The Puzzle of Puzzles / And that we call Being’, by Mary Lécuyer

If we can only speak of feminisms in the plural and if feminists (liberal, Radical, Marxist, socialist, post-structuralist, etc.) have held such widely different and evolving stances/emphases, how should I enter the debate?

Rather than speak generally, I will give my own experience and thoughts as a woman, of being female. Some such fragments.

My first role models were male. I wanted to be like my father/my brother. Later, the boys at school. Later, the writers I read — and, reading Literature at a traditional English university and thus the Canon, these were also predominantly male. Even Virginia Woolf, who was of course introduced with modernism, connected herself with male images in her writing.

                      “My first role models were male. I                        wanted to be like my father/my brother. Later, the boys at school.”

 

I could starve myself as a pubescent 11 year-old becoming a woman, and reverse that transformation. Retain the childlike, the androgynous. I could dress in male clothing. I could, thinking of pen names, experiment with initials that concealed gender, or names that might belong to any gender, or male names. And I experimented writing male protagonists; this, somehow, being my immediate inclination at first. Writing them, but asking myself simultaneously: what am I doing?

The idea of creative genius has traditionally been aligned more readily with the male than the female, with those females emerging nonetheless often having their suicidal/depressive tendencies immediately critically highlighted. I learned ‘why not’ to read Plath (“dangerous”), before I met her poetry. The details of Hemingway’s passing (by his own hand, with a shotgun), on the other hand, I gathered long after I had read much of his work. The human images, too, that we have been provided with within art have been until relatively recently more numerous in heroes than heroines, with weaker, female part-functions.

                     I learned ‘why not’ to read Plath , before I met her poetry. The details of Hemingway’s passing , on the other hand, I gathered long after I had read much of his work.

 

Infinitely many things may be said on the subject of being a woman and infinitely many related questions posed to oneself as a woman performing womanhood, or refusing to, or passing through life. Should I empower myself, embrace my sexuality, emphasise my body, embrace my independence? Should I conceal that body, insisting on the recognition, thus, of my mind? How high is my sex drive? Do I allow myself a blurred image; not conform to expectations of woman as sexual object? Do I wear jeans or skirts? Do I wear make up? Do I shave my legs/vagina/armpits/do away with any other unwanted hair… Do I learn to cook? Do I commit to my education and pursue a career? Do I demand a longer period of maternity leave? Do I demand my male partner take paternity leave of equal length?

A much cited passage from US political scientist Robert Lane, reads:

‘It is too seldom remembered in the American society that working girls and career women, and women who insistently serve the community in volunteer capacities, and women with extracurricular interests of an absorbing kind are often borrowing their time and attention and capacity for relaxed play and love from their children to whom it rightfully belongs. As Kardiner points out, the rise in juvenile delinquency is partly to be attributed to the feminist movement and what it did to the American mother.’ (1959)

Of course we hate this passage, or at least, I imagine a great deal of us do. Of course I want to travel back to 1959 and kick Lane in the balls for his idea of female guilt. But, let us lift from the text the mentioned ‘children’ and consider the womb. We may argue that we only have the liberty to discuss feminism or rather, that the conversation in its contemporary complexity is only possible now due amongst other things to the invention and availability of the Pill. Women taking control of their bodies.

What do we want, now we have this control? Now that men have been addressed by Emma Watson to participate in the debate, now that we have a voice that has been recognised and the term ‘feminism’ entered into the vocabulary of all literate, what do we want? To demand an answer of women is to demand a single feminism and to eliminate the right to choose. A simple response might be put thus: that first the social arena must be such that each individual has equal rights but also, that their difference is recognised and individual needs, met. Then, it must be possible within that arena for the individual not to choose in any singular fashion but rather, to evolve as a person, complex.

                        What do we want, now we have                this control? To demand an answer             of women is to demand a single feminism and to eliminate the right to choose.

But, let me not close there. It is easy and perhaps the most obvious conclusion, to state sweepingly that everyone should simply do what they want, and whilst my argument was a little more developed than that, it was equally general. I hesitate however to make any more precise statement where I may not begin to speak for all women of all backgrounds, ages, economic, religious and cultural circumstances. I cannot speak, truly or accurately, of gender as binary nor speak for all, and I cannot speak in a way representative of the diversity of sexuality. Instead I will end as I began, on a personal note. I will speak for myself.

I live, as Whitman understood it “the puzzle of puzzles / And that we call Being.” My desire is not to be any particular sort of woman but as a human being, to act. I want therefore, the power of agency.  I want as a woman what I want as an individual: not to have images or versions of myself clung to, or imposed from outside, nor to cling myself to those images or versions. I want to take responsibility for my own self, and I do not want consistency demanded of me.

 


Mary Lécuyer resides in London. She is a sometime teacher, student, drop-out and freelance writer.

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