I am a feminist but I was not always a feminist. When I was younger, I thought that feminism meant anger and demands and, well, some downright “unfeminine” behaviour. And I have always really liked being feminine – being a girl. I loved pink and purple and dresses and dolls. I wanted to be a mom. If I thought about it at all, I thought that the work of feminism was done. I thought that all of the work was done. But I think now that maybe I was wrong.
I’m mostly grown up now. I own a karate school and I spend my days in a karate gi, teaching self defense, martial arts and fighting skills to children and adults. I must admit that my students are sometimes surprised to hear that I would be happy if I could dress in a ball gown 7 days a week.
When I think about what I learned as a little girl and as a teenager and as a young woman about being a girl I think about ‘politeness’. I was taught that girls should smile and stand up straight, that they should not roughhouse or fight and that good girls put others’ needs before their own. As I grew up and got a little older, I learned that ‘pretty’ tops smarts and that boys like girls who (appear to) need their help. I think that many girls and women are fed this same set of social dogmas. We are trained to be polite and trained to internalize things and to control ourselves.
These are some of the “rules” for being feminine. In some situations, if we break those rules there can be serious consequences for us but, no matter what, even if we are raped or killed for our transgressions, we are incorrectly taught that those consequences are our own fault.
The side effects of politeness can be dangerous for girls and women. For example, in the case of sexual assault, most victims are assaulted by someone they know. When I repeat this fact, most of the women and men that I teach immediately think of date rape or domestic violence. Those are examples of assault by a known attacker but there are others. Many victims of sexual assault are groomed carefully by people in positions of power over them: teachers, coaches, priests, bosses, scout leaders, etc. This grooming begins with a testing phase that takes advantage of our manners and our politeness.
He says, “nice pants”. Our insides squirm. We feel the implication more than hear it but we don’t speak up. What if I’m wrong? What if he’s trying to pay me a compliment? What if I offend him and I get fired/kicked off the team/given a bad grade? So the boundary is breached, we remain polite (silent) and the door is open for the next advancement. The comments continue and things progress; too long hugs, excuses to get us alone. And each time, with each boundary broken, we continue to be polite (silent) in spite of our continuing discomfort. If the situation progresses to sexual assault, we immediately begin the internal dialogue: “why didn’t I do something sooner?”, “no one will believe me”, “I knew it”. We take on the blame and walk around with the secret, remaining polite.
We should all, women and men, girls and boys, treat each other with respect and kindness. A certain amount of ‘politeness’ is a great help to daily interactions. We should all be polite, but not so polite that we can’t fight back when our boundaries are being pushed, when our instincts are telling us that something is wrong. Humans are the only animals that don’t teach their females to fight. Humans are the only animals that can disregard their instincts. Some social “norms” need changing. We should all be feminists. The work is not done.