The Dutiful Daughter

I don’t hate men. To the contrary, in general I quite like them. The funny thing is that, when I think about my own particular feminine wound, on balance, more of it has been inflicted by the women in my life than by men.

*** Dutiful Daughter of the Patriarchy collage ***

The phrase “the feminine wound” was coined by Sue Monk Kidd in her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. It is the idea that most of us women have absorbed a belief —- often very subtle, and in some cultures and subcultures, openly blatant —- that women are inherently inferior and are put on this earth to serve men.

I was raised in the 60’s and 70’s, but in the area of my ideas of femininity and male/female roles as a young woman, you would have thought it was still the 50’s. Though feminism was already a movement, I definitely did not consider myself part of it.

When my parents divorced in 1962, and Mom moved back home, trailing her six kids behind her, the laissez-faire supervision of my sweet but vacant mother gave way to my grandmother’s new regime. Our stern, perfectionistic grandmother declared us all “wild Indians” (in the politically incorrect idiom of her time) and set to work, determined to make a lady of me. I was constantly admonished for being too noisy, for running in the house, for touching Grandmother’s pretty things or sitting on the living room furniture. (There was a den we were allowed into, but very little “living” went on in the formal living room — only practicing the baby grand piano.) Grandfather’s arm chair, the only comfortable chair in the house, was sacred, and not to be sat in by anyone but him. Based on his status as breadwinner and head of the house, Grandfather also had his own, private cereal stash of Cheerios and Rice Krispies, which was forbidden to us children, who must make do with Grape Nuts (which had the physics-defying ability to go from tooth-chipping texture to the consistency of porridge in two minutes), gloppy oatmeal, and giant, bowl-sized rectangles of Shredded Wheat.

All this training taught me to be a tightly controlled and self-censored dutiful daughter.

And no expression of our own feelings or willfulness was allowed. “Wipe that look off your face” was the response of authority to any hint of a rebellious facial arrangement, much less a “sassy” word. I remember one time Grandmother rebuked me for breathing a sigh. (It was actually a totally involuntary reaction to oxygen deprivation, as I had a habit of anxiously holding my breath when she berated me.)

Instruction in the art of becoming “ladylike” didn’t stop at home. I had a female teacher one year who took a strong dislike to my long-legged stride, and would stop me every time I passed her in the hall and make me practice taking shorter, mincing steps with her. (Alas, I never really caught on.)

*** The Melody Maids, with Miss Milam holding the bouquet of roses ***

And then there was Melody Maids. Led by the consummate lady, Miss Milam, this girls’ singing group was a vestige of the old South. We dressed up in white satin gowns with off-the-shoulder ruffles and floor length hoop skirts.

I kid you not. Hoop skirts.

But the real purpose of the group was not so much about learning all the words of every Rodgers and Hammerstein musical ever written, it was to school girls and young ladies in charm and etiquette so that they could catch and please a good husband. We learned how to lay a proper table and practiced the intricacies of formal American table manners, such as keeping one hand in our lap at almost all times, while constantly switching the fork and knife between hands. (It was a revelation to me when I later went to Europe and discovered that their table manner rules were much more logical and efficient.) We learned the most attractive and demur ways of sitting and standing, how to let a man open the door for us and help us on with our coat. We practiced polite conversation and how to avoid controversial subjects and make a man feel smart and confident by our admiring deference.

And that was only my childhood. All this training taught me to be a tightly controlled and self-censored dutiful daughter, who in turn was handed over to my husband to become a dutiful wife. But more about that next time.

Next post: The Feminine Wound

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