I was inappropriately touched by my science teacher and, when I told him to take his hands off of me, he sent me to the office for insubordination. I reported the incident, and nothing was done, nor did I expect it to be. Because that’s “how it was.”
It was becoming increasingly clear to me what “the rules” were and how they were applied differently to men and to women. And that it wasn’t just men enabling abuse I was on the receiving end.
By the time I left high school, I was angry.
I started to notice that more men were paying attention to me, or more accurately, to my body. But what I noticed almost equally as often was the venom I was on the receiving end from women who didn’t even know me. Women whose husbands worked in close proximity to me.
It was confusing for me, and I tried to be more “polite” and to dress in a manner where I would be taken seriously, both by the men I worked with and the women who hated me for existing. It didn’t take long before I was told by a woman in town that I was referred to as “the shop rag,” and it took me a full few minutes to understand that it was assumed that I was servicing the men I worked with because I had the audacity to exist in a reasonably attractive young woman’s body.
I became angrier. It was at that point, at the age of nineteen, that I developed the attitude of, “Do the time, do the crime.” I would absolutely be the bad guy I was expected to be, much to the delight of many undeserving men. I was angrier and I was making other women angrier as well as they finally had a legitimate reason to hate and distrust me.
Before my next birthday, I was raped by two men after I willingly followed the one I was dating onto his friend’s fishing boat. His friend’s sister-in-law heard that “some slut” pulled a train with her husband and seven other guys. This got around and even more people were angry with me for what “I had done.”
By my twenties, I had had it. I hated women, and I mistrusted men. I was in the full throws of internalized misogyny, and, as a women who believed 100% that I was as worthy as men, and frustrated that I wasn’t paid as much as my male counterparts, I was also someone who would say horrible things about women because I believed the hype. I didn’t understand how we were pitted against each other, I was too arrogant and/or proud to realize that I had been programmed to be exactly what men wanted me to be. And that was to be someone who sought men’s approval and would step on other women to get it.
I would say, as a bisexual woman, that women only served one purpose to me: sex. “What else are they good for,” I would laugh. The guys, because those were the only people I would surround myself due to my hatred of other women with little exception (and I honestly thought they saw me as their equal as well. I was wrong…isn’t hindsight a bitch?), would laugh and laugh, almost beside themselves with disbelief and approval.
I became a complete, patriarchal tool. Because those were the rules. I didn’t make them, but I learned to play by them. I was the cool girl who wouldn’t be offended by misogynistic jokes. Other women were ridiculous and hysterical to me. I certainly wasn’t one of them. I wasn’t “like the other girls,” as I was told frequently – one friend said I was “like a dude with tits” – and I would take as the ultimate compliment.
These had always been the rules, for women anyway: Play nice, you are lesser, but if you’re not a problem, we’ll let you sit at the table when we’re not betraying your trust and/or your body.
It might have been 1996 and my discovery that my “guy friends” were being paid more than I was and that there seemed to be nothing I could do to change this that was the catalyst for my realization that I had been duped, though I certainly took a while longer to rectify some of my embarrassingly problematic behavior. I’m not exactly sure when I stopped believing that women were inferior and that if I just behaved a certain way, I would have that seat at the table. A while back, sure, but I didn’t know how to fix it, so my behavior hadn’t changed all that much.
I don’t know when I started to make a real effort to, rather than cast judgment towards other women and level their…excuse me, OUR best interest over a man’s, to make myself available as an ally to femme bodies and souls. It was embarrassingly recent, I can assure you of that. I’m no longer too proud or arrogant to acknowledge it.
I don’t remember the exact time when I stopped playing by the rules, the rules men have set and women have helped facilitate as a survival mechanism, as a move to gain leverage that barely existed. I keep seeing articles, opinion pieces, etc. where women who are still fearful of repercussions come out and make statements in defense of harmful men that make me shake my head; because their defense or rationalization is both understandable, considering how “things were” for them back then, and outright dangerous because it’s minimizing what women go though and are trying to put a stop to today.
And I see rebuttals with our anguished cries of, “THIS BEHAVIOR WAS NEVER OK, THE RULES HAVE NOT CHANGED, THIS WAS ALWAYS WRONG.”
Yes, Virginia, the rules have changed.
They’ve been slow to change, and not everyone has gotten the memo. There are people who are fighting against this change, and some of those people are women. Sadly, more often than not, it’s because they were subjected to the rules and are bitter than other women might not have to go through the same pain they did. “I went through it, and I turned out just fine.”
It was acceptable to be pressured into sex in order to keep your job or in order to gain one.
It was also absolutely acceptable to rape your spouse “back then” because we were our husband’s property. It was acceptable and legal even though it destroyed us on some level.
It was absolutely considered “a family matter” when you were on the receiving end of child abuse or domestic violence. Those were the rules. Don’t make trouble.
We were not “allowed” to do too many things that we often take for granted now until just the last few decades. We didn’t have permission to own property, to have our own credit card, to terminate a pregnancy within our own bodies, to run a goddamn marathon if we wanted to.
Those. Were. The. Rules. How on earth were we going to say no to men using our bodies for their entertainment? Who was going to object when we were “so lucky” as a teenager to be desired by older, powerful men? We were expected to facilitate it and we did. That’s “just how it was” then unless you wanted the shit kicked out of you or worse. We should have done better, but we couldn’t or we just plain didn’t.
Those were, no question, the rules then. We didn’t make the rules, men did. Men made the rules, and women followed them. Men were taught that it was ok to view women’s bodies as objects and that they were lesser. If we believed it, why on earth wouldn’t they? The arguments were very convincing, and their were repercussions for men who didn’t follow the rules as well.
We absolutely do not have to forgive the people who facilitated and followed the rules that caused us harm. I have a hard enough forgiving myself for being played so readily. My finally waking the hell up doesn’t absolve me of any damaged I caused to other women any more than the resigned statement of “that’s the way it was back then” will undo damage to any woman including myself
Again, the rules HAVE changed. Or at least they are showing signs of changing. It’s 2019 for godssake. We are gradually, as a movement, understanding our worth, and we are realizing our strength. We are no longer being quiet, and we are speaking up for even the women who are too scared or too programmed to use their voice. We are speaking up for those women still clinging to the rules like a screwed up security blanket, and we are speaking over those who set them in the first place.
We aren’t letting men – or the women they’ve duped – get away with the status quo anymore. We can understand, we can choose to forgive, but there are no free passes when it comes to accountability.
We are stronger together, and we’re making our own rules.