I am a straight, white, cisgendered woman living in the United States. I wrote this article in hopes that other people might recognize themselves in my experience, including any and all persons who feel othered and oppressed by the current system of patriarchy. My aim is to encourage and empower. I am tired of being scared and of tiptoeing around the perceived expectations of a society that caters to straight, white cis-men.
I was born a real, live human baby with flesh and bones and blood. I was born with a vagina.
As most of the people who were born on this planet in the last several millennia, I was born into a patriarchal system. Very simply put, a patriarchal system is built on the belief that men hold more power and are distinctly more valuable than others, namely women. I won’t get into all the different ways this gets expressed in the system but I will say that this devaluing of women can be experienced as misogyny and that the members of such a system tend to develop their own version of internalized misogyny. I know I did. When I was 4 years old, I started criticizing my own appearance. I have also felt from a young age that I was lacking something, that I needed validation from the outside in order to justify my existence, and in short, that I needed a male presence to confirm that I was beautiful and valuable and thus deserved to take up space.
I want to emphasize that this is my particular flavor of internalized misogyny. It may look different for others. Whatever the flavor of internalized misogyny, it is intended to coerce a certain set of behaviors or attitudes from us in exchange for safety. This safety can be physical safety, financial safety, emotional safety, safety by association with certain people, etc.
Each version of internalized misogyny comes with its own set of rules, “shoulds” or introjects. These introjects are swallowed whole, without being digested and automatically become part of the person’s identity. They become part of the person’s internal operating system.
My internalized operating system of misogyny is constantly trying to answer these questions:
- Is he going to love me?
- Is he going to accept me?
- Does he think I’m beautiful?
- Does he think I’m worth something?
- Will he come back to me?
“He” being whichever man catches my attention at the time. And it is always a man since the patriarchy says that approval from women doesn’t count as much. For me it is often difficult to distinguish between my sexual desire and the need for male validation. They become conflated and the boundaries fuzzy.
I recognize that some of these questions imply a longing for love and connection that is fundamentally human, and at the same time the extent to which my self-worth has been tangled up in them has been debilitating at times. I believe this debilitating aspect to be tinged with misogyny.
My internalized operating system of misogyny is also constantly requiring me to
- Be nice, quiet and polite
- Be attractive according to prescribed standards
- Be sexy
- Be sexual as much and as often as possible but only when a partner can meet me there
- Sexualize myself even when I’m alone so as to stay in practice
- Take responsibility for most if not all of the emotional labor in my relationships
- Get somebody to buy one of those rings for my finger
- Have a strong desire to mother and nurture
- Become a mother to children and be their primary caregiver
- Never eat alone
- Don’t get old
- Be super confident about my body, charm and general worth despite all this but only when there is approval and demand from the male gaze
And I tried to comply with all of these requirements for decades. I tried really, really hard.
As I am writing this, I am experiencing some shame—shame about adding to the misogyny that’s already out there, shame that I haven’t been more effective at dismantling this inside of me, shame that I am struggling in this way, shame that I haven’t resisted more or sooner. I also think that some of this shame is internalized misogyny in and of itself—the idea that I alone am responsible for feeling oppressed and for overcoming this oppression.
On the night of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, after watching the results at a friend's house, I started crying on my walk home. I was crying because I felt the United States had revealed to me what it really thinks of me as a woman, and had shown me that any man, no matter how unreasonable or misguided, had more value than the most qualified woman. Then I realized that this feeling wasn't new to me at all and that I had been living with this feeling of being "less than" all my life, but that I had accepted it as normal, natural and as part of ME. I had thought that this was what life was like because I had never known anything else. But now I saw very clearly that this terrible feeling inside me that I had lived with all of my life was instilled in me from the outside. It was as if I was finally able to see my own internalized misogyny as externalized, and I was able to leave it there: outside of myself.
I imagined myself as a puppet whose strings had been cut off. I was looking at my arms and legs and yes, my vagina and wondering what I could do with them if I was able to move freely. When I shared this image with my dad, he said “But a puppet without strings will collapse.” The symbolism of being told this by my father is not lost on me: Here was a man suggesting to me, albeit indirectly, that a person in my position needed someone with more power to control them. And his comment made me recognize that I had actually started to cut my strings a few years earlier and that I had been in a state of partial collapse since then. A few years ago I had started seeing with clarity the way the patriarchal system was impacting me. And I had decided then that I didn’t want to let it run me anymore. The patriarchal strings had been controlling many of my moves but without them a big part of me was now paralyzed and collapsed. This paralysis mainly affected my sexuality and creativity.
When I imagined myself as a stringless puppet that had collapsed, I was reminded that things had started slowing down for me a few years ago and come to a standstill in certain areas. I had stopped dancing with others. I had stopped having regular sex with others. I had stopped writing. I had stopped doing a lot of things that I used to enjoy, especially those where my appearance and my moves might be evaluated or objectified.
But somehow, even in my stillness, I was still living my life for a man who might love me, for a man who might validate my existence. I still thought that I needed a male presence to save me from the inferiority of my womanhood. I was still waiting for somebody else to make me real. Even after outwardly denouncing the patriarchy, I was still doing that. That’s how the patriarchy continued to live inside of me through my very own brand of internalized misogyny.
But when a declared misogynist won the presidential election, an old concept took on new meaning: I can’t change anybody else but I can change myself. And I needed to value myself in a big way. It was finally clearer than ever to me that my own personhood is more important than approval, validation and protection from a male-dominated system. It was clear to me that I needed to rise up from paralysis. The person that had bought into the illusion that she was a puppet came back to life, without the strings, remembering that she had been born a real, live person with a soul. For a moment, misogyny stopped running me from within and from without, and I started feeling an immense sense of freedom. My detachment from misogyny might not be final and it may never be complete but what I experienced on election night felt like a huge step forward into freedom for me.
I know now without a doubt that the way I had been feeling—both in my enslavement and in my paralysis—was not okay. And it’s not natural. It's the result of living in a broken system. But it doesn't mean that I have to feel broken. I am not a puppet. I am real. I am alive. I am my own person. My body is my own. My life is my own. No strings attached.
The patriarchy may have won this election but I am winning too. Everyday I am moving towards freedom and away from internalized misogyny.
The patriarchy may continue to restrain, silence and abuse me but I am committed to no longer participating in this oppression from within myself.
I am not suggesting that the process of continued detachment of the patriarchal strings is going to be easy or safe or that it’s even possible to be completely free from them. For the latter to happen, the system around you will have to change as well. Otherwise breaking free from these constraints is going to come with a lot of risk, and you are going to need support. So be kind to yourself if you don’t feel safe enough to untangle yourself from any or all of these strings.
And if you are ready and interested in joining me in this commitment, here are five ways to fight the patriarchy today:
1. Notice how and where your own patriarchal strings are attached.
2. Consider resisting what these strings encourage you to think, do or feel.
3. Surround yourself with people who support your liberation and empowerment.
4. Practice self-care because this work is difficult and vulnerable.
5. Remember that you are not alone.
Vera Fleischer MA is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Bay Area Gestalt Institute in San Francisco. For more about Vera and her work, please visit her website at www.verafleischer.com.