What Is A Woman?   4 comments

I wrote this little piece about ten years ago. I have taken it from my “archives” and reprinted it here because it addresses another facet of my personality and development as a woman who was born in 1955. It is as follows:

I have been a writer since early adolescence. That was when I began to express my fears, anxieties, and frustrations about my chaotic homelife, and just the generally chaotic business of growing up, by way of short-story fiction. I needed a strong, guiding figure in my life so I created my own “parent” in the fictional guise of Michael James Peters, a pediatrician who was at that time in his early 40s with a wife and six kids. I started out writing about his interactions with his adolescent patients, adolescent medicine being his specialty area, and left no area off-limits. (I seemed to be particularly fascinated with 16-year-olds contracting STDs. Considering that this was 1969, I was a little before my time!) I delved into a highly sensitive area when I created one of Mike Peters’ patients, a 13-year-old boy by the name of Randy Kelly who was in an abusive home and took Mike into his confidence. When Randy was assaulted by his stepfather and required hospitalization, it was Mike and his wife, Gloria, who stepped up to the plate to take Randy in as a foster son. (Can you imagine my mother’s horror when she discovered this story, penciled in a school notebook by her eighth grade daughter? The original draft somehow just *vanished!*)

I made many discoveries about myself through this writing over the years and let my therapist read some of those stories some years back. Since my own self-esteem issues were part of the therapeutic discussions, he asked me, “Why did you make Gloria this nonexistent character? What’s up with that?” This is what I wrote in response to that question:

In the original “Behind Door #3” story, Gloria is a nonexistent character. All the interaction takes place between Mike (her husband) and Randy while Gloria typically sleeps through these major episodes. Bruce [my therapist] was the one who pointed this out to me. He observed that Mike is this strong, sensitive, professional, intelligent (and good-looking) man, and he’s married to this woman who apparently has no personality and no major contributions to make. Bruce asked me if I really thought that a man such as Mike Peters would be married to such a nondescript woman. He further pressed me to think about why I had developed her that way to begin with.

I thought long and hard about it and realized that I did not have a very positive impression of womanhood. I really didn’t have positive female role models in my personal life when I was growing up. I wanted to be exactly the opposite of my mother, as a matter of fact! My father was my supportive parent, the one I turned to for understanding, comfort and strength.

The social climate at the time I was growing up further reinforced my impression of women as ornamental rather than functional, as weak rather than competent. Of course, a lot of it was gleaned from television: the early sit-coms of “The Donna Reed Show,” “Leave It To Beaver,” “Ozzie & Harriet,” “Father Knows Best.” The husband and father was always going off to work at the office to accomplish great things and provide for his family, while his wife just stayed at home in her dress, high heels, and pearls and put wonderful meals on the table for her family to enjoy when they came home. If anything serious happened on the show, “Dad/Dear” had to be called in to the rescue to deal with the crisis.

The commercials, however, were the worst of all. Women fretted about such important things in life as “ring around the collar” and “ugly wax build-up” on their kitchen floors. They were devastated if their husbands complained about stale sandwiches in their lunchboxes because she didn’t use the right plastic wrap or their glassware came out of the dishwasher with water spots. My personal feeling was, “If this is what women do with their lives, just take me out and shoot me now!”

Likewise, my upbringing and my Catholic schooling reinforced this message that women were weak and dependent. Even though I was a straight-A student and began talking about being a doctor when I was about twelve, my mother would look at me like I had my head up my butt and advise, “You’d better take typing and shorthand, anyway….just in case your husband is ever out of work. Then you’ll have something to fall back on.”

Of course, the nuns thought it great when a Catholic girl had the noble aspirations to be a good wife and mother. Academic performance didn’t really count for much. The straight-A college preppies got no more encouragement towards career goals and personal achievements than their average counterparts in Home Ec and Secretarial Skills 101.

I realize that I did not like the messages I was getting about women’s roles in our culture. Unconsciously, I aligned myself with the male world where I felt more emotionally comfortable, where individuals were encouraged to achieve and succeed, where it was expected that one would show strength and competency.

It took me quite awhile to realize that women are strong, competent, intelligent people, too. That was when I consciously began to work on developing the character of Gloria Peters, trying to turn her into a woman I could be proud of. Of course, in the process, I was trying to change my own attitudes about myself and my perception of the female role…


Posted January 31, 2009 by StPaulieGrrl in Baby Boomers, writing

4 responses to “What Is A Woman?

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  1. Great piece. I can relate to so much of it, having gone through the Catholic school system myself and having been actively discouraged by my mother from doing anything with purpose. I am really glad you shared this. Thank you.

  2. This is the kind of social indoctrination that I’m hoping none of the young women growing up today will ever be exposed to. It still angers me when I think back on the low expectations that our culture held for women in the era of my childhood. I hope it’s a bygone era!

  3. That’s exactly what it is, Bonnie: social indoctrination.

    “Want to see yourself shine? Get Joy!”

    I should hope that we’re teaching girls and young women that they can shine regardless of what their dishes look like, or who washes them.

    I remember the ring around the collar ads, too. Wisk detergent, wasn’t it? There was one in which the man threw his shirt across the room to his wife because it had ring around the collar. I turned to my mother once after that ad and said, “Why is it her fault that he didn’t wash his neck?”

    Not exactly the point, but close enough for a little girl of seven or eight years of age.

    I certainly relate to and share your frustration over this kind of thing. Thanks for posting this.

  4. Lottie, when I was looking for a suitable commercial from the 60s or 70s to post, I viewed all the Wisk commercials, and boy, they were enough to get me cranked up! It was hard to choose which one I wanted to use.

    I grew up on a steady diet of this stuff, and I’m just glad that I had the sense to be angered by it by the time I was a teenager.

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