What do women want? Amazing how many books on that subject are written by men. But even women experts tell us that what women want has to do with their sexual desires, allure, fantasies, power — all understood to mean sexuality that draws and holds men.
Look back at what has shaped the history of women as persons. Early Western culture took for granted that men could experience true friendship with other men because only men were capable of serious conversations, sharing ideas, developing deep bonds; only men understood friendship. It was seriously believed that women had neither the brains nor the desire for any of that; woman’s purpose and intended focus was her body, designed to serve the comfort of men and bear his children. That was civilization’s starting point for women.
That resulted in many women being pregnant their entire lives from puberty to an early death caused by physical exhaustion. Poor women, of course, worked during their pregnancies, but “refined” women were “confined” during pregnancy, were considered “polluting” to men during menstruation. Good women were silent in the presence of men.
A girl was entirely dependent on a husband for her reputation, her care, her self-respect. No respectable woman worked for a living. (Well, she worked endlessly, but not for pay.)
In many areas of the world, women no longer bear the universal disdain for all things feminine that Patriarchy endorsed for thousands of years. But that attitude is not entirely gone. Women lawyers are known to have been barred from practicing before judges who said that women don’t have the intelligence to understand the law. A woman educated as an engineer with two years of experience recently presented herself to her supervisor for a position for which she’d been hired. His first words to her: “I don’t work with girls.”* Women have been “allowed” certain freedoms, but only under conditions that have been approved by men, within boundaries that men continue to draw.
We’ve come a long way from universal oppression of women. But remember that while we have traveled quite a distance from that point, we are still on the same road. Patriarchy — the rule that bestows primary authority and power on privileged males — has never been repudiated. Twenty-first century civilization continues to be strongly patriarchal. Even democracy and Christianity (both in theory diametrically opposed to Patriarchy) have great difficulty shedding its contamination.
Look at women’s oppression alongside the slow painful struggle required to overcome racial hatred and discrimination, which involves the same elitist power-over and arrogant disdain for anyone not in a particular “brotherhood” of race, gender or class. These prejudices are deeply imbedded in society and are often supported by religious as well as social ignorance.
A continuing aspect of Patriarchy’s marginalization of women is the fact that our entire society continues to focus on sexuality as a defining element in human relationships. Earlier in our history, women had absolutely no chance for a decent life unless she “secured” a husband. Men needed women for little more than sex and personal comfort. Sex was all they were expected to have in common. Is sex important? Of course. But why is it the primary ingredient in how boys and girls, men and women relate to each other?
The idea remains deeply instilled that a primary task of girls is to secure a husband. She begins by looking for a boyfriend in grade school. By middle school she has been readied to experiment with sex. By high school she must consider how to balance a possible career with a husband and children. In college, a young woman is still blocked from careers that compromise her wife/mother roles and that challenge the superiority of men.
Yes, teenagers have hormones; yet they are not ALL hormone. Boys are socialized early on to march to the drummer that tells them to find a girlfriend, even “nail” a girl; failure means they haven’t “got what it takes.” Being macho, strong, athletic, daring, scoring is a message that is pounded into their psyches from all directions. Our culture capitalizes on male hormones, both socially and militarily. Channeling his hormonal drive into sexual intercourse and violent activity does not need to be what tells a boy he is a man.
Too often, girls’ relationship to boys continues to focus on her looks, her availability, her willingness, her interest in his achievements.
Today’s professional women must still be sexually attractive to men because men will decide which woman is hired or promoted. It is also men who determine what women wear (or don’t wear). They cover themselves when men don’t want to be distracted, and bare themselves when men want to be entertained. Breasts are alluringly re-shaped and displayed, legs in view, feet shod in a way to ensure that women never challenge the firm stride of men.
What do women want today? One goal they identify is to break the glass ceiling. Woman want available to them the power that men hold. That means women want access to the corporate executive floor, to the halls of power and decision-making. Yet those spaces and that power remain patriarchal; they still involve power-over, control and, increasingly, domination.
What if women began from another starting point? What if women’s primary purpose in life was not to “catch” a man and beget a child? What if women’s equality does not involve beating men at their own patriarchal game?
What if the critical need in this off-balance world is not breaking the glass ceiling, but breaking the mold entirely? Breaking the patriarchal mold for men as well as for women.
Friendship between the genders is possible without inevitably leading to sex. Learning friendship is not the same as “scoring.” Brothers and sisters, children and parents learn a great deal about each other’s bodies and lives without the inevitability of engaging in sexual behavior. Members of families, including extended families, learn to know each other in ways that do not automatically suggest sexual availability.
At a real level we are all brothers and sisters. We have avenues available for relating to each other that are not sexual.
Yes, there is a natural drive to find a mate, to have a child. But those should be decisions, not impulses. They require maturity, mutuality by young adults who know and respect each other as friends, who have come to know each other not first as mates, but as soul mates.
Three-year-old girls and boys do not need to be prompted to kiss each other; middle school children do not have to be forced into the dating game; high school proms do not have to pair off girls and boys; popularity and sexual attractiveness do not have to be the marks of success against which every girl (and boy) is measured.
What if girls were encouraged to discover and become all the strong qualities that reside within their brains, their psyches, their muscular bodies? What if boys realized that they are strong but also gentle, resourceful but also needy, capable but not in charge of the world? What if boys came to know girls, not as potential dates but as potential friends? The community-oriented, value-oriented, and compassion-oriented qualities identified with women do not reside exclusively in the female. In addition to claiming their own intellectual and creative powers, what women can do is encourage men to reclaim those innate qualities that Patriarchy has denied them.
Even now society knows relatively little about what is gender appropriate apart from traditional patriarchal definitions. And this, despite the claim of early Christians: “There is neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.”
Woman have much to gain by the repudiation of patriarchal power and values. Men would gain even more.
*AAUW Fall 2015 issue of Outlook, article by Beth Pearsall, “Engineering and Computing’s Gender Crisis.”