[Note: Do yourself a favour and listen to this while you read]
At a very young age something in me knew that I had cast my lot with the wrong gender.
I was angry about this.
I have always resented being pigeonholed by the exterior world, when I know my interior world is one of multifaceted layers that defy simple constructions and easy, careless labels.
And so too it was with my body.
I deeply resented the narrow view that my outer sex dictated how I should be/ what I should
become on the inside . As if the two were inextricably linked - I mean, they often definitely are,
but also many times they are not.
How a simple sentence made up of the most basic grammar could be turned from a verb and a subject :“I am a girl and I throw”.
into something infinitely more hostile, reverberating shame way into adulthood :“You throw like a girl”.
Once the empowered subject of the first sentence, I had been turned into an object by the latter one. I had somehow become a comparison for weakness, a mere simile. I was not even a self, I was an it.
The shame. The anger.
Female was not the cool gender. It was not the gender to be if the goal was to feel free and at
Female was the one always on the outside looking in.
No matter how hard it tried to love and be itself, Female was the one that would never be fully acknowledged for it’s personal power, because when it came to power, Female sat outside of the world's definition of it.
The reason for this is that the structures and ways of thinking of this world were predominantly designed for and by men. It’s what is termed a patriarchal society*1. One of patriarchy's deepest roots is the desire for power - as is the case with all systems of dominance - and out of this come so many of the social evils of objectification, abuse, broken family structures… If we have ever desired to live in a world that looked different, power would be a vital root to begin dismantling. Because this system's great strength in particular is how it distorted our understanding of power, and then dictated which specific qualities it should take to possess power.
We all know that whoever has power has influence over others. The difference is whether that influence controls, OR liberates, those who cross its path. Patriarchal power controls and dis-empowers those outside of its circle. It celebrates a narrow group of typically ‘alpha’ men and qualities such as control, rationality, extreme competitiveness and violent heterosexuality, to the exclusion of anyone outside of these confines. Painfully aware of my position, I grew up deeply uncomfortable with my female body.
Yet I could sense there was a great falsity in the world’s perception of power. I knew some part of unlocking the truth would lie in the fact that I would only feel liberated to be myself if I could somehow fully embrace all of my female self, and begin to share the wisdom of an alternate understanding of power. If not, I was simply submitting to patriarchal perceptions of my gender/body. And that framework, fraught with misled beliefs on… pretty much everything, wasn’t ever going to get me very far in life.
The thing about the patriarchal system we function in is that it thrives off of control. I had a sense that the world preferred me when I was distracted by the [eternal] struggle to cling to my sense of worth. As long as this was happening, I was not focussing on a bigger picture of tapping into the infinite potential and strength I had as the female half of the world, with the particular sets of wisdom and thought processes my gender in particular had to offer. As long as I was distracted I was weak, and if I was weak I was easier to control. Feed me billboards and songs of female worthlessness and I would be a hamster on a wheel, desperately scurrying in no productive direction.**2
All of that being said, I didn't know how to move forward in attempting to see myself beyond this
framework and begin to a] recognize, and b] love, characteristics of myself that were considered
particularly feminine. I was deeply uncomfortable with all of these things, both angry at a system
that refused my gender, but paradoxically angry that I was forced to wade through our unequal
society in this female body.
To help you understand this paradox we live in, I will use one example in particular of a personal character trait - that of a ‘nurturer’ - that I had to recognize and learn to love [or more accurately - am still learning to love]. I t’ll help unpack something of the falsity of power as our world sees it.
When I consider some of my strongest character traits I can see I have a gentle nature, an ability to listen to people, and a deep care for how others feel. These attributes are recognized as typically ‘nurturing’ qualities - well suited for motherhood, but not given particular value within the playing field of patriarchal power dynamics. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a high-powered job listing - or any job listing - requiring that candidates should ‘care deeply how others feel”.
This gendered notion of nurturing... it felt like a dirty word to me. The term ‘nurturer’ seemed an
adequate description of some of my character traits, but I felt it also held me infuriatingly
captive… within a patriarchal framework it felt like a belittling term, limiting of who I am because
the world only understood this word in a flat, one-dimensional way. As if ‘nurturer’ could only
ever mean ‘destined for motherhood’, because what else could these characteristics be good
for? [cue here hatred of being pigeonholed]
sadly felt like I wanted to disassociate myself with feminine characteristics I possess because I inadequately felt they were actually dis-empowering. They held little value in the world’s eyes, and although I refused to pander to the world, something in me also wanted to rebel against the narrow definition for womanhood and expected female roles. I wanted to be respected as being equally powerful to men because of attributes such as a nurturing ability, but I also found myself not wanting to be recognized as such, because I irrationally feared fulfilling the stereotype of what a woman should become - a child bearer – the patriarchal subordinate role.***3
There’s a paradox for you.
The first time I re-evaluated the power of my nurturing qualities as going beyond the female narrative of motherhood, was when I heard a story about a female CEO. She found that her nurturing characteristics were invaluable in empowering her employees and guiding them to their fullest potential. The power and influence she had came from this quality of hers. By acknowledging and embracing that her power came from a source quite different to the standard perception of power, she in turn empowered others and exponentially improved the company's output and success. In comparison, her male CEO counterparts tended to foster unhealthy working environments in their alpha male leadership style.
The proverbial light switched when I understood that I was disowning a part of me, because I didn't recognize it as powerful. Patriarchy was winning. I thought I was rebelling against the world, but I was just rebelling against myself… my very flesh and blood. As I said before, not embracing the fullness of how I am made in my femininity (both in body and spirit) holds me desperately captive.
This is the great cruelty of patriarchy. It destabilizes identity for all those outside of the alpha male so that no one will ever be recognized as worthy as or 'as good as' the patriarchal male. No matter how much you attempt to take hold of your identity and love it, you are often still left scrambling and defensively trying to claim who you are, whilst simultaneously and eternally questioning yourself. You are never liberated. It keeps you focused on the wrong things, the aforementioned hamster on the wheel, as opposed to becoming the fullest version of your empowered self to impact the world around you.
It’s brilliant, really… keep people eternally destabilized. They will be like putty in your hands. It’s the same terrible principle that governed Apartheid. It’s a terrifying comparison. When you frame it up in that light, suddenly the need to dismantle patriarchy takes on an urgency, a more tangible sense of the evil that underpins this great world system of control.
And this dismantling needs to happen not just for the sake of women. This is maybe the most important point I want to make: patriarchy is not only a female issue. It deeply affects and paralyses BOTH male and female identities. We are all deeply trapped by the confines of what patriarchy's notion of power means to who we are and how we function as both male and female. What I’m understanding more and more urgently is that we need to be willing to relinquish our notions of power, of what we think power looks like in the workplace, what power means at home, what it means in human relationship. What if true power looked and behaved radically differently to what it’s current face was?
It feels to me that we need a completely new framework from which to understand power, something more complex, that isn't distorted along gender lines. Something that recognizes both the ability to talk, and the ability to listen, are equally powerful; that displaying strength is as powerful and necessary as displaying grace, that to lead should be more about serving than about demanding and accumulating for oneself... the list goes on.
Basically, underneath the neatly packaged one-dimensional labels our world likes to promote, there lies an alternative multifaceted, and beautifully complex network of wisdom that is ours to draw from if we had courage to explore it. Within this alternative equilibrium, power liberates and promotes more empowerment. Outside of that, all you have is fear and control.
*1a little side note on patriarchy: I find it’s a word that makes many people sweat in a blind haze of impending-feminist-rant panic. This is a word you should embrace and make known, beyond the daunting surface of academia-ry coloured scales. It sounds fancy but is actually a really useful term. It would also probably be immensely helpful to understand better what feminism is while you’re at it, for those of you who feely ‘cringey’ at the term… it’s not actually about hating men. It does have various schools of thought, some of which you may agree with more, some less, but in general you might find that you agree with more than you realise.
**2Hatred of self… a brilliantly cruel spinoff of patriarchy’s narrow frameworks for people and power. The knowledge of being perceived as inferior is somehow turned violently inwards… what you perceive as ‘less than’ is what you unconsciously but hatefully treat as ‘less than’... it’s the same psychology that underpins the xenophobic attacks in South Africa. This psychological device will help keep the machine running for generations to come.
***3 Just a note - I am by no means saying motherhood is a subordinate role. I believe it’s a powerful role not to be taken lightly. What I am saying is that within patriarchal frameworks it is considered in many societies as a subordinate role, even if just subliminally. Having said that, if you think I still sound harsh towards motherhood, it has nothing to do with judgement towards women who choose to be mothers. I am simply being honest here about years worth of journeying on a road to understanding and learning to accept my feminine self, with all the potential capacities that entails (womb included). Motherhood is not something I pretend to have much understanding on, however, I have such deep respect and love for the roles women play as mothers in their worlds. It is a role that in itself holds such power to eternally impact and shape lives.