Archive for Feminism

The Invisible Woman

This week, after a particularly long day consisting of going to 3 of my 4 jobs on top of a raging sinus infection, I swung by my mailbox as I often do before pulling into my driveway. This time, however, one of my neighbors drove up from the other side of the street as I was walking back toward my car from the postal boxes, and blocked me in with his gigantic truck. He parked it illegally in the middle of the street right next to my car, even though there were no other cars present and thus plenty of space on either side of me, turned his engine off, got out, walked to his mailbox, got the mail, all while I had to do a complicated 5 point turn just to pull away and get home. I have never spoken to this man but to do a friendly neighborly wave or head nod here and there. I do not know him. He does not know me. I can only surmise why he did this.

Possible Reason #1: He didn’t even see me enough to realize he’d blocked me in. He was so preoccupied by whatever was on his mind or phone that he literally had no idea what he did.

Possible Reason #2: He purposefully chose to block me in because he either doesn’t like me, he felt he deserved to be the only one at the mailboxes, he felt powerful blocking me in, or some other nefarious plot.

Possible Reason #3: He seriously just didn’t care. He didn’t care about me, didn’t care he’d blocked me in. He just did what was most convenient for him and couldn’t care less that it inconvenienced me.

Sadly, my best guess is that it was done for Reason #3. And, while I realize this sort of thing happens to men as well, I bet if I had been a man in this situation my neighbor would have treated me differently and stopped his giant truck earlier so as not to box me in. You see, as a single woman with no man, I am no threat to him. I can be a nonentity.

One of the more frustrating aspects of single womanhood is so often being overlooked, frequently treated as if I’m invisible or voiceless. I don’t have a man to defend me or speak on my behalf. I don’t have testosterone behind me to threaten or protect.

I am horrified that this is this is even an issue. How is it still possible that often men and sometimes women treat single women like we somehow matter less, like our opinions or our very presence is negligible compared to theirs?

This is a struggle for me. When instances like this happen, I battle different responses. What I wanted to do when that man pinned my car in was yell at him, maybe even calling him a few choice words to his face. Instead, I got in my car, safely shut the door and locked it, then proceeded to mumble a few British terms like sodding git and worse, shoot my teacher look at him, then awkwardly back up and pull forward inch by inch repeatedly until I could get my car out of the tiny space available. Bitterness built up in my heart and, to be honest, still lingers as I write this.

And yes, I know, bitterness is wrong. I’m not perfect. Welcome to the life of the Awkward Spinster and my continual journey of progressive sanctification, aka humanity.

I can’t imagine how much pent up bitterness must exist in the hearts of those who are even more overlooked or stepped over – minorities, the elderly, the homeless, those who are disabled. As a white single woman in the US, these experiences are still limited compared to so many others.

Because I have always been a single woman, I’ve developed some coping mechanisms to battle this involuntary invisibility cloak. I’ve noticed lately that I often feel like I have to prove myself, prove that what I have to say is worth being heard, prove I deserve a spot in the room (or the street). I trot out my age, experience, and education more than I should. I know this. But because I look so young and have no kids and no husband, people constantly assume I am young and inexperienced and men, in particular, often don’t take me seriously right away.

When the first question asked women is often “Do you have kids?” and then “Are you married?” I guess it’s easy to assume that negative answers somehow equal naivete or lack of wisdom and experience. The phrase “I’m almost 40” comes trippingly off my tongue at least once a day in an effort to counteract this. My closest friends and family probably roll their eyes at its frequency.

Perhaps this is more about my own personal insecurities than a commentary on how many people in modern society treat single adult women, but I think there’s more to it than that. I’ve seen this happen with other forever-single ladies as well as with women after getting divorced or once their husbands die.

As I’ve reflected over the past couple of years, I realize I’ve gotten louder. I hate this about myself because I was already quite loud. Even one of my nephews, when he was little and had absolutely no volume control, whined “Auntie Fawn, you’re too loud!” once, to the amusement of my entire family. When I look back at why I’ve become so loud when I wasn’t a particularly loud child, I think it stems from constantly having to prove myself. As the 4th of 5 children in a decidedly opinionated family whose favorite pastime is discussing and debating, I guess it was inevitable. It’s speak up, interject, jump in the conversation, or fade away.

Since my early 20’s, I’ve always held jobs in which being the established authority figure in the room was not only helpful, but necessary. From social work to teaching, I had to be the trustworthy, respected adult for the safety and well-being of everyone present. I had to be able to stand eye to eye with a client’s slumlord and convince him not to evict her and her children, quiet a room of 30 plus teenagers in seconds, or assure a counselee that I could actually help her when it seemed hopeless. When I speak, I speak with authority. And it is often loud, passionate, and full of conviction.

But sometimes I’d like to walk into a new environment and just be respected for being a human being. Just be seen and taken into consideration without having to convince people that I should, indeed, be able to fill the space in which I stand (or am parked). And this is why I think this is more of a female struggle than a male one. Again, I do think men probably deal with this a bit as well, but I think every woman out there has to deal with this more frequently. And I think every perpetually single woman knows this experience deeply.

Let me make this clear: a woman’s value is not found in her husband or her children. Human life is inherently valuable. In his work “The Weight of Glory”, C.S. Lewis makes this profound statement:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” 

One of the saddest parts about this is that the one place in which this shouldn’t be an issue, the church, this invisibility cloak is sometimes at its strongest and we are constantly forgetting the fact that we are never talking to “mere mortals.” Rather than being the safe space where every human is seen as valuable because they were created by God in his image, church can end up perpetuating the myth of a woman’s credibility stemming from her roles as wife and mother alone. Yes, I know, not all churches. But current trends in Christian culture in the US can silence voices that do not occur inside the traditional Christian family structure.

I know a lot of single women develop thick skins over the years, and are often seen as lacking qualities we’re apparently meant to have to snag a husband – softness, sweetness, nurture, and other stereo-typically feminine character traits. (Oh my gosh, I just Googled “feminine character traits” and am now determined to be even more of a feminist than ever! Blerg.) The number of times a single adult woman is told she might just be too intimidating for the men around her is gag-inducing. Perhaps we’ve just had a lot of those characteristics ground out of us after years of having to hold our own. Perhaps those traits are actually still there, as our closest friends can attest to, but you just won’t let us display it because we’re in defensive survival mode all the time.

I don’t have a solution for the whole church, but I do know it starts with each of us working a little harder to notice those around us who might be overlooked. It starts with neighbors noticing cars they might be blocking in just to save themselves 2 seconds of having to walk 2 steps further to the mailbox. It starts with assuming our companies have hired the newbie for some darn good reasons, so giving them some respect even before they’ve proven themselves. It starts with assuming the single woman in your Bible study may have a heck of a lot more life experience than you can fathom and maybe asking her about it rather than assuming she’s young and naive. It starts by treating each human we come across like the precious creation of God they are.

As God’s children we are meant to “in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Let’s start by removing the invisibility cloaks we like to throw on people who might not seem quite as important to us. Let’s start by becoming a people who truly see others.

Oops . . . My Feminist is Showing!

As a girl, I learned about friendship from Frog and Toad, Anne and Diana, Frodo and Samwise, Han and Chewie. I learned about adventure from Huck Finn, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, and Peter Pan. I learned about growing up from Jo March, Douglas Spaulding, Ender Wiggin, and the Cosby children. I learned about courage from Spider-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman. What an amazing way to grow up! I had so many kick-ass role models to look up to. The fact that the vast majority of these characters were male never really registered with me. I was able to read books and watch movies, identifying with the hero or heroine, enjoying the stories of both men and women, getting something out of male or female targeted fiction. This is the world I grew up in, what I knew and never questioned, an excellent world – one which I loved.

As I got older, I noticed more and more how much of the literature I read and the films I watched were dominated by male heroes. Ensemble casts would add in one or two women, but were still mostly male, one Hermione to both a Harry and a Ron, a Black Widow and a Scarlet Witch to the rest of the Avengers.  As an elementary school librarian, I still have to search to find books with female leads – even when they’re about animals and not humans. Even after the fabulous push for strong heroines in sci-fi books like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent,” they are still the minority. At school, at least three out of every four books assigned were by male authors.

And yet, as a girl who grew up on this literature, watching these films, reading these stories and poems and books in school, I was still able to find great value in them. I never really had a choice – it was either find something I could identify with, appreciate, or be entirely left out of the story. I was never taught to do this – no one ever sat my sister and I down and said, “now we’re going to read a book written by a man about boys, but you can still appreciate it and get something out of it.” No, we just learned to do that by reading and watching and putting ourselves into the heroes’ shoes. It was expected that this would come naturally to us, and, for the most part, it did.

This, by the way, is how half the world grows up – being exposed over and over again to the male perspective as representative and authoritative, and we mostly accept it, even love and appreciate it. These mostly male-dominated stories and characters are dear to my heart, and helped shape me growing up – I have nothing against them. I am the first in line for the latest “Batman” movie clearly targeting a male audience, and have read and reread the almost entirely male “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

As a geek and a Christian, this ability to put myself into the male narrative became even more necessary. Both of these cultures are dominated by male voices, so I learned to listen to pastors give illustration after illustration of being husbands and fathers, and I learned to somehow apply the lesson to my life. I read comic book after comic book in which many of the female characters were just there to be rescued, depicted scantily clad, or were just absent and I learned to love the story line, the artistry, and the adventure anyway.

And yet, when the 13th Doctor is announced as female, the internet reveals pockets of geeky men who just can’t handle this. When “Wonder Woman” strikes a powerful emotional chord with its female audiences, boys are confused about why. When Christian women bloggers start to bring up topics like this one, articles are written on how they need more male supervision.

I realize the trolls in comment sections aren’t the best way to judge how most people feel or think about controversial topics, but they do represent a growing, vocal cohort of the population. About a female lead for “Doctor Who,” one thing the more logical, thoughtful male commentators say is, “well, I’m not a misogynist and have no problem with women, but I just think this is going to alienate the original fan-base.” The assumption that the original fan-base was all male, and all macho men who can’t handle a female lead, is problematic in and of itself. I personally, woman that I am, have been watching “Doctor Who” since Eccleston resurrected it back in 2005. More importantly, why on earth should a female lead alienate anyone? Male leads haven’t alienated female audiences, why can’t men appreciate the courage, passion, and awesomeness of women in fiction just as much as we appreciate it in male characters?

“Wonder Woman” was a big deal, but if we bring up how powerful and important it is for us to see a strong female superhero as the lead of her own blockbuster movie, we are called “libtards,” “PC snowflakes,” or other words I won’t honor in print. When Christian women ask genuine, important, thoughtful questions about gender roles in the church, even those of us who are actually quite conservative in our beliefs, we are called “rebellious,” “unbiblical,” “upstarts,” and again other words I won’t honor in print by so-called Christian men.

In the library, I’ve had multiple little boys tell me they can’t read particular titles because they’re “girl books.” I have yet to have a single little girl tell me they won’t read a “boy book.” When I was a high school teacher, I never had a female student groan about the assigned text just because it was written by a man or for a mostly male audience, but the minute I assigned a text by a woman or one written for a mostly female audience, the teenage boys would whine and complain as if I was asking them to exert themselves in some horrible way.

As my wonderful brother-in-law pointed out, this isn’t just a problem of sexist men, but rather the result of a society in which men are expected to behave in very specific ways, one which is sadly emphasized too often in the church. “Manly” men are all the rage – some churches even preach this as the theologically necessary view of manhood. Therefore, even if a little boy wants to read “Nancy Drew” books along with his “Hardy Boys,” he might be bullied or seen as effeminate, so that desire is crushed out of him. In this way, I actually had more freedom as a little girl since I was never judged too harshly for reading “boy books” along with my “girl books.” So this issue goes beyond just a few sexist men to the way both fathers and mothers, pastors and teachers, really our whole society, raises its children. 

As I would tell my teenage boys when they groaned as I assigned Charlotte Bronte or Maya Angelou: “your female classmates, half the class, have been reading books by and for men since they started school and they haven’t once complained, the least you can do is read one or two by and for women.” All I’m asking is for those threatened guys to quiet down for a moment about not liking a woman being cast as the lead, or not understanding why a female superhero movie is a big deal, or not wanting pastors to allow female voices and stories be heard in the church, and instead learn to find the value in hearing someone else’s story. Rather than only being able to identify with stories when they feature someone exactly like you, do what the rest of us do and learn to use your imagination to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. And if you don’t understand why things are a big deal to women, please ask us. Avoid the temptation to mansplain why it shouldn’t matter, and just listen for once.

This disparity in representation between men and women only increases when discussing people of color, and especially women of color. At least as a white woman, I have a few heroes that look like me – but the minute you add any race other than Caucasian into the equation, the chances that you’ll find yourselves depicted as the hero or lead diminish to almost nothing. Though the focus of this article is on sex and not race, I cannot keep from mentioning this because it is a topic which seems to bring out the worst in people. If you think men shouldn’t have to be alienated by trying to appreciate a female lead, then how much more do you think men and women of color are alienated by having to try to identify with often stereotypically white macho males being held up as the quintessential hero?

What is my goal with this rant? I call upon my two favorite communities, Christians and geeks, to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are showing compassion and understanding to those different from us by allowing them to tell us their stories. Are we shying away from hearing someone else’s voice because it does not specifically represent us? Are we refusing to read or watch or listen to something because we might feel uncomfortable or alienated? Are we raising our sons to think anything written by a woman or with a female lead is too girly for them? Are we judging the value of story only based on things we know we already like, already can relate to? Like men and women of color, and women in general, have we ever trained ourselves to be able to listen to voices other than our own and still find value in them, or do we groan, whine, get angry, turn away, and search for a face that looks just like us?

My challenge to all of us this week is to read a blog or a book, watch a movie, or listen to a sermon by someone totally different from ourselves, aimed at a different audience. Take it in. Ponder. Look for something other than confirmation bias from it. Try to find points of connection. Do what every single woman and person of color spends their life doing. Who knows, you might find a new voice you actually like.

*If you are reading this via e-mail and are unable to see the gifs, please click through to the webpage, there are a lot in this one! 🙂