I find myself singing to my kids often--snippets of songs, really. I think I do this because my mother did. And just like her I sing in snippets because I can't remember all the words and when I am on my own with no music I'm usually off key. One of my earliest mom-song-memories is Helen Reddy singing the great feminist anthem:
I am woman hear me roar
In numbers too big too ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna' keep me down again.
It is funny, really, that this song, a huge hit the year I was born, should have so permeated my childhood. My mom did not, and definitely does not now, consider herself a feminist. And yet, she represented all that the movement wanted--she rose up from a difficult family life to attend college, told her boyfriend she wouldn't be married until she finished college (marrying in 1969), insisted on going back to work part time after her children were born, managed her own money and bank account for her whole adult life, had four children spaced exactly as she chose them to be. Growing up, it never occurred to me that there might be places in America where men and women weren't treated as equals. In my family, the women always had equal say with the men. Always.
And yet I don't consider myself a feminist either. It is ironic really, because I also completely recognize that my lifestyle, choices and self-actualization are a direct outgrowth from that time. I am not a feminist because for all the good the movement did for women in my generation, there were also heavy costs. A huge part of the movement, and the 1960's in general, was an exploration of sexual "freedom." Instead of helping to create a world where men were held to the same high standard that women had always been judged against, they advocated the freedom for women to act to the lowest common denominator. Empowering women became so wrapped up in sex that all the good work the feminists did ended up resulting in some pretty terrible unintended consequences. Women may now exhibit all kinds of lewd behavior without the consequences of a generation or two ago, but in the process these same women cause men to further objectify them. So much for the sexual revolution being anything more than huge step in the wrong direction.
A few months ago, Kathryn Soper, one of the lovely and talented women behind Segullah, posted an incredible article at a website called "Patheos." The article is about the ways in which we miss the mark when it comes to teaching teen aged women about chastity. Her insights are fascinating, the writing engaging, and her personal experiences deeply poignant. If you haven't had a friend send you the piece yet, you really should take a few minutes to go and read it. Ever since reading it a few weeks ago, I haven't been able to quite put it out of my head, and though I won't be as eloquent, I would like to add some of my own thoughts here.
The article begins by pointing out that most teenage girls do not engage in sexual activity because of an overwhelming desire to have sex. In fact, a New Yorker article from a couple of years ago, when reviewing the Twilight books, believed the popularity of the books was due to the fact that young women want love without sex. Soper asserts the same, and quotes President Ezra Taft Benson to back her up. The teen sex itself is a symptom of a deeper problem. Or problems.
Going further, Soper focuses the rest of her piece on just one of these problems: power.
Too many young girls, maybe particularly LDS girls, feel a lack of power. In this case, power is defined as a person feeling like they have a large measure of control over what happens to them. When we talk about power at church, we most often talk about Priesthood power--exclusive to men; or the power of procreation--inaccessible without a man. It isn't that there aren't plenty of examples of female power within the Church, it is just that our terminology doesn't acknowledge it.
When a powerless feeling is coupled with a strong need for love and/or attention, sexuality is the most obvious default for a teenager. Because, let's face it, ladies, men are wired to be deeply driven by sex. Women who learn from an early age to manipulate that desire can gain a lot of power. Of course, Soper reminds us, the power is just an illusion because it isn't based on something inside the young person, it is based on others' perceptions of her. Like the other power mentioned above, such burgeoning sexual power is based on something a man gives or does or notices.
I'd like to add that the power usually only lasts as long as the object of young man's desire is unattainable. Studies show that the vast majority of teen relationships end within a month or two of a couple's first sexual encounter. Girls, of course, have the most to lose in such a break-up, because it ensures that the temporary substitute for love is now absent, and to make matters worse, she has given up the only source of power that she had. In the self-image crash that inevitably follows, needs deepen further and our powerless young teenager finds herself repeating her mistakes because this time it will be "different."
The remainder of Soper's article is in the form of a personal essay, where she bravely talks about her first encounter with the realization that sexual power was within her grasp. In my own life, I was lucky not to have such an experience when I was in my mid-teens, though I knew that many of my friends understood that power. At the time, it didn't feel lucky. Other than a brief stint during my junior year, I could count on one hand the number of dates I had until I was twenty years old.
I was so jealous of the way my many friends could flirt and tease and even manipulate to find any number of boys with which to spend a Friday night. Or to take out the garbage. Or to lift something heavy. Or to hang on their every word. Or ultimately, to spend three months salary on a diamond ring.
Yet, even as my bitterness and mild disdain for what I perceived as the weakness of men grew (along with frustration over my sisters' cruelty toward them), I was busy cultivating other sources of power: intellectual, emotional and spiritual.
Then, when I was twenty years old, something remarkable happened. After a very unusual set of circumstances that landed me in Sacramento California and hanging out with a guy I didn't really like all that well, I looked into his eyes (too) late one night and I recognized exactly what Kathryn Soper is talking about in her article: sudden approval where before there had only been indifference. Bald desire that frightened me.
I kept my power and walked away from the situation, terrified at what I was capable of, and more than a little embarrassed. Because of this person's previous role in my life, for me to suddenly have such a hold was complete reversal, and more than a little exhilarating. What I learned that night, however, without really realizing it, was that "no," was more powerful than desire. My choice, my decision, was a product of every part of my power, not just my sexuality.
In Disneyland last month I was terribly disappointed not to see more evidence of Mulan: my favorite Disney-heroine and the consummate non-Princess. At the first of that movie, right after a disastrous trip to the matchmaker, she goes to the temple of her ancestors, made up and lovely. She is the classic picture of Chinese beauty. Yet, she knows as she catches her image in the highly polished stones that the gorgeous woman she sees is not a reflection of herself. As she wipes the make-up off just one half of her face, she sings,
Who is that girl I see?
Staring straight back at me?
When will my reflection show
Who I am, inside?
I saw this movie the summer I met Plantboy. I was quite self-actualized for 23, but I understood Mulan's sentiment exactly. How many times had I asked myself the same question, though perhaps without the moving vocals. Mulan is not just a love story between a man and woman, it is also a love story of a girl and her father, a girl and her country, a girl and herself.
Some time in my early thirties, I finally looked into the mirror one day and loved the woman I saw staring straight back at me. I found the place where I ceased to see myself through others eyes, even Plantboy's, and I felt deeply empowered. Intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and sexually. A balance that had taken me half my life to finally achieve.
The question I have today is, "why did it take so long?" What can be done to speed this process for the wondering and wandering young women we know and love so that they can be the heroines in their own lives?
Just a few weeks ago, a man in our ward gave a wonderful fireside about dating, but during his remarks he noted that if you believed yourself to be "in love" in high school, then you were just being ridiculous. (Ironically, his own wife, to whom he is very close, is his high school sweetheart.) I felt impressed to drive one of my young women home and speak to her a little more closely: she is dealing with some serious empowerment issues right now, and a serious boyfriend issue. I told her that loving another person wasn't ridiculous, and that part of the nature of women was to be loving. I reiterated that it is never okay to break the commandments, but that there are plenty of appropriate ways to give and express all kinds of love, even that feeling of romantic love. I pray that she will feel the power that comes into her life by choosing to be chaste. By choosing to love. By choosing her own path and asserting what she really wants. Mostly I pray that she will find her power before she finds herself on a road where she actually is helpless.
It is a hard thing we ask of our youth and young adults; it is a hard standard the Lord holds us to while simultaneously blessing us with such powerful needs, but we weren't sent here to fail, either. Empowerment is about realizing that we can do hard things. Because I am God's daughter.
Strong. Feminine. Empowered.
Hear me roar!