Don't Wanna Be Like You
issue 227 - January 1992
The mother's a feminist. So is the daughter. But do they
see eye-to-eye? A spirited dialogue by Juliet Kellner.
'Now don't get me wrong, Mother,' said my daughter who, at 16, had reached an age not notable for tact, 'but what I really dread is growing up to be like you.' You may imagine this was said in a heated moment, but not at all: if anything, we were particularly friendly at the time.
'What exactly is the problem with becoming like me?' I asked cautiously.
'You're such a doormat,' she said.
'I'm not a doormat! I'm a Manager...'
'Well, you're not as bad as you used to be,' she agreed. 'But really you're doing just the same thing you did before - only picking up the pieces at the office instead of at home. No, as well as at home.'
'Well, that's the Manager's job...'
'It's a Mother's job! You call it "being the manager", but what do you actually do?'
'Well, I organize things: sort out the paperwork and scheduling, see to the staff.'
'Exactly! You still run the household, only now it's an "officehold". Meanwhile the men in the company go out into the world, getting all the glory.'
'Well, it is true that the men tend to have the foreground jobs. It's only because their names are better known in the field.'
'But why are they better known? They're not any cleverer than you.'
'They haven't taken five years off the career ladder to have children, or worked at part-time jobs for ten years after that.'
'I see. That's a great excuse. They haven't spent years playing Mother at home, so they can get out of doing the Mother jobs at the office and become even more famous.
'Actually it does remind me a bit of when I used to pack you up a sandwich and a chocolate biscuit in your tuck-box and march you off bravely to playgroup. Now I send the men off to conferences, their briefcases neatly filled up with papers...
'Well, I'm going to get myself a job right out front. On stage, in the spotlight. I'm not going to do the make-up backstage for someone else.'
'Being the power behind the throne isn't so bad.'
'But you're hiding behind the throne. Probably dusting the back.'
'I'm afraid of being in the limelight, you're right there. So it's good if your generation isn't afraid of it and takes it for granted that you are entitled to be out front just as much as the men.'
'I want to be... wise and knowledgeable. I'm going to read everything, and travel as much as I can. I don't want to be like you, half-furious and half-apologetic, all confused about whether it's all right to come out shining.'
'Hang on! My generation is bound to be fairly confused. We were brought up to be discreet and modest - and then we realized, in a great flood of rage, how we were being exploited. But part of us is still caught up in the old pattern, still brainwashed, feeling nervous about showing our power. So we're bound to swing back and forth from defiance to self-doubt. Until we find ourselves.'
'Maybe our lot will do the finding.'
'Could be. But you should be grateful, not snooty. Our generation went through all that painful, difficult change, a real revolution in thinking. Like pushing a huge locomotive over. Even if we only managed to push it half over we made it much easier for you lot to push it over the rest of the way. You don't have to carry the weight of centuries of inertia - of institutionalized unfairness to women.
'But now you know all this, why can't you get free too?'
'I suppose... in my case it's partly that I'm afraid that if I am a success, other women will hate me.'
'They probably will. Especially your feminist friends - your Wednesday women's group. They really love moaning about how they've all been crushed by men, don't they? They see a woman who succeeds as being a sort of traitor. It's fine as long as you're all in the same boat together, all miserable. But if one of you got out, and up - then the others would punish you. I've seen that woman at the office sabotaging you because you're at the top. She actually does you more damage than any of the men.
'My friend Suzanne says she doesn't want to be one of the Soggy Sisterhood crying over the ironing. She's going to be a barrister, earn $70,000 a year. She doesn't care if other women are jealous. She hates women's groups. She doesn't believe in being ideological.'
'She doesn't believe in being ideological... hmmm. That's an interesting little contradiction. And your friend Suzanne will get to being a lawyer without ever going to school, will she?'
'Of course she went to school.'
'I rest my case, M'Lud (or should it be M'Lady?). Suzanne can only get to be a lawyer because women who were feminists fought for girls to go to school, and go to University, and break into the legal system. These aren't opportunities she acquired through some Act of God, you know.'
'Acts of Goddesses?'
'You can laugh. But if she takes these things for granted and doesn't keep fighting to maintain them, her daughters might not get to have the chances she's had. And even under the best circumstances, only a tiny minority of girls will get to become lawyers earning $70,000 a year. Even your darling Suzanne may find it's a little trickier to get into the judicial system than she thinks: she may be very glad of the other women keeping up the pressure to make the Bar less hideously chauvinist.'
'Okay. But your women's group won't help, when they love being such victims.'
'You don't understand how crucial it has been for women to get together. When we were isolated it was very easy for other people to make us feel we were just mad or bad. It was only when we started to talk together that we saw there was a pattern of injustice, it wasn't just us being 'demanding' or 'unreasonable' as individuals. Did you know that a lot of my friends' husbands wouldn't allow their wives to work?'
'Whaaat!? Who did they think they were to give permission?'
'Like I said: times have changed. Massively - in less than twenty years. And those of us who did work in those days were always justifying working in terms of 'having to', or pretending it was just a little hobby, to earn 'pin money'. Not real money, which was what The Man earned.'
'Just a toy job.'
'To keep the Little Woman's fingers out of mischief. Sickening, isn't it? But that's how we were brought up. To pamper male egos. Not to threaten them in any way - poor little delicate blobs. We were meant to smile a discretely superior smile amongst ourselves, tilt our heads and sigh and say wisely indulgent things like: "All men are really just little boys at heart".'
'Quite. We were meant to think we were so clever, manipulating men with our womanly wiles. It was feminism that showed us what a pathetic delusion all this was. We had lost everything important, our self-respect, our sense of adulthood, to gain... what? Objects, usually.'
"'Oh sweetie-piekins, if only I had a washing machine I could wash your shirts even whiter". It's like American Indians being given coloured trinkets while being robbed of their land.'
'Feminism showed us it was all right for women to get serious about our lives. And to be more honest. I went through a lot of flak about being a bad mother for going to work - when you were five, for heaven's sake.'
'You! But you're obsessed with mothering. I can't stand it sometimes... '
'But mothering was the only thing a good woman could do in those days. Anything else was suspect. We certainly couldn't have been unapologetically childless - or cheerfully lesbian, like in young women's magazines these days. I remember a friend telling the rest of us about this mysterious tribe of women called Lisbons. That's how clueless we were when we were your age, and how much choice we had about sex, or having babies.'
'Didn't the men get fed up with all this womanly wiles junk? I'd feel insulted.'
'They thought they were supposed to like it, though at some less conscious level they must have resented being simpered at dishonestly. It's a mockery of real femininity, all this fluttering eyelashes rubbish.'
'Oh, talking of eyelashes, did you see the false ones I bought yesterday?'
'False eyelashes! You criticize me for not being a good enough feminist...'
'Well, that's something I really don't agree with, having to dress in an old sack to be a real woman. '
'You're not into power-dressing as well?'
'No. I want to look... well, like a wise, strong, beautiful woman. Not a bimbo, or a non-woman in a suit or a sack.'
'But beauty is so commercialized.'
'So? Just because it's been commercialized that doesn't make beauty itself bad, does it? Like Christianity isn't bad because Christmas has become commercialized.'
'So your generation is going to redeem Beauty for women, is it, as well as Freedom and Power?'
'Perhaps,' she said. 'But I can't go on reconstructing your life right now - I'm meeting friends at seven. You'll just have to decide what you want from life. By the way, where did you put my coat that you collected from the cleaners - and did you manage to buy me some more tights?'
Juliet Kellner is a UK-based film-maker.
Apart from the Saturday night disco in the Church Hall there was nothing to do in Wishaw, the small Scottish town where I grew up. The last number was always a slow dance and if you hadn't got oft with someone by that time, you got out fast. The boys had names like 'Shug' or 'Rusty'. The girls were just called slags or lezzies. There was no inbetween status. Sexual contact was furtive, unpleasant and sometimes painful. Saying 'No' wasn't tolerated. It was why you were there so what! You passively serviced.
Until I met Elaine! Together we could resist, we could be bad. We determined to use the boys, harder and faster than they could use us. We called this 'sexual liberation'. We wanted to be equal, so we tried to treat them equally badly. Show no feeling, pick them up and leave them. We became the dreaded nymphos. The logic was irresistible.
My next strategy was to move as far away as possible. Why did I choose York University? I didn't look right, I didn't sound right. I wasn't allowed to forget it either. I imagined that University would liberate me, but I was greeted with a new sort of diminishment. My sense of self seriously faltered. Reading seminar papers induced a panic I had never before experienced. It wasn't just my voice, my accent that were being ignored, but an experience of a cuiture different to the one being celebrated around me.
For the first time in my life I met 'feminists'. I felt that we had nothing in common, that their histories somehow made it possible for them to be feminist but that mine couldn't. Feminism could never be applied to life in Wishaw. I agreed with almost all they said and yet... I wouldn't call myself a feminist. Men were the winners. I thought being a feminist would make me one of the losers.
After graduating I aimlessly traipsed down to London. I was at my lowest ebb: expectations nil, commitment of any kind unthinkable. With my 'symbols of resistance' - encompassing everything from my hair and clothes to my subterranean lifestyle - I edged myself into the corners of employment where I would have least effect, bemoaned my sorry lot and retired to bed satisfied that I was being ignored. For the next few years I separated myself from the world I wanted to change. Instead of shouting aloud and making demands, I was sullen and incoherent.
I was clear about certain things, though. That women were different and equal. That the problem was that men had the power and women didn't. I wouldn't, however, address the difficult issue of why I still chose to have sex with men. My attempts at sexually treating men as men treated women had repeatedly failed. Conducting a personal campaign against sexual inequality seemed hopeless. I finally realized it was time to go public.
I got active with the Campaign Against Pomography. Frankly I wasn't up to much with the campaign strategies. I saw my role as entertainer for those doing the real work. I watched a lot of television and so I became CAP's media monitor. This felt safe.
One Friday night I caught the James Whale Radio Show. This man loves to humiliate women. It's his joy and pleasure. I contacted CAP. I've been monitoring the media. Call Right to Reply.' 'OK, Louise, do it!' What, me? Excuse me, nobody said anything about Media Participation, only monitoring Oh God!
I phoned Right to Reply. They were interested. Worse still they were trying to persuade the producer of the programme to appear in the studio with me. I prayed that they would fail. They would regret putting me through this pain. I would cry on television and then they would be sorry.
Going on TV meant that I was going to have speak out loud, in front of thousands of people. For the first time I had to find the will to say something, to find a voice for the women who had switched off the television, hurt and humiliated.
I was joined by a woman from the Child Abuse Studies Unit for the studio discussion. I remember thinking. 'I can just leave. I won't die, just because I get up and leave.' The programme was 'as live'. I wasn't. I can't remember anything else.
The next day I watched Right to Reply. The Executive Producer, our enemy, was dreadful. We were good! I had won something for other women - and for me. The issues suddenly seemed in focus, because they were being defined by women in the plural - and not just me in the singular.
Louise Donald now works at the London School of Contemporary Dance. Pieces by her and other young British women appear in Surviving the Blues, ed. Joan Scanion (Virago, 1991)
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