Before Wonder Woman Ruled
By Linda Stein
“Many moons ago, during the middle of the 20th century—before the gender revolution and the deconstruction of the gender binary— learning to look and act like a proper young lady involved being selfeffacing, self-limiting and docile,” recalls feminist artist Linda Stein. When she tells audiences today what life was like for a young woman growing up more than a half-century ago, she says the younger women “always roll their eyes in disbelief, while their elders nod at me in agreement and understanding, remembering their own all-too-similar experiences.” In the article that follows Stein shares memories and analysis of the “bad old days.”
Growing up female in the 1950s, I learned that ladylike postures, specifically with legs crossed either at the knees or ankles, and hands in lap, were mandatory for a female. But female restrictions went deeper than just posture, as we accepted the cultural norm of displaying deference to men in words and demeanor.
Showing this kind of deference was de rigueur. Girls were trained in mundane and monumental ways to take constricting, shrinking postures while boys were told to enlarge themselves and claim extra territory. This became such an unconscious, reflexive behavior for girls wanting to fit in with their peers that the cultural pull was hard to counter.
A female teacher who dared to confront this norm describes how a male photographer came to her classroom of seven-yearold students to take their class picture. He adamantly insisted, despite this teacher’s protest, that each boy should sit in the chair like a “captain,” with arms firmly set on arm rests, reaching out and forward toward the viewer, and with legs assuming the wide stance of one ankle overlapping the other knee, taking up additional horizontal space as well. The photographer instructed the girls to sit demurely with legs crossed at the ankle, and hands folded onto their laps.
It was expected that this positioning—distinguishing boys from girls—would be accepted by the class without protest. But the teacher surprised the photographer by not giving ground, despite his rising anger. It’s not unusual to see a man win an argument, or get his way, by raising his voice and getting angry. I saw it over and over as I grew to womanhood (even with my own father). Of course, that approach was played out nationally during the Supreme Court Kavanaugh/Blasey-Ford hearings. In a column last October in The Guardian, Emma Brockes expressed the point, writing:
Demure, nonthreatening—and deferential: That’s what I learned to be as a young girl. Boys, it seemed to me, required a great deal of ego-building. By the age of 12, when I had my first real boyfriend, I knew how to make him feel better, stronger, smarter than me. Although a gifted athlete, I managed always to lose: I intentionally threw the bowling ball into the alley gutter and in Ping-Pong or tennis hit the ball into the net. Losing, I learned, was the price to pay for popularity. The boy had to win. I thought that no self-respecting girl would want to be with a boy who wasn’t above her. And no boy would want a girl who was better than he was.
I was raised to take my place as a proper girl in a patriarchal society. I was contained, submissive and domesticated. I thought I would surely marry, have three children, and encourage my husband’s success. His ego, or any masculine ego, had precedence over mine. I mastered a wide-eyed look of adoration for my boyfriend as I said, “Wow, you’re a plumber. Tell me about it. What do you do with faucets and drains?”
In my family, education wasn’t important for a girl; in fact, it could only get in the way of marriage. If I was intimidating or too smart, no boy would want me. To be desirable, I learned to balance my love for school with choosing a non-threatening (read “woman’s”) profession. I became a teacher. That was best, I was told, because it gave me “something to fall back on.” If my husband became ill or if I wanted to work after my children grew up, it was ideal. Since I loved making art, I became an art teacher.
And yet, though far from cognizance or articulation, thoughts and feelings kept cropping up: something wasn’t right. I needed answers for undefined questions. Why did I have to act differently when a boy entered the room? Why couldn’t I be proud of my education and abilities and not have to hide them? Was I signing my paintings “Linda J” (replacing “Stein” with my middle initial) in wait for my husband’s last name and his life (which would then become my life)? Why did society give boys so much more mobility, authority and respect, and why did girls accept such an unfair double standard?
When I asked a gym teacher at Music and Art High School why there was no female tennis team, he said it was because “tennis was bad for a girl’s heart.” But the absurdity of his answer didn’t register with me even though I played tennis for three hours every day after school without having a heart attack! These inconsistent sound bites went on as I grew up. At Pratt Institute graduate school, I said to an art teacher that I was going for a doctorate. He replied, ‘Why go for a doctorate? Why not just marry one?” Once again, I didn’t connect the dots. But the contradictions kept reappearing in the back of my mind.
Practicing deference slowly began to grate on me. Gradually I saw that the gender rules of our society were mostly one-sided. I realized that I couldn’t fulfill my potential while putting so much effort into catering to the needs of another person. I began to watch myself as if I were outside myself. With a male present, I saw that I spoke in a softer, cutesy voice, with less confidence. I had fewer opinions and hardly ever contradicted his manly assertions.
I sat in a constrained manner, cross-legged, poised and pretty, as if waiting to be discovered. I tended to fuse with my projection of male needs and desires. (If I thought a man was seeking a sexual liaison, I would automatically become more flirtatious and seemingly available, even if I was in a monogamous relationship and not really interested.) I felt an invisible lid on my head, allowing me to go only so far and no further. I began to feel denied the freedom to hit the metaphorical ball as hard as I could, and, damn it, try to win!
Slowly, with determination and the support of feminist writers, friends and therapy, the dots began to connect and I gradually started to change my behavior. It was difficult for me to give up the status of sex object since I didn’t know what would take its place. But, with effort, I stopped trying so hard to please men. It helped me to ask myself if I would talk or behave the same way with a woman. My goal was to be as equally “real” in the company of either gender.
So, now, am I totally free of MDS—Male Deference Syndrome? Am I as outspoken and confident with men as I am with women? Do I always try to win at Ping-Pong? My answer is a qualified “Yes,” though I know from reflecting on my behavior that I still have to carefully monitor my propensity to defer to men. I still struggle with my tendency to feel less important in their presence. I continue to need to remind myself to be confident and proud of my strengths and abilities.
Will relating freely and equally with men ever feel totally natural to me? These days, at least, I’m certainly hitting the ball over the net—and winning.