Part 4. Other Women, and Feminism
I was discussing politics more generally with my daughter, 23, when she commented that she refrained from expressing her more radical views so that she could actually have friends. I reminded her of this conversation to play off her views on her sex-role conformity; we managed to negotiate this potential minefield fairly easily. They are pretty similar. She wears makeup because it is required at her workplace (I worked for the same outfit and got away with not wearing any, but only because my coloring is far darker — and I wore other trappings of acquiescence, like oversized earrings and rings, and feminine footwear). But she also enjoys playing with makeup, creating different effects. She understands, of course, that the allowed ‘different effects’ are still within a prescribed range of looks and emphases: large and child-like eyes painted higher at the outside edges to appear friendly, full lips, cheekbones widened to lessen (feminize) the chin line, eyebrows arched inquisitively — never low, which would show judgment or adamancy.
She is, in some ways at least, a chameleon. She can play at the role required when the performance is demanded, which it usually is in her life; she can easily relax into herself, unpainted and otherwise un-femmed, when it’s not. She tends to go out in public with her persona wrapped carefully around her, but occasionally ventures unencumbered. She does enough to seem acceptable to the range of friends she has, most of whom are the politically extreme end of normal here, and to be acceptable at work. Often she’s worn her hair long. I’m not even sure she’s aware of how much attention she receives for it: thick, straight, shiny coppered-blondish, light auburn. Which she and I henna’ed to a deeper redbrown. Which she’s ignoring, the grow-out now inches in length. She pushes the edges, but they are decidedly conventional bounds; she blends without necessarily being wholly of the group. And her judgments are reserved primarily for hypocrites and liars.
She, like I, never had the fortitude to flout the standards in any way completely.
I’ve found quite a bit of discussion on Lesbian blogs lately, especially from Valerie at We Won’t Submit, and with Bev at the blog Bev Jo – radical Lesbian writing.
Femininity is privileged over Butchness, which is simply what all women would be if they didn’t learn to practice femininity for reward from an early age. If you practice it for too long, you can never completely rid yourself of it. But that doesn’t make it natural.
Like white or het privilege, the thing to do when confronted with one’s femininity privilege is to learn how to not wield it over Butches – the ones who spent their lives staying true to raw, real femaleness – and to notice how femininity is worshipped and perpetuated at Butches’ expense in the exact same way as other oppressions.
And a collaborative post from Bev Jo and Valerie reads:
A Butch is a Lesbian who has, from an early age, rejected femininity and its trappings; who has refused to be socialized as a fuck-object for men, and does not dress or carry herself in a way that presents ‘woman’ as what men think women should be. A fem can dress Butch in order to reject male-dominance, but cannot erase a lifetime of internalizing those values, and so her fem-ness will always be apparent. While she can, and should, present herself as much as possible in solidarity with Butches, calling herself Butch when it is little more than a fashion choice for her (albeit a positive one) is an appropriation.
A Butch is simply what all women would be in the absence of patriarchy. They are the epitome of natural women, whose character and presence is not defined by the male standard but by their Lesbian-ness. Butches are the most womanly and the most Lesbionic of us all. They are the opposite of masculine.
I’m wondering, can you see this as clearly as I can?
If you see it differently, then how so?
Is this ability to be more real, less confined to femininity, a product of Lesbian existence, and normally near-impossible within heterosexuality? I can’t agree that it’s totally impossible. I’m decidedly het-privileged, I sport a near-crewcut, have not shaved my armpits for decades (much to the horror of my summer paint crew coworkers, apparently), nor my legs except for when I worked where the other women were upset if I didn’t, and the dress code allowed knee-length summer shorts. Make-up is a Hallowe’en thing, although for a while a decade back and to celebrate menopause, I wore the dull-blood red lipstick that older women in Seattle seemed to favor.
What conformities (if any) do you and those around you participate in? If this question makes you uncomfortable, is it necessarily the question that is wrong? (And you are under no obligation to answer it or anything else publicly.)
What non-conformities do you engage in? Are there consequences for not conforming, and if so, what are they?
I like it when my feet look big — they seem more stable, and I wish my hands were larger since I use them for a living; I’m a custodian, now. I was the first woman hired in the Engineering department of the utility company where I did drafting for eleven years, a union job. I was the first woman hired as a carpenter at the union cabinet shop where I worked until 9/11 crashed the northwest’s building trades economy. I’ve never exactly been traditional. I have been presumed Lesbian any number of times since I left that community, an honor if inaccurate. And yet I can see the vast differences — and respect them deeply — between myself and a woman who has lived Butch her entire life, who has remained unchanged by the patriarchy to which my daughter and I, and countless other women, have acquiesced. This simply is, to me — undeniable fact. Fine, and fact. I don’t hate myself for it, nor do I denounce other women for being like me, complicit. For those who have never succumbed, I am grateful; through them I am inspired. I can’t be Butch; I can most certainly appreciate the courage of those who are. And I can work to help diminish Butch oppression in the world I inhabit.