I recently had an interesting discussion with a former colleague of mine about women and how society perceives they should live their lives. It reminded me of a response I wrote in my first semester of graduate school about Carolyn Heilbrun's book, Writing a Woman's Life. I thought it would be worth sharing here. Here's to you D.W. Thanks for checking into the blog!
As I began reading Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, I initially had a concern about how I would manage through a book written with an obvious feminist bent. I have struggled formulating my own personal opinions about feminism for many years. Initially, I thought feminists were in general angry and resentful, having been oppressed or limited in their lives. I could not relate to their mission, even though I am a baby boomer and lived during some of the most evolutionary times of the feminist movement. I was the youngest of five children, three girls and two boys, and had a strong mother and a loving father who, after retiring early on disability, was one of the first stay-at-home dads and managed house and the kids while my mom worked. I never felt oppressed or limited in my dreams or ambitions. If I had wanted to be an astronaut, I would be encouraged to do so. I had always been good at the sciences and never felt that I shouldn’t be because I was female. My dad taught me woodworking, and his tools were readily at my disposal. Although I had an impressive collection of Barbie’s, my collection of Matchbox cars was equally impressive. I was the quintessential tomboy in my early years, favoring jeans to dresses, but later in life would discover the joys of designer clothes, sophisticated make-up, and spa treatments. I played sports competitively and was on several varsity teams, but also worked as a library page and seriously studied piano and music theory. So, for whatever reasons, my life traversed between the world of dirt, mud, and toughness and dolls, dresses, and femininity. It seemed like the way things should be, so I did not understand why women felt they were being held back.
Later in life, particularly after starting my career, I better understood why feminism existed and the limitations placed on my gender. A strong woman can be as mesmerizing as she is threatening. I have been fortunate to work with many men who have given me respect and opportunities. I have truly felt like a peer and colleague. But there is still an unwritten rule, or nuance is maybe a better word, that prevails between men and women. Sometimes the men who are our biggest supporters also have a need to take care of us. On one hand, this is welcoming, yet it can also feel condescending or make us feel vulnerable. Some men seem to have a strong need to take care of a woman, to be her mentor, her savior, and her guide. Some woman enjoy this and leverage it to their benefit, but struggle at times not to do so at the risk of losing respect or equality. Strong women, and I count myself among them, struggle between the two. There is a fine line between being feminine without the risk of being taken less seriously, when to be tough and aggressive risks misinterpretation by the very men who respect and support you. Heilbrun reflects this in her introduction, where she talks of the male being the center, and the woman being secondary. Writing a woman’s life seems to be rooted in how it relates to the man’s role as the pivotal center to the drama. In relationship to a woman’s life and the professional world, Heilbrun writes, “There are no recognizable career stages in such a life, as there would be for a man.” How very true.
Thus is how my reading and reflection of Heilbrun’s book progressed. It unleashed a multitude of ponderings, way too many to discuss here, that awakened in me different perspectives on my future writing. It made me aware of a need to be extremely honest and realistic in my writing, but to also point out different viewpoints. It touched at the core of me as a woman and writer, and the influences that have shaped me over time. Heilbrun writes about women who either radically “pushed the envelope” (ex. George Sand) or those who came to tragic ends because of their struggles (ex. Sylvia Plath). Here is where I struggle with feminism. It always seems dramatic, or reflects strong masculine tones, or a radical identity, or a tragic life. Having a strong sense of self, or as someone once put it “comfortable in my own skin,” I look at serious issues, but equally look at the humor in life. I love my feminine side and find great joy in figuring out how to make it work to help achieve my goals and ambitions. I can be deeply reflective, but also love to observe and write about the light side of life. I know the workplace has a long way to go in achieving equality and diversity, but I also recognize that there are many professional women who went through a lot to make it possible for me to have gotten where I am.
There are themes in my writing that emerged as I read the book. Heilbrun talks about the oral exchanges among women. I related this to the recent emergence of coaching, and the more traditional mentoring. I have seen through my own experiences that women learn from other women. The bonds they form, the honesty they share with each other, is powerful. Advice and support are shared through strong networks. A personal essay to me is the way to coach and mentor the masses, while not losing sight of the individuals reading the piece. Sharing personal insight allows for their interpretation based on their lives, histories, and ambitions. Creative nonfiction is about sharing knowledge, teaching and learning. Essay writing provides a platform for doing this.
Chapter three fascinated me, given my interest in diversity and family influences. Her narrative about father-daughter relationships was particularly interesting as it relates to my own observations about family life growing up, and raising two young children, a boy and a girl. I have started to think about how some of these observations can be translated into concepts for personal essays. For example, why is my husband ok with our daughter wearing pink nail polish but not red? Will my daughter’s strong personality make her successful in life, but an intimidating prospect for the prom? Will my son be a “kinder, gentler” husband as a result of having a stay-at-home dad?
Heilbrun quotes from an interview with Anne Sexton “I was trying my damndest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me.” These words resonated with me in a strange way. I was raised in a family that never pushed convention on me, but I have always been drawn to convention. It creates a struggle in me. Certainly Sexton’s dilemma was so great it led her to a psychotic breakdown, and I don’t share the drama. But there has always been a conflict, and I believe reaching into that conflict will create some great writing down the road that will make a difference in the lives of other women. My approach to writing to women is reality-based. The key for me is not to judge right from wrong, or judge women who choose more traditional lives versus ambitious, career-focused ones. It’s not a question of comparison or contrast. It’s writing from the soul, it is about writing as a woman about women’s lives, with honesty, humor, observation, and the ability to leave an impression and evoke thinking from the reader.
I suppose I am still somewhat confused by feminism, but have grown to understand it more as I’ve grown older. Although I was fortunate to grow up without convention, I’ve still grown within the context of what society calls on a woman to be. Perhaps that is why I feel a strong need to write to other women, to make sure a voice is heard that brings a fresh perspective.