Female experience in the 21st century

female experience

In the year 2019 being a woman means living in turbulent times. Yes, we as women have basic rights which we have learned to take for granted, such as the right to education, to vote, to economic independence (though in practice event this last freedom seems somewhat stalled in some areas still). But are we still facing some constraints and why is becoming aware of them important? What does it feel like to be a woman in the 21st century?

One of the best easy-to-read books which tackle the contemporary female experience is Anne Wilson Schaef’s book Being a woman. It was for a time-period when I worked in academia that I have encountered this book. It was very useful in trying to explain concepts of gender to students, as it speaks in very clear language and deals with everyday experiences. In my experience, it is the best way to convey knowledge: by linking it to one’s personal experience. It is also that feminism and women’s studies often deal with things on macro-level, on the level of laws and policies, problems which are structural. This is, of course, very important. But learning about those problems starts on our own skin. We might see it more clearly when we start from our position and try to link it to wider social experience.

Anne Wilson Schaef is an American internationally known therapist, speaker and writer working as a psychotherapist, dealing with problems of addiction, female experience and process of becoming aware of one’s own boundaries. Her work is original in thought and tackles problems of addiction and female experiences and new and innovative ways.

While becoming more immersed in the pioneers of psychotherapy such as Sigmund Freud and Erik Erickson, in her own process of becoming a therapist, Schaef noticed that although they indebted the field of self-work immensely, they failed to interpret women’s experience correctly. Their interpretations were often colored by their own perspectives and experiences, by what Schaef calls “the views of the white male system”. Freud, for example, argued that women were envious of men, and that was indeed a very good observation? But how so? Freud’s interpretation further stated that women were jealous of men because they had penis, the famous “penis-envy” phenomenon. Schaef stated that through her therapeutic work, she has met very few women who would actually like to have a penis.

What women envy men on is something else: the superiority, power, and influence that is gained in society by the simple fact of being born into a male body. The symbolic power and social position attached to someone because they have a penis. It is a society that gives this advantage to someone because he is born in the role of a man, as a result of a thousand years of tradition. And the roles of man and woman have been defined for centuries, and have entered deep into our cultural unconscious. Therefore, we are often not even aware of them, and at first, they feel “natural” and taken-for-granted. But the question of “the natural” always needs to be re-examined. We do not live in the void but in social system. Often it is a system that has built its structure and accompanying belief system for centuries. It is a very sophisticated belief system ingrained so deeply into our cultural unconscious that most of us accept it as something “natural”, at a very basic level that we are often not even aware of. This system, in this case referred to by Wilson Schaef as a “white male,” is also called patriarchy.

According to this belief system, there are specific things that women should or should not do to be considered women, and those that should or should not be done by men in order to be considered men. Accordingly, privileges are given, that is, the power is handed over by the society for the fulfillment of its particular role. In this manner, it is “natural” that men are more capable, rational, intelligent and aggressive. And it is “natural” that women are more emotional, caring, less resourceful and irrational.

Certain behaviors are expected accordingly. A woman is expected to care for others, while a man is not expected to care for others. A man is expected to solve problems while women need protection. It is expected that the woman washes and cooks, and the man fixes things in the house, because the former are “feminine” and the latter “masculine” things. It is expected that a man provides for the family and a woman takes care of the children. This is “just how it has been done for the centuries”.

Often, the system works so that one does not question or question where these ideas are from. Very often, questioning these ideas, beliefs and attitudes is even sanctioned on the part of society. As is not conforming to these norms. And these are the basics of how each power system works. Why are we led to believe that a particular group of people should or should not act as a certain other group of people imagined it? And who benefits from that? And what are the implications when it comes to self-growth and our experiences?

To begin with, this kind of system might look useful or even seem practically useful to at least one part of the population – men, who are then privileged in terms of the radius of things they are allowed to do. But if we look more closely, we can see that in reality, everybody is disadvantaged by this kind of system. Girls, first and foremost, who are not socialized to be taking initiative or take lead. But then also men and boys, who are judged for showing emotions or having a sense of beauty or that do not necessarily want to be taking initiative. Girls who are starving to resemble beauty ideals portrayed by the media, since their looks are the currency that defines them. And being miserable when it does not, or developing eating disorders in order to keep up with these ideals. Boys who feel they’re not good enough if their car is not good enough. These attitudes run very deep and can operate on a very unconscious level. Thus it is good to examine ourselves and see which of them we have maybe internalized.

Anne Wilson Schaef calls these constraints based on the gender “gender fences”. If we are a woman, there is a box with acceptable behavior, surrounded by fences. Inside the fences the emotionality, the adaptability, the submissiveness, the reactivity are allowed. Assertiveness, aggression, initiative, and lack of care for the others are judged. If we are a man inside the fences assertiveness bordering on aggression, rationality, action, and domination are acceptable. Emotionality or sensitivity is not.

Skipping gender fences is still very much sanctioned. Women are punished if they are too successful. They are portrayed as “bitches” or “aggressive” for speaking up or taking initiative. Men will be portrayed as “crybabies” if they show emotions. This system is, make no mistake, very rigid and very harsh on us. It takes away our authenticity and molds us into these rigid binary categories, which take much of the energy to sustain and can often result in deviance when they are not sustained. Men, who are not allowed to have emotions, pile up emotions until they burst in aggression. Women develop depressions and anxiety since they are not allowed to express themselves fully. Women are underrepresented in powerful social positions or important roles, as well as technical or scientific areas. Men are behaving aggressively towards women or towards themselves. These things then become social problems. So it is better to tackle this problem in its roots, and not when it becomes a social and health one.

No system will crumble on itself, particularly if certain social groups have more interest in maintaining them. Same goes for the patriarchal system.

The patriarchal system just loves to re-create itself. How many times have I been scolded by women – not men! – for behaving like it was, to their opinion, “not proper for a girl”. It often baffles me when I see women recreating the same system in which they are subordinated, so stubbornly and repeatedly. But women, too, get power from this system. Insofar they are in the roles which give them power in this system – the one of the mother, the caring creature, the sex symbol. If they are getting the power out of this system, they will defend their position and behavior which threatens the system that gives them the power.

Often, all of this operates on a very unconscious level, though.

One of the greatest taboos in the world is, for example, female sexuality. The enjoyment of women in their own sexuality. It is something that makes the whole culture uncomfortable. It was only in the year 1998 that the anatomy of the female sex organ made for pleasure – clitoris – was scientifically discovered. This is not a coincidence. The female pleasure or the knowledge of the female pleasure was just not a civilizational or scientific priority. Science does not function in a vacuum, also. It functionins within a paradigm that makes certain things priorities. In male domineering narratives or science, female pleasure in sex is just not considered a priority.

Because of this, and this is something that Wilson Schaef also warns about, women have trouble with their own sexuality even today. They know very little of their own sexuality because it was always defined in terms of the male pleasure. How many of us know what our sexual organs look like? How many of us know how to give ourselves pleasure? The whole culture is ashamed when the topic of female pleasure comes to the public arena. While the topic of male pleasure is discussed everywhere. Why is this so, even in the year 2019?

Another important belief of the patriarchal system is that women should be caretakers. If they do not care about others, often they are very efficiently pushed back into the role of the caretaker by guilt. Guilt and shame are two strategies that are used to push us back into the gender fences, to conform us to this power system. “How can we be so selfish?” It is by becoming aware of these feelings and how they are used within the system to confine us that we begin to grasp the areas of freedom.

“We have our automobiles, houses, healthy children and refrigerators filled with food. Why are we complaining? What if we are only losing our souls?”

~Anne Wilson Schaef

What I also often see overlooked as a female role in the patriarchal system is one of the organizers. It is another side of the caretaker, the one that organizes the tasks around the house for the male partner to do them. Because “they just don’t know what needs to be done”, the argument is often heard. In this manner, women become project managers around the house. They spend their time and energy organizing tasks for others to do. This is also not a good bargain for the male partners since they are pushed into the roles of the children. While female partners lose time, male partners lose dignity.

Anne Wilson Schaef notices how women are also often imposed with interpretations of “being bad”, “rogue”, “disturbed”, “crazy”, “stupid” or “incapable”. Also, the common fence is the one where initiative-taking or assertiveness on the female part is often portrayed as “aggression”. Men who stand up for themselves are seen as capable and penetrating. Women who do the same are seen as repulsive and aggressive. This is a patriarchal system punishing those who do not succumb to the traditionally ascribed roles. Also, humor is often used as a means of coercion. When women refuse to laugh at sexist jokes, they are often called “too serious” or “too sensitive”. These are also strategies that the system of power uses to keep one in its position.

Female experience is often not found in the dominant cultural narratives or beliefs. And even when it is expressed it is often not taken seriously. We have seen this example in Croatia when the Croatian Member of Parliament publicly described her experience in regard to the abortion procedure which was done to her without anesthesia and was excruciatingly painful. The male dominant voices in Croatian politics outlaughed her, claiming that she as a patient was not aware as to what was going on in the process. They invalidated her experience and her female voice. It was a good thing that she did not back down, but that she was backed by local NGOs and that this resulted in a whole social initiative in Croatia against this kind of treatment. So things are moving forward.

It just seems to me that this is a bit too slow in the year 2019. I mean, we are developing artificial intelligence on the technological plain! And we seem to still have to discuss the questions of female liberties that have been discussed already when I was born in the eighties. We have to step it up. It is unacceptable that we still deal with this kind of rigid ideas that smother our authenticity in the 21st century.

Iva Paska