Friday, 5 February 2010

Girl Time

I believe strongly that while a woman in the West can get along fine in life without a man, she can't get along without getting along with other women.

This belief will be greeted by cries of woe from those female readers who don't feel comfortable in groups of women. They will say, "But I never know what to talk about with women" and "Girls were mean to me in school" and "I'm a tomboy at heart." Frankly, I think these internalized messages are damaging.

As a child, I believed firmly in the tomboy concept. Tomboys were girls who climbed trees and wanted to solve mysteries and looked down on girls who cried when they skinned their knees and were interested in clothes. The tomboy was, in short, someone who had internalized sexist messages about women, rightly rejected them, but wrongly sneered at girls who seemed to fit girly stereotypes. Personally, I found the idea of the Superior Tomboy comforting because I was not popular at all with the girls in elementary school, girls who seemed to fit the girly stereotypes, girls who sneered at my clothes. High school, where I found girls who shared my intellectual interests, was a relief.

When I got my B.A. and a gap-year job as a receptionist, I was horrified by female life in the office. Women in the office talked about babies, husbands, childbirth and recipes. I turned up my nose at this low-brow chat and longed for my M.A. year and intellectual conversation.

But years later, when I was working at another receptionist job, and found myself "down among the women" again, something in me had changed, melted, disappeared. In the file room, floors away from the manager, we laboured away, talking of babies, husbands, childbirth, recipes, diets, horoscopes, and celebrities.

My co-workers had not been to university, but they had very rich emotional lives. Most were also good at their jobs; one was a genius at getting mentally ill people off their meds in the reception room to calm down. The recipes were delicious, and the horoscopes were good for a laugh. I had a tedious job, and it would have been a lot more tedious were it not for these women.

The only woman who was really out of things was a doleful woman from India who talked only of the servants she used to have and who refused, categorically, to carry boxes. She obviously thought she was too good to carry boxes, and from an Indian point of view, as I explained to my co-workers, she was, but this cut no ice with them. They thought she was a snob, and that was that. If I had bored on about my university career, I would have been labelled a snob, and very rightly, too.

I learned a lot from these women that came in very useful when I began my M.Div. Hitherto, I had always gotten along with "girls like me" (i.e. brainy, ambitious and roughly my age). But a year spent with older, less educated women made me appreciate other kinds of women and their gifts. At theology school, I met elderly nuns who could barely spell but had lived lives of so much spiritual richness and adventure, they made my jaw drop. I met nurses who confessed their awe of theological study, even as they nailed sophisticated concepts with startling flashes of insight. I made friends with younger women, too, and admired the ones who were pastoral geniuses as much as the ones who were prize-winning scholars.

When I began my Ph.D. at a place where pastoral studies were firmly divorced from the rest of theology, I missed the pastoral geniuses with my whole heart. I was one of a group of hardworking, steely-minded, intellectual, unmarried, (very probably) frightened women, and it was a year before I made a single female friend. And, believe me, I tried.*

Women breaking into male-dominated fields, like Catholic theology and physics or the academy at all, are often terrified of looking like airheads. We often shut off and reject our softer side, the fun things, the frilly things we don't want our male colleagues to know we care about. I once joked about reading Cosmopolitan in the student lounge; I never dared. And for all I know, this is wise. Career counsellors warn women not to bring baking to the office, not to be the "mom". But I think it can hurt a woman to be too dismissive of those things that most women I have met find interesting: the baby chat, the men chat, the recipes, the fashion mags, the celebrity gossip. These things may not be very important in themselves--the flotsam and jetsam of cultural life--but they create a social glue between women.

What does it afford a woman, if she should have a stellar education, if she cannot look down at a crowded cocktail party and say to the stranger before her, "You know, I really love your shoes"?

*Some points I am duty-bound to make:

1. My classmates were all very nice.
2. Other foreigners did very well there and seemed to fit right in.
3. I may have frightened them with the vehemence of my classroom arguments; I am certain I unnerved some professors.
4. I may have annoyed some by presuming that Catholic PhD students don't regularly commit sins as serious as premarital sexual intercourse or, if they do, that they are sorry. I have a very funny story about that. Well, it's funny NOW.
5. It was the wrong place at the wrong time.


Anonymous said...

I am one of the women guilty of saying that she feels uncomfortable with other women. Yet in my case, it wasn't uneducated women with whom I felt uncomfortable, or even frivolous but educated ones. It was those who were my social and intellectual peers, ambitious, bossy, omni-competent, and demanding.

A large part of the reason for my discomfort was that I did not feel like their peer; nor did they treat me like one, especially when I was younger. I remember my first experience of dorm life: kindly but condescending older girls who smilingly told me, for example, that it was all right if I wasn't "ready" to have a sexual relationship yet, implying that all that was required was maturity. Of course, compared to them, I was immature. Dreamy, unfocussed, and with very little Catholic teaching to support my principles, I was young for my age. They made it clear that they would never fully accept me as an equal until I gave in on this point.

I won't say more about that, except that I learned the hard way to distrust such advice from women. I found that I could only be friends with women who disagreed with me about basic issues if I made sure that I didn't need their support. I know other women who had similar experiences, and they too ended up with a certain distrust of their own sex. It's from such women that I now draw my female friends.


healthily sanguine said...

Ok, I am going to say something that is probably going to be a rant, and it might only tangentially relate to what you're talking about in this post, but I think it DOES relate. I will preface it by saying that I completely agree with you about the need for quality girl time. I live in a house with 4 other girls, who are my dearest friends, and we have a wonderful, very feminine community. Also, my wider group of girl friends (with one exception) all have B.A. degrees.

All this said, I recently attended a party in which I did not appreciate my own sex. This party was a birthday party for one of my girl friends, visiting from a long distance; I'll call her Jessica. Jessica's closest friends are a married couple with whom I'm also friends.

This married couple arranged a party at their house, where guys and girls, some single, some married, all mingled for a bit until, quite naturally, the party separated with men on one side of the room and women on the other. To my chagrin, the conversation turned almost exclusively to the nitty gritty of babies, bassinets, parenting, diapers, post-pregnancy weight, etc.--all very natural since three of the ladies in attendance had small children and one was expecting.

Why did this talk cause such chagrin in my little heart, you ask? It's not because I mind baby talk in general--in fact, this marked the first time I ever experienced annoyance at this common feminine conversation topic. The reason I did not approve of the conversation, and thought it went on much too long, really had to do with the birthday girl. As everyone there was aware (and as I expected the women would be more sensitive of), my friend Jessica went through a very painful breaking off of an engagement and eventual breakup toward the latter part of last year. She is having a hard time in general, not least of which because she lives thousands of miles away from her closest friends. I wanted so much to talk to her about life, the single life, what her pursuits were, even something intellectual--but no! There was no room to get a word in edgewise between morning sickness and nesting. I might be dramatizing the whole situation--for all I know, Jessica didn't mind at all--but I was not happy.

So, if there's a point in all this, it's that yes, feminine chatter is great. However, one of the most remarkable gifts of being feminine is the ability to be sensitive towards others' feelings and to direct conversations (especially social event conversations) down a smooth path for everyone. We can all revel in being women without necessarily focusing on the marriage/babies aspect, EVEN IF that's what is foremost in the minds of some. My two cents. :)

Seraphic said...

Clio, I understand. Sweet-faced bullying is still bullying. I had to put up with a lot of female bullying in school. Thank goodness for A) books and B) girls in high school who weren't allowed to (or simply didn't) have boyfriends.

Healthily Sanguine, I agree that there can be TOO MUCH baby talk. After all, not all women have babies. It is not a female universal.

I remember feeling utter claustrophobia at a baby shower full of young pregnant women, young mothers, their mothers and their babies. I think I was close to hyperventilating. Fortunately, there was another Single, childless woman there, and we were able to escape into another room for talk before the dreaded GAMES. We talked, I seem to recall, about our Single Girl world travels.

So I can see why you felt for your friend--even though your friend might not have minded. Maybe you minded for you, too, but you don't want to admit to yourself that you minded for you, so you told yourself you minded for your friend. But, hey, I would have totally minded, unless I knew all the girls really well. I'm childless, too.

ANYWAY, the thing to do in such situations is to get the childless friend out of the room on some pretext (your bra broke?) and say, "I had to get out of there. I feel out of my depth with all this baby talk." And the babyless friend may very well thank you.

I guess the point of my piece is to be able to enjoy lowest common denominator female chat when it's the only thing everyone has in common. I'd never suggest you stop talking about philosophy, art, career, architecture and all the lovely, lovely food for the mind. And there's no harm injecting a little of that into a super-girly conversation.

The one thing I'll add is that young mothers are like prisoners, and when they meet other young mothers, they are so relieved to talk to other grownups that they forget that other women in the room aren't mothers. And possibly they don't care, for they are so STARVED for adult fellowship, they feel they deserve to talk about nothing but babies, nursing, sleepers, car seats.

In such a situation, I say, leave the mothers to their enjoyment, scoop up the childless women and find strong drink.

Seraphic said...

P.S. Ranting is good. Single woman ranting is encouraged on this blog. It is a Single woman safe place; just keep in mind some Single men read it too. But rant away!

Anonymous said...

I didn't make clear in my earlier comment that my bad experience of, not bullying exactly, but female solidarity and consensus-seeking, happened at university, not in high school. Most young women are allowed to have boyfriends by the time they reach university age.

Whatever their age is, though, the fact remains that women tend to seek consensus when in groups. If you are known to disagree with the group consensus, you may still be welcome, but you had best keep your opinions to yourself. I can't count the number of women who have accused me of being argumentative when I thought I was only discussing an issue.

I don't doubt that it was partly my fault. For one thing, I was so socially awkward that my own brother has teased me about suffering from Asperger's syndrome back then. For another, as I got older I did learn how to manage myself better in groups of women, and so learned that it was possible to do so without making serious moral compromises. For a few years, though, when in groups of women I was silent when I ought to have spoken, and laughed when I ought to have been silent, to paraphrase Screwtape. I needed female support, and could find it only by being complaisant.


Seraphic said...

Sorry, Clio, for some reason when you wrote of "dorm life" and the older girls' talk of maturity, I thought you were writing about private school.

Well, I think everyone who reads here can sympathize with a Catholic First Year's (or freshman's) culture shock at university where "everybody" seems "to be doing it" That is one reason why Catholic First Years flock to the Newman, or the Cath Soc, or Catholic chaplaincy or anywhere they can find likeminded men and women.

I was fortunate that at my Catholic college, the women's residences were guarded either by dragon-like nuns in mufti or by men hired by the dragon-like nuns in mufti. All visitors had to be signed in and out, and men always had to be accompanied everywhere in the dorm by a resident. Overnight male visitors were strictly forbidden, and this interdict continues today.

So even though the rest of the university looked to poor me like the decline of the Roman Empire, my college held up the value of female (at very least) chastity as something to be guarded.

Kate P said...

First off, I've really enjoyed the last two posts especially, Seraphic.

One thing that made me really happy about landing full-time work this past school year was definitely that there are some lovely women I work with every day on my library staff, not to mention several women faculty who are very friendly with those of us in the library. It's not always easy because 99% of them are older than I am (and one of the 1% got engaged a few weeks ago), but it's really refreshing that I don't see a lot of the "mean girls" behavior that I did in my past corporate jobs.

Seraphic said...

Yarg! The "mean girls" stuff is the flip side of life "down among the women." Some women never get past 14 year old Mean Teen Queen drama, and gang up on weaker women, even into their 50s! These women are to be avoided at all costs, and if you find yourself amongst them in some office job (especially as a temp), you might as well quit--and tell your agency or supervisor why on your way out.

I have a friend who found herself in the same office as a girl who bullied her in high school, and the bully kept on bullying! I couldn't believe it--well, yes, I could because I have witnessed grown women acting this way.

Thanks, Kate P for comment and compliment!

aussie girl in australia said...

Dear Seraphic

I am one of those who struggles with the company of women.
I grew up in a house of all women (apart from Dad) but yet I struggle with other women outside my family.
At primary school I got bullied. At high school I made a very close friend and we have stayed close ever since. A couple of other close girl friends ultimately ended up disappointing or betraying me.

I also struggle with the girl thing of everyone needing to agree. I got pressured into all sorts of things when I was young and never find this kind of pressure from men. Or I find them easier to stand up to.
I really enjoy the company of men and the conversations we have. Also their loyalty is often greater than that of women (apart from my sisters and mother).

I'm sure this must make me a bad person or something but this is just my experience. Maybe things will change when I am in my thirties?

Seraphic said...

Of course it doesn't make you a bad person. It might make you a lonely person, unless you enjoy very much being "one of the boys."

Consensus among women about serious moral issues is very difficult these days. However, the trick is to keep conversation from drifting into such deep waters.

In a group of women at a social or work event, keep it light. There are non-controversial topics on which women can agree or mildly disagree without too much flak. One such topic is chick-lit. Another is women-and-food. Another is where-is-Mister-Right. And I know that sometimes it is as difficult to make a new woman friend as it is to get a boyfriend. Sometimes, it's a numbers game!

In conversation with a woman stranger, ask her about her work or study, and praise whatever about it seems to be meritorious or particularly interesting to you. Women don't talk just to trade information or ideas but to create social bonds. Find something to agree about, and agree. This is not a betrayal of your university education; it is a social grace.

With practise, getting along with women will indeed get easier as you grow older.

Kate P said...

I agree--someone helped me out with my shyness by suggesting I just ask a little question. People like to talk about themselves (I don't mean in a narcisscistic way), and they often will ask a question back.

Aussiegirl etc said...

Chic-lit not such a good topic as I just can't stand the genre! I hope it improves as I get older. I do like the company of women a decade older than me. What is wrong with male friends though?