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05 September 2008 @ 08:23 pm
Blue Book Essay in Sociology of Sex Roles class, 5-1989  
Warning: lots of sociology terms sprinkled through for points. :) This was my final. I was asked to trace through my life and the lives of my family how gender role expectations affected our lives.

Granddaughter of a Symbolic Son Daughter

According to the defining criteria for "symbolic-son" daughters, my maternal Grandmother was raised as a symbolic son. She's expressed many times how close she was to her father, and that as she grew up she spent more time with him engaged in stereotypically masculine chores on the family farm. She was the oldest surviving child (preceded by stillborn boys) and had a younger sister who engaged in more traditional feminine behaviors.




Born in 1915, by the time of the depression she had two young children and an abusive husband. She made some attempt to fulfill the role that was acceptable for women at that time. However, unable to tolerate further abuse she divorced her husband, lived as a single parent for a time, and then remarried. Once again the husband was unsuitable (though not much has been said about him) so she divorced yet again, in a time where even one divorce was quite a scandal. She eventually met and married my present Grandfather just after the 2nd World War. In between marriages and during the war she worked, and throughout her marriage to my present grandfather she worked both on and off their farm. Also in defiance of tradition she is three years older than my grandfather, as women in this society are encouraged to marry men with higher status and/or older than themselves.

In her first marriage she had given birth to two girls. Given her own non-traditional socialization she gave only lip service to raising "feminine" daughters and by example ended up raising two very independent and strong-minded women. My mother--first born--may also have been raised as a symbolic son. I would need to examine her childhood more closely to state that as a fact. In any event, both daughters were teens in the 1950s when the culture at large was set up to encourage/coerce women into the home and family as their prime occupation. Consequently neither of them went to college b ut were tracked into taking business (secretarial) class in high school rather than college preparatory courses.

Upon graduation my mother realized that she did indeed want to go to college, and joined the Women's Army Corp in order to eventually get financial assistance to attend college. While in the army she had a tragic love affair with a man who--unbeknown to her--was married. She became pregnant and either miscarried or had an abortion and was given a medical discharge from the army. (There were rumors of a suicide attempt and certainly she made many such attempts later on) Not long after she came home she had some difficulty with her reproductive system and was told that if she didn't attempt to have a child soon she might never have one.

She--unmarried--seduced my father and I was conceived immediately in the back seat of a car. My father did the honorable thing and married her. The marriage lasted until I was about a year old. My father paid child support regularly, and lived in the same small town, and yet he was not interested in maintaining a relationship with me. (I can understand now frm reading the 49% Majority how alienated men must feel from their children in general and daughters in particular. [note: in that generation, far less so today] He probably thought that the financial support was all I needed from him.)

My first memory of him was accidentally meeting him at age 10 and not recognizing that he was my father. One may speculate that my being a lesbian [I hadn't at this point realized that I was bisexual] stems from this total lack of a genuinely close father or father-figure. I don't care to speculate--in general lesbians and gay men are weary of attempts by professionals to figure out why we're different. Such attempts have all too often been used to further discriminate against us.


So my childhood took place against the backdrop of an informal matriarchy in which my grandmother, her mother and sister had substantial power to control the actions of their husbands, and my mother as a single parent had total control of my own household. My mother's sister also had a great deal of power in her marriages. With the exception of Great-Grandma Pearl, all of the women in my family worked outside the home. I grew up not even questioning that I and all other women could do whatever we wanted. It wasn't until my teen years that I became aware of the inequality of opportunity that existed out in the world. The 1970s were my teen years, and I was aware of the women's movement and vocally supported the cause. Having not had a bunch of feminine behavior rules thrown at me in childhood I was very non-traditional--androgynous for the most part. I watched "All In The Family" and listened to the arguments about sexism. When I started to work summer jobs I began to experience discrimination from the boys I worked with when I insisted that I could do the same work (requiring upper-body strength) and then showed them that I could indeed by doing everything they could do. In fact I became the object of their hatred. But I was too stubborn to play feminine like the two girls I worked with would do.

Some of the other vehicles of socialization such as TV and children's books had less effect on me (possibly because my role models held more weight with me) than on most of my peers. I watched little TV and at age ten graduated to reading adult science-fiction. The children's books I had read most were adaptations of Greek and Roman mythology. While women were depicted in subordinate roles there were also powerful Goddesses who could control even mortal men. I was not attracted to many of the books that presented only the rigidly feminine roles for women.

So I entered my teen years not fitting into the social scene of my peer-group in any way, and further stigmatized because I was fat. I would say that growing up fat in this society has been far more oppressive than growing up female. And by Wirth's definition we are a minority--because many of us (fat people) now recognize our oppression and are even beginning to articulate it (Phase II). Many fat people are still stuck in the "false consciousness" stage but the more the rest of us can articulate our discontent the more other fat people will join with us and reject the idea that our oppression is deserved.

My teen years were utter hell. My convictions would not allow me to play feminine and hide my intelligence. I took refuge in studying various religious philosophies. My mother made several suicide attempts, from the time I was 13 on through my teen years. So I needed to find some view of the world that would help me understand my suffering and the suffering of others. I also began to feel estranged from my mother and lost respect for her since she seemed to be giving up the fight to discover self-worth. I can see now that she was overwhelmed by a lifetime of struggle against both sexism and fat oppression, and could not find any options for herself. She was also a re-entry student in the early 70s when there were fewer re-entry students. Her psychiatrist (male) told her she was too stupid to make it through school in spite of the fact that she is a very intelligent woman.

The stage was set for a teen-age rebellion against some of my mother's values. I discovered the "Hare Krishna Movement" and most particularly the concept of karma which was attractive to me because it gave me a world view in which the Supreme Being was not arbitrarily assigning suffering to people, but rather we were responsible for the results of previous actions performed in another life.

Initially I found the position of women in this philosophy hard to take. But it was explained that we are not these bodies--so the identification of male or female is not permanent since it pertains to the body. The goal was to not take birth again in the material world but to transcend it altogether and reach the spiritual world.

So I put my misgivings aside, believing that the goal of escaping material suffering completely surpassed the goal of improving women's situation in this world. I joined a temple and tried to conform to the norms expected there. I learned the extremely rigid role that women in India were traditionally expected to act out. Ultimately all women were to marry and serve their husband with a submission so total that by comparison your 50's marriage was a haven of freedom.

I never managed to make my mind fully embrace the role that was expected of me as a wife. I married at 17 to a man 4 years older. I had two children by age 20, a boy and a girl. I was a battered wife (many of us were in that religion--it seemed to affirm the misogyny that the male disciples already had) and for several years attributed my battering to my lack of mental surrender to the submissive ideal. I read Helen Andelin's Fascinating Womanhood to try and figure out how to submit better. In fact I preached the ideals of FW to other women of my faith.

However, I finally understood, as every battered wife must if she's to escape, that the reasons for the beatings were not within me (even though I was repeatedly told so) but within my husband. I realized that he would never change. I returned to Iowa to be near my family and began to heal and somewhat regain my former perspective on sex-roles. I eventually moved to Santa Cruz (I had lived here briefly before) planning to attend Cabrillo as my children reached school age.

I had done some volunteer work at a battered women's shelter (as part of my healing process) so I chose to do work-study at the Women's Center here with Maxine because I enjoyed working with women. In fact, throughout my life I've preferred women's company to that of men--I am simply more comfortable with women.

Once again I was exposed to feminism. My second semester I took three women studies classes. Not surprisingly, but the end of that semester I was a passionate feminist.

I was also simultaneously becoming aware of my attraction for other women and developed my first crush on a woman--alas already in a committed relationship with another woman.

I believe I always did have these feelings but since I had no positive role models for being a lesbian as I grew up I simply was not conscious of my own feelings. I always had intense relationships with my best friends and didn't understand why it was more intense for me than for them. Such is the harm that homophobia does to all young lesbians.

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I would add today that homophobia and biphobia also made it more difficult to figure out that I was bisexual. We are expected to be one thing or the other, even today.