Ramblings On Solnit and Women


"Feminist" is a loaded word. After reflecting on Solnit's essays in Men Explain Things to Me. I think it would be a luxury for me to claim that I'm not a feminist. So much of my reality, expectations, mindset rests on the shoulders of generations of women struggling against a silencing and stifling status quo.

Like many women in my generation, I went to college. It never occurred to me that I wouldn't or couldn't. I often walked home alone, despite the horrible realities that often occur to women on lonely walks, I was one of an ignorant few who never considered that I might be in danger.  Reading the statistics now, it seems naive of me.

Similarly, I and many other women entered marriage and motherhood on the naive assumption that we were to be co-equals with our partners. Same opportunities, same autonomy. It came as something of a shock to me and many of the women with whom I interact that we would have to negotiate time alone, or careers. In defense of our husbands (the men I know are caring partners, and doting fathers), in such situations, push back isn't often from a place of misogyny, but rather the recognition of certain biological/psychological realities. A nursing infant is very attached to the mother. It is not the same for a mother to come and go as for a father to come and go. But for myself and other mothers I know, this push back felt/feels like an affront to our autonomy. It's as if we received the feminist manifesto in our inbox, internalized it and proceeded accordingly. Husbands and children are less willing to conform, without clear demands and boundaries.

To say Solnit has affected me would be an understatement. Her words and ideas are surprisingly reasonable. I say surprisingly, because my issue with feminism is that it often seems to leave out or denigrate what makes women different from men - our biology, our wombs, lactating mammary glands, special qualities of empathy... Men and women are not the same. Nor do I want to be a man, nor does Solnit.

Like Solnit, I would like freedom of opportunity. Unlike Solnit, and I say this with no disrespect or judgment, I have been a mother. I am still a mother. There are certain realities that come with this territory, realities I never anticipated and that must be negotiated with care. Women do not exist in a vacuum. Some women choose not to marry or have children. For these women, forging a career is a necessity and the challenges they face in a male-dominated work place have been extensively documented. For women who choose marriage and motherhood things get murkier.

If I were to approach motherhood with a feminist attitude, it seems to me an unintentionally self-centered attitude.  As Solnit notes, Virginia Woolf wrote about needing to kill the "angel of the house."  While that's a seductive idea, and to some extent necessary to preserve one's sanity, I would argue that part of the value that women add is to BE that angel (not 100% of the time, we are still human, after all). Still, to create a peaceful, nurturing environment is a the essential task of the mother. In fact, I would agree that it is the loss of this feminine energy in the home that is leading to the massacres we see and which are becoming so common. Solnit ponders if there is something about how our culture defines masculinity that may be to blame for the proliferation of violent acts against women. Perhaps. Perhaps it is the masculine devoid of strong feminine role models and care givers that is leading to the proliferation of violence. Perhaps it is the presence of a loving mother that curbs the excess and helps create balanced men and women.

I'm not arguing that all women should get back into their kitchens or that things were perfect before women entered the work force.  I would say though that each family unit needs to figure out how to meet the needs of all of its members, not the just the needs of mothers or the needs of fathers.

I would also argue that life is about seasons. There are times that children need a loving care giver on call (usually the mother), there are times when life is more flexible. I think this is a time when our culture is encouraging each person to focus on herself, increasingly. That way narcissism lies. I think we should look at ourselves honestly with a critical eye and ask: what do I have to offer? How am I contributing - to my family, my community? How can I take ownership of my needs and communicate them clearly?

I think it's dangerous to look at centuries with a broad brushstroke. It's useful. Yet, it can lead to an overly simplistic and also ignorant analysis. It has never been easy to be a woman. There have always been women like Woolf and Plath who have suffered under the bonds of domesticity. I love their work and I love them for the new possibilities they created for the rest of us. They were also incredibly troubled women. Some would say: of course, they were, look at how women were treated in those days. Yet, when you consider how supportive their partners were, how widely they were published and how they still took their lives, I think blaming the patriarchy is a bit too easy. 

I don’t think we should settle for quiet lives, unless we want them. I don’t think we should tolerate abuse. I also think we should be careful and consider how often we are complicit in such abuses. We should think carefully about our thought patterns and whether the threat is from without or within. Many times, the answer is: its both. It is often the aunties of African nations who perform FCM. It was a woman whose "vision" lead to murder of someone's mother in Nicaragua. It is just as often women who are the madams that pimp out our daughters. It is often women who choose to array themselves like sex objects. It is often we who silence ourselves, make ourselves small.

Until we can wrestle with these demons, wrestle with ourselves, nothing will change for women.