Women, Feminism and Fear Part 7

Dear Erin:

I’m glad to know someone else thinks Linda Hirshman is right. I’ve been shocked by the angry criticism of her. Granted, she comes across strong—which may antagonize some people who don’t actually disagree with her that much—but she’s still great on the issues.

I think you’re right about the Vietnam polarizing effect setting up the fear of looking soft issue. And you can hear echoes of 1968 in the current debate about getting out now—once it becomes obvious that the war was started for bad reasons, the other side of Vietnam kicks in and people begin clamoring to get us out—and few of them appear to have given the antiwar position any more thought than they did the prowar position. I’ve been opposed to the Iraq war from the beginning, but I don’t have any easy answers for how we get out at this point without leaving utter chaos behind us (though it seems like that we’ll have the chaos whether we’re there or not).

And I wish I’d heard you on that radio program! I suspect the female fear of being too much like men is just the inverse of the male fear of being considered girly or a sissy—even when it’s expressed in feminist terms. But then, I tend to think that we’d have a healthier society if men adopted some behaviors that are traditionally considered feminine (say, being supportive of someone who’s learning something new instead of making fun of them) and women adopted some of the behaviors usually reserved for men (like acting confident when you’re doing something new, even if you’re not quite sure you know what you’re doing).

There are changes men need to make, but it will be a lot easier to get them to make those changes if women come from a position of strength. I tend to look at this in self-defense terms: If women aren’t easy targets, they won’t get attacked as often. This will have an impact on date rape, at least.

I really liked what you said, and the way you said it, in the paragraph that starts: “It is very frustrating that so many women do not believe it is better to work and have money and a skill or trade or career of our own, than not; that it is better to be armed and willing to use those arms, than disarmed.”

And, yes, the cross country trip was great. I was far too stressed to go to a workshop when I finally got out of D.C., but by the time I reached Seattle, I was calm and focused, ready to deal with all kinds of criticism without taking it personally! And in between I got to camp in the Black Hills and drive through the Big Horn Mountains in Wyoming and stop at bookstores in Missoula. I’d love to do it again.

While I recognize that fear in women, I’ve never given a lot of thought to where it comes from. I’m just acutely aware of it. It’s not just physical fear. I see too many women who hold themselves back on the job or even in doing work that they’re passionate about.

I suspect a lot of this is just the cultural clues we’ve been raised with—and I don’t think that the changes of the last 30-40 years have undone all those cultural clues. Some of this fear has got to be rooted in the concern that men won’t like women who are strong, take charge, run things, etc., as well as in the concern that we won’t be safe if we take this action or that action.

Your theories based on the changes in maternal mortality add a lot to the discussion. I definitely think that they explain a lot of the male urge to protect women—and probably, on the deeper level, general male violence toward women.

I wonder if a lot of this tendency of women to see themselves as incapable of becoming strong has a lot to do with the male emphasis on upper body strength. As a rule, women can’t develop as much upper body strength as men can (though women power lifters do some amazing things; of course, they also develop bodies that do not look anything like the feminine ideal). And this society values upper body strength—look at football and bodybuilders. For that matter, look at the steroid scandal in baseball (it seems even men can’t develop the level of upper body strength they want without help).

But upper body strength is overrated—sing big powerful shoulders to do things is not as effectively as using your hips and center to do them. As long as you have strength in your arms and shoulders, they don’t have to be all that big to be effective. (And if you’ve trained in something like Aikido long enough, you find that big guys who muscle too much when they attack are the easiest people to throw. Of course, big strong guys who also know how to use their center are deadly. Size can be an asset, just as flexibility is.)

I suspect it’s been drilled into us for years that women just can’t do what men can do physically. The physical differences between the genders have been overemphasized and oversold, so that even women who believed in equal rights were intimidated by any physical challenge.

We’ve done better at challenging this on intellectual matters—when I first got out of law school, we were still struggling with the myth that women couldn’t be good trial lawyers, which makes no sense at all. And I think men and women still compete separately in chess tournaments, which is absurd.

I need to give more thought about how to deal with this in a political context, though. So far all I’ve been able to do is point to the cultural context.

I have been playing with an idea that comes out of my concerns about overpopulation that may have some relevance. It is interesting to me that feminism, while there are historical antecedents, first became a large movement in the latter half of the 19th century, and became strong in the 20th, especially in the second half. At the same time, technology boomed—fueled by modern oil extraction. Medicine boomed—and you get the drop in maternal mortality you have written about (in developed countries). And the population skyrocketed—there were only about a billion people in the world in 1850; 2.5 billion in 1950; and over 6.5 billion today.

Our ancestors lived in a time when constant pregnancy was necessary to the survival of the species. Now, we need for women to have fewer children—and for many to not have any. That is, society no longer needs women to define themselves primarily by having families—and feminism comes along to encourage women to find satisfaction in their work and other activities.

I haven’t quite got this worked out yet—your thoughts would be appreciated—but it occurs to me that some of the fear we’re dealing with is the fear of the unknown. The human race is on the cusp of change, and the patterns that made sense to our hunter-gatherer ancestors no longer work. But since evolution doesn’t move that fast, our bodies are still clinging to those old patterns—have lots of children, protect the pregnant women and mothers, lose a lot of mothers in childbirth (and rely on menopausal women to take care of those children as well—Sarah Hrdy’s grandmother theory).

I also know that things are changing rapidly. I was raised with my parents’ fears and battles, but what I faced is not what they did. My nephew is looking at a completely different world from mine at 20. But those things our parents told us when we were small still resonate with us, even if they don’t make much sense. That brings us back to fear. Modern science may show how much strength women can develop, but too many of us still remember that men might not like us if we’re too strong (which is getting less true all the time) or that there’s no way we can ever really be strong.

Nancy Jane Moore


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