A Woman’s World

Last week I came across an event on a blog (which shall remain nameless) that truly shocked me. The blogger in question had written a rather provocative piece on affiliate sites, you know, the kind with links to amazon or other online book stores who get a couple of pennies if someone buys a book after reading their review. The blogger was insistent that this was poor practice and a risk to the integrity of the reviewer. It’s a point of view, of course, although not one I agree with myself, and given that this was a sharply worded blogpost that contained a quite unnecessary sideswipe at the recent Persephone Reading Weekend, I wasn’t surprised to see several of the comments politely disagreeing. I added to them. And then, a couple of days later, when I went back to follow up the conversation, I found that it had been rigorously doctored by the original blogger, who had removed any comment that disagreed and left only those (the minority) who took her point of view. For it was a woman writing – not that it was a site that I had ever visited before, or will visit again, but I gathered that much. I tell you, I was aghast when I first saw what had happened, because it seemed all wrong to me, to censor debate in that way, and quite an extraordinary thing to do for someone who was hoist on a petard of blogger integrity.

At the time this happened I was reading Marghanita Laski’s brilliant novel, The Village (for that selfsame Persephone Reading Weekend which I managed to miss completely). The Village is set at the end of the Second World War when class barriers, weakened out of necessity by the conflict, are finally beginning to crumble for good. But society hasn’t quite reached the point where it can accept that, and not in a village, where everyone’s business is common knowledge and the stuff of common judgment. The Trevors are one of the ‘good’ families in the area, although Wendy Trevor is at her wit’s end trying to make ends meet and arrange futures for her two daughters; Sheila, the clever one whom she favours, and Margaret, gentle, self-effacing, kind and useless in her mother’s critical opinion. Her best hope is that Margaret should make a good marriage (although her hopes aren’t high given that she’s only ordinarily attractive and not particularly talented). But when Margaret does fall in love, with a young man who earns spectacularly well according to the Trevor’s standards, but who comes from the wrong side of the village and the wrong sort of class, Wendy’s horror knows no bounds. The only thing that’s keeping the Trevor’s afloat in their self-esteem is the feeling that they are looked upon well, that they have a ‘place’ in society that is enviable. To get the future she wants, Margaret, sweet, neglected and badly treated, will have a royal battle on her hands.

What, you may ask is the connection between these two stories? Well, today is International Women’s Day, and whilst many people are very rightly drawing much attention to the undeveloped corners of the world, where women’s lives are a misery, I wanted to bring some attention to the ways in which women in the first world still make life hard for themselves, particularly around this issue of criticism and self-esteem. It seemed to me that Wendy Trevor and the blogger in question shared similar traits – they were both sharply critical of others, but simply could not bear criticism of themselves. Not because they are unpleasant people (which might have been my initial, irritated thought), but most probably because inside their heads, questions of social standards and expectations and awareness of faults and failures and an over-privileging of surface appearances make such a tangled mess that there is simply no space at all for criticism to be tolerated. It takes up a lot of space in the mind, does criticism coming from external sources; if a woman’s head is already packed with rules and regulations and she is already stressed out from making an effort to do everything that is asked of her, then space is at a premium. There can be no holding of the shame and horror of being criticized from outside. And yet, if a woman is making herself this strung out, ensuring she does what is right in a way that is visible, how little tolerance she has for the deviant behaviour of others! No wonder they get it in the neck.

This is an old story from the woman’s world, not one that I myself have created, but one that psychologists will readily point to. A recent survey on the website mumsnet came up with the disturbing statistic that 88% of mothers treat their daughters differently to their sons despite feeling that they shouldn’t. Mothers are more likely to call their sons ‘funny’, ‘cheeky’, ‘playful’ and ‘loving’, whilst they will describe their daughters as ‘stroppy’, ‘argumentative’ and ‘serious’. Mothers are far more likely to micro-manage their daughters, feeling able to intervene in critical ways in what they wear, say, eat and do, whilst having an equal tendency to leave their sons in peace. Mothers were twice as likely to be critical of their daughters, and more than half found it easier to bond with sons (not surprising, having alienated the daughters, we must assume). The effect of this is to make daughters believe they are more in need of whipping into line for the rest of their lives – hence women’s eagerness to discipline themselves, to berate themselves and to please others (to be assured they are good girls). You can figure out for yourselves what happens to female self-esteem in the middle of all this, not to mention the relations between women, when criticizing each other seems natural and necessary according to the habits of our minds.

As an antidote to all that chastisement, here is something that made me laugh and cheer this morning – an Independent article on ways to worry less, headed up by the cheekily subversive Julie Burchill with thoughts on how to worry less about what others think of you. And let’s buy into the sisterhood again – let’s make it our business this week to compliment other women, to offer nothing but supportive help and the benefit of the doubt. Let’s start with ourselves, having an amnesty on all the things that haven’t got done, or should have been done better, or shouldn’t have been done at all. Let’s wave them all goodbye, along with the tortuous arguments about what other people expect from us, and the standards of perfection we absolutely have to maintain or risk being unlovable. Let’s exchange all that weighty unhelpful nonsense for one thing: doing the best we can. And leave it at that.

19 thoughts on “A Woman’s World

  1. Pingback: Why We Need Women’s Day « Charlotte's Web

  2. Amen, sister!

    I too was taken aback by the deletion of comments on that post. But oh well, a blog is a personal, if public, space I suppose. I chuckled my way through the Independent article. 🙂

  3. Lovely essay, litlove! So true, all of it. Also reminds me of a recent conversation I had with my husband about what we were each going to wear to a friend’s wedding. His clothing was easy: suit and tie. But the expectations for me were daunting: feminine, lithe, intelligent, slightly sexy, stylish but not loud, tasteful, etc etc. And he wondered why I spent hours and a box of Kleenex figuring out how to dress myself!

  4. What a classy response to what I also found to be somewhat appalling behavior–you’ve certainly helped me see it through more generous eyes. And I loved the Birchill piece and the whole idea of not being so hard on ourselves. I just finished a book that talked about this in regards to weight and how we women beat ourselves and each other up so much over every extra pound and every extra calorie and every day we don’t work out instead of recognizing that some things are out of our control and that we can’t be perfect all the time. Such an important thing to hear, whether related to weight, work, parenting, housekeeping, whatever.

  5. I haven’t seen that post you are referring to but the rest of your post spoke to me. I grew up with a mother who was my worst enemy and always told me how much she would have preferred to have a nice, charming son who would have done everything exactly as she told him… She was really mean and horribly jealous. Of course she was a victim of circumstances (people) as well.
    This is what makes me saddest, that a lot of the injustice that women and girls suffer doesn’t necessarily always come from men. And that we often pass on things unknowingly.Like the young mother (who called herself a feminist with a university diploma) who told me not to call her baby boy “cute” as he (he was 2 months old) hated the word. He liked to be called “strong”.
    Sisterhood would be so powerful.
    A nice post litlove.

  6. Thank you! I am going to read the Burchill now and stop worrying about the quality of this afternoon’s presentation and whether or not I will make it from meeting one to meeting two on time. Not quite contextually accurate, but as Mole would have said, “Hang spring-cleaning.”

  7. I am so with you on sisterhood and supporting each other instead of criticizing each other. So I will begin this comment by telling you that yours has always been one of my “go-to” blogs. I’ve only “known” you for not quite five years yet, but I can’t imagine life at this point without Litlove. And I’ve met many other wonderful women via blogs, as well. Ive recently been trying to be easier on myself, not to fret over the things I don’t do well, and trying to focus on what I do do well, and it’s not easy (especially when I’m often critical even of the things I do well)! This post has given me some more encouragement in this area, though.

    That’s a very interesting study about mothers and daughters. I’m convinced, though, that typical fathers are just as hard on their sons (if not harder, at least based on my observations of the men I’ve been close to in my life and their relationships with their fathers) and just as soft with their daughters. I’ve come to think of this as part of the balance of families and gender roles. Of course, this “balance” can be detrimental if knocked off kilter when both parents don’t love each other and/or their children, or if one parent is absent and a child has siblings of the opposite sex that the single parent (mother or father) seems to favor.

    Finally, I loved The Village. It’s such a fascinating study of the time and the shifts in social classes and expectations. I’m afraid I was not quite as generous toward Wendy Trevor as you’ve been here.

  8. I just happen to be currently trying to understand, apply, and teach the Buddhist concept of Radical Acceptance, which seems to me like a difficult and tricky road after decades of being terribly hard on myself.

  9. Very nicely put, Litlove. What you say makes a lot of sense. Why do we do these things to ourselves? I know I am guilty of it and saw myself in some of the things you say (in the berating and discipling aspect anyway). It is hard to get out of that mindset, so well trained I am, but it’s something to work on! I didn’t get my Persephone book read at all so will have to go back and start at the beginning, but oh well. And I’ve added The Village to my list–it’s always interesting to see how the times change–or not, as is often the case.

  10. Another “Amen Sister!” from over here. I didn’t see the post in question, but it is an unfortunate occurence is seems and does much to damage the person’s credibility. I think you are right about mothers feeling they can meddle more in their daughter’s lives. My parents were always quick to tell my sister and I that we are “just as good as boys” (we’ll ignore parsing that statement) and while my dad pretty much walked the talk my mom was always interfering and even now continues to try and manipulate my sister who lives relatively nearby. I’ve never been much to worry about what other people think of me but it is painful when I see some of my younger female coworkers struggling with it and I try and be supportive but it has become so ingrained for them they can’t seem to get past it.

  11. What a wonderful post, Litlove. I feel sorry for that unnamed blogger. It’s a boring static life when you have to erase all other views. What a sad statistic about mothers and daughters vs sons. I only have daughters, and I praise them to the skies, but I’m a bossy boots, too, I’m afraid. Perhaps I could lighten up, on them and…maybe even myself. Sisterhood rocks. I love your blog. It is always insightful, thoughtful, considerate, and thought provoking.

  12. Another wonderfully insightful post. I’ve been reading Snow Flower & the Secret Fan and there too, Chinese mothers are very hard on their daughters, even breaking their feet in the foot binding process. (Perhaps the Tiger Mother thing isn’t all for the best??) Apparently the Chinese word for mother is made up of the words ‘love’ and ‘pain’. I can appreciate the poetry in that, but not really how it played out in my own life, with my mother passing on her own extreme self criticism to me.

  13. I really enjoyed this post, found it both witty and wise. I must take into my being the last bit about “doing the best I can.” I am probably my own worst critic, and so often the voices in my head are my parents and teachers, telling me how irresponsible and stupid I am. I wish I could turn them off forever.

  14. Emily – it was a bit extraordinary, wasn’t it? One’s blog is one’s castle, and all that, and I would quite understand the erasure of trolls… but it wasn’t about that. Still, each to their own. So glad you enjoyed the Burchill – it really cheered me!

    Rose – thank you very much!

    Melissa – oh life is SO unfair. Men have fashion so easy – but I’ll bet you looked gorgeous in the end.

    Teresa – well, I could perhaps explain it, but I still wasn’t impressed by it! And I agree that women beat themselves up too much and have so many ordinary things hard. I was going to talk about being single, because that’s something else that can be looked-down on for women, but perfectly acceptable for men. There is much in our culture that could still use a shake up.

    Caroline – how tough for you, to have a critic where you should have had your number one fan and supporter. I hope you know we in the blogworld are delighted with the way you turned out! It is so hard not to let gendered attitudes run riot, particularly where there are obvious gender trends in girls and boys.

    Annie – I do hope your presentation and your meetings went off just fine with no hitches or difficulties! And if they didn’t, well whatever, as the young ones say. There’s another day to do it all over again, I don’t doubt. I’m sure you were splendid in any case.

    Emily – oh I could cheerfully have shaken Wendy Trevor until her teeth rattled! But as I couldn’t do that I decided to try to explain her instead! We have known one another a long time, haven’t we? And I couldn’t be more delighted about that. Finding people who are like me in taste and response and inclination has been one of the very best parts of blogging. I agree fathers can be very hard on sons – although I’ve often noticed that just about anywhere else, they are very resistant to critising other men and certainly not to their faces. Boys do stick together generally, I think. High time we girls did, too.

    Squirrel – Radical acceptance sounds just the ticket, and incredibly hard. But anything really worth doing always is. I am definitely trying to get more acceptance into my day, of any quality, and it’s a struggle, but one worth continuing with, I’m sure.

    Danielle – I really do think we ALL do it. I have yet to meet a woman who wasn’t harder on herself than she needed to be – although that could manifest itself in all sorts of different ways. But at basis, you could pretty much always find a crisis of self-esteem. Not surprising when women’s behaviour through the centuries has always been more policed by both men and women alike. Do try The Village – it is a wonderful read and I’d love to know what you think of it.

  15. Stefanie – oh I do love that verb ‘parsing’. I admire you for not being so worried about what people think of you. I had a blissful stretch when I was 18-24 when I wasn’t so bothered, and then having a child seemed to plunge me back into it again. There is at least one person looking at you day in, day out, and pointing out that you are far from perfect! But it’s true I haven’t felt motivated to really meddle in my son’s life – I don’t know what I would have done had I had a girl.

    Lilian – isn’t it the hardest part of parenting? Knowing when to be strict and firm and when to let go and accept. I think that’s a challenge we all have to negotiate every day. I do so agree with what you say about life being hard and static if you can’t let otherness in, that is SO true, and a powerful way of looking at it. Sisterhood does rock – I love my community of women friends here. So much great support.

    Lokesh – I adore Litlovian. I’m going to use that as much as I possibly can now.

    Carolyn – I don’t know why it is so easy for girls to soak up extreme criticism, but it is. I see it with my university students – it’s like they almost need to believe the worst about themselves as a kind of rock bottom they can depend on. But I’m sure it’s also because they have taken to heart so much the criticism they’ve received across life and learning. I love that definition from the Chinese – so intriguing. And I know you’ve been writing about your life lately in a really productive and valuable step forward to shaking off the past. I’ve every faith you can do it, and with grace.

    Healingmagichands – oh the voices! I once read somewhere that it’s a joyful thing to challenge the superego repeatedly, with phrases like: Is that really so? and I don’t have to believe what you say. Of course catching oneself out in the moment is the tough bit. But from reading your blog I know for sure you are neither irresponsible nor stupid – far from it in fact!

  16. So true, Litlove. Women are pretty horrendous to themselves and each other so much of the time. I do think Emily is right, though, about fathers being just as hard on sons. I have seen plenty evidence of that.

    The erasure of the comments is quite
    extraordinary. I pity the blogger her insecurity and petulance, and can’t help wondering after your thoughtful post about where and from whom it has come.

  17. What a wonderful post! Hear, hear! It’s so hard sometimes to remember that when a person is behaving badly, there’s probably a reason behind it and if we knew about that reason, we would have more compassion. Right now I’m thinking of ways I’ve been unpleasant to other women, and I’m thinking I should change that!

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