“I, too, am ever baffled and enraged by the culture that consistently and completely silences my identity as an ambitious, accomplished woman once I assumed the title “Mrs.” What’s truly astonishing is that this kind of violence is more often than not perpetuated by women themselves.”
-Hyejin Lee, ArtStoryLab
That comment was posted months ago, on one of my first Suddenly Suburban posts. Months later, it still runs through my mind on a regular basis. The more I consider the patriarchy’s influence on my life, the more truth I find in Hyejin’s words. How do I find the patriarchy in my life? There are those societal norms I love to pick apart— beauty standards, household division of labor, that pesky name-change paperwork. Then there are the moments. Those interactions that feel so steeped in patriarchy that it leaves me unsettled for days. Those moments happen with women more often, even, than they do with men.
Why would a woman help maintain a system that makes it more difficult for her to choose for herself? I suspect the answer lies not in sexism, but in casteism. In her new book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson shows how race in America is as stringent a caste system as any in the world. She writes: “Casteism is the investment in keeping the hierarchy as it is in order to maintain your own ranking….” So what happens when we apply this framework to gender? A patriarchal caste system places men above women. Simple. A binary. (Obviously, gender does not exist in a vacuum, and race is a factor. Gender identity and sexual orientation are factors. I’m simplifying for the sake of… my own brain.) Why, then, would women take on this role of enforcing patriarchal structures to keep women in their place? Because they have managed to rise within that system, and they don’t want to lose the status they’ve fought so hard to gain.
The women in my life who have most consistently stepped into this “enforcer” role are older than me— my mother’s age, often older. They’re almost always have more money than me, and— within their circles— more success. Specifically, success in the realm as a wife, and often as a mother. These are women who ‘married well,’ and managed to end up with a comfortable life in an old-fashioned system. They’ve found their way to easy street. They get to sit out on the patio at a crab boil at the country club each July, explaining the rules of the game to the younger generation.
Which, apparently, is me.
Now, it’s probably best that I acknowledge here that I’m not a great advice-taker. I tend to think I know what’s best for me and any opinions to the contrary tend to rankle. I rarely listen, except for the pleasure of getting my back up. I find it difficult to see advice-givers in any favorable light, but for the sake of this thought experiment, I’m going to try. What, I reluctantly ask, is the intention of an advice-giver? Obviously, it’s to prove that they’re right, and I’m wrong, nah-nah-na-boo-boo, and to reinforce the general right-nessof their way of doing things. Or possibly, the intention is— or may sometimes be— to help. People don’t give advice because they want you to fail. When someone tells you to stand up straight, to visit this nail salon, to use this landscaper to fix a flower bed you hadn’t thought of as less-than, it’s an attempt to fix something they think is wrong. An attempt to make it better. It’s all a way of saying, do it my way, and you can end up like me.
I wouldn’t have applied the word violence to a woman passive-aggressively commenting about my not-quite-good-enough wedding band or offering an unsolicited tip about my housekeeping, but it fits. It’s accurate. Because, whatever the intention, whey can lead women to feel like they’ve failed, simply by choosing something other. Whether the intention is to maintain the status quo, to validate their own life choices, or to help me climb up to where they are in this patriarchal system, I don’t know. If you’ve managed to thrive in an inequitable system, I guess I can see how your instinct isn’t to dismantle that system, but to show people how you managed to make it through. The trouble is, following that same path, adhering to the rules of patriarchy, limits where women can go and what we can achieve.