HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kierstyn King’s blog Bridging the Gap. It was originally published on October 21, 2013 with the title, “On Femininity.”
Good Homeschooled Girls are supposed to be perfect.
They’re supposed to be Pollyanna, Elsie Dinsmore, and Jane Bennet. They’re supposed to be completely innocent, unnoticed, modest, graceful, but still look beautiful and unblemished (while not thinking too hard about it).
Good Homeschooled Girls are impossible. All of us are wearing masks, we’re all acting feminine, we’re all hiding ourselves, because none of us are that perfect.
Instead, we are berated — we are told we are never enough, that we’ll never be good enough, that we don’t measure up. We’re told we need to fix our hair and only wear makeup to cover our acne, we’re told we need to look just so — but not focus on it. Our appearance and personalities are shamed, muted. We are turned into china dolls — empty, silent, porcelain — while we die slowly inside.
Our unique identities are stripped — told to be sinful.
Our independence is denied, and to fight for it is to abandon all that we were raised to be.
Our dreams — if they exist outside the chosen path — are cast aside, scoffed at, or allowed under very specific circumstances and made to end upon marriage and/or pregnancy.
And if we abandon this dream, or if we seem to have a particularly hard time measuring up to this standard? We are broken, and there is something wrong with us. To base our worth in who we are instead of when our uterus is used flies in the face of this ideal.
Elsie Dinsmore, Beautiful Girlhood, and Jane Austen are the books that are handed to us as examples of femininity and how we should conduct ourselves. Good Homeschooled Girls are supposed to be quiet, demure, masters in the art of domesticity — never raising their voices or asserting themselves, never doing heavy lifting (unless it’s babies or laundry baskets), always walking with poise, always graceful, always innocent and perfect, never loud.
The first two emphasize the devaluing of self as godly and feminine. I can’t speak to Jane Austen because I’ve never been able to make past the first chapter.
Innocent, all with Hayley Mills and a yellow house in Maine and everything, harmless. Right?
If we leave it at the movie, sure (?). I didn’t know at the time, but the out-dated standards they sing about are things that are invisibly expected of all Good Homeschooled Girls.
The line hide the real you (while it was probably meant to be funny and absurd) was essentially my way of life.
I’ve always been stubborn, strong-willed, and independent. When it worked in my parents favor, this was a good thing. Otherwise it was something to be squelched.
I was never really a tom-boy. Sports bored me and seemed pointless — which, I suppose naturally meant I was a good candidate for the social experiment of super-girly-femininity. I was given books — Elsie Dinsmore, Beautiful Girlhood, Pride and Prejudice or Emma or Northanger Abbey (I don’t remember which ended up in our collection), and etiquette 101 for tweens (I can’t remember the name). I had to learn to be hospitable and submissive, though my parents never (or rarely) used the word feminine.
Submissive and feminine are often synonymous here.
I read them, dutifully, internalizing the expectations (well except Austen. I just couldn’t, but that comes in later). My parents never really talked with me about this. They had a tendency to just give me the books and expect I learn from them. Elsie is less fiction and more a not-so-subtle way of giving young girls impossible and unhealthy expectations and telling them they’re worthless if they can’t master it as Elsie did.
It didn’t take long for me to realize Elsie is an impossible set of standards that I was never going to meet. Though the real line was when she married her father’s best friend. I couldn’t bring myself to do it anymore, arranged marriages to a man who’s old enough to be your father who was creepy as hell to you when you were 8, and you’re too perfect and ideal to even exist or be relatable.
The appeal of the civil war/regency era vanished — because I saw through what they were trying to do and I think it was my own secret form of rebellion, sort of. Good Homeschooled Girls are given these books as guidelines – Beautiful Girlhood literally is a guideline for femininity and social conduct.
As much as I tried to mask my nature, to hide the real me, I was never able to do it well enough to be the pinnacle of femininity that I felt I was supposed to be.
Austen bored me, because I couldn’t get into the obsession with ribbons and dresses and who’s-courting-who. Elsie and Beautiful Girlhood just made me more painfully aware of the inadequacies I was already painfully aware of.
I felt broken. I felt broken because I didn’t live up to this idealized standard of godly womanhood (or girlhood).
I felt broken because I am not delicate, and no amount of silencing myself was going to re-write the core of my DNA. I come from a line of stubborn women, you can’t demure you’re way out of it. Or maybe you can, but I couldn’t. I felt like that meant I was less desirable (the end-goal of being female being married and having kids).
Being born female meant that I had my entire life and code of conduct set in front of me, no personality required. I was required to follow the program. I felt wrong because the very fiber of my being was in direct opposition to it.
It still is.
I remember when I was 11 or 12 trying painfully to write fiction about an edwardian-era girl (instead of my book about the secret society of women who fought in the Revolution via spying because the Quartering Act) who sat in a garden in her frilly dresses and waited for suitors. I think I got maybe 4 paragraphs and then became frustrated because it was impossible for me to even write about that without getting bored.
The idea of being locked up, spending my life in waiting for someone to whisk me away, and then to spend the rest of my life locked up birthing and raising children horrified me. No matter how hard I tried to make it not, or how hard I tried to make it seem…a s ultimate as people were telling me, no matter how hard I tried to convince myself it wasn’t certain death.
I couldn’t escape the feeling of the futility and meaninglessness of my life if all I was allowed to do was wait, and then have kids, and hope that one day they’d grow up to do the great things that I wanted to spend my life doing.
That meant something was wrong with me. I was too independent and god wouldn’t like that.
I remember being told, on several occasions, when I chose to fight for my autonomy, “independence is bad [for a woman], how do you think God feels about that [me being autonomous]?”
I was wrong and broken because I was not, am not, could not be demure, quiet, and feminine. I would never live up to the standards that Good Homeschooled Girls are supposed to live up to – no matter how many masks I put on, or how hard I tried to hide myself.
I may never have been a tom-boy, but I was never the epitome of girlishness either.
Masks could only cover so much. I found ways to let myself be stubborn in subtle and approved ways. I was compliant to a point.
The things is, I know now that those books are poison to my rose-soul, but I still feel the need to embody all that is wispy delicate and feminine.
I still feel broken because I don’t fit the mold when other people project it onto me. Because it is impossible for me. It would require giving up my autonomy and a complete change of taste.
I can’t watch Pride and Prejudice without raging, I generally hate dramas (there are exceptions to this), I’d rather read a good fantasy or scifi novel or comic than a book about amish courtship (don’t get me fucking started), I love a good action movie — Give me robots fighting monsters any day.
None of my most basic preferences are even considered in the world of Godly Womanhood and Good Homeschooled Girls. It is assumed that I LOOOOOOOVE anything by Austen, that cooking, courtship, and children appeal to all of my tastes and interests, that robots and monsters and other-worlds are boring and unnecessary, and action movies are for boys.
When I express otherwise, it’s all but laughed at or ignored.
I watched the Lizzie Bennet Diaries without raging (loved it, even). I know Austen was groundbreaking for her time (a woman author? *gasp*), but I can’t read her – not just because I find it dry, but because of homeschool culture.
Good Homeschooled Girls are supposed to be
looking waiting for their Mr. Darcy (an asshole, really?). Good Homeschooled Girls are supposed to be Jane Bennet (Lizzie is far too independent) which doesn’t make sense because Jane marries Mr. Bingley? I know too many people who are trying to hack the 21st century into a Jane Austen novel and it frightens and sickens me. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were balls and you married the person you danced with? I feel like that can’t be the point of Pride and Prejudice, but you wouldn’t know it in this particular subculture.
^ Don’t start thinking about it too hard, it’ll hurt your brain.
It is the obsession with denying women humanity — autonomy — and worth that pervades this whole idea.
Good Homeschooled Girls have no needs. Good Homeschooled Girls are whatever they are told to be. Good Homeschooled Girls must gracefully and perfectly meet and fulfill contradictory requirements (look perfect, but don’t obsess about it! learn things, but don’t use your brain!), while never having a bad day or a human moment.
Good Homeschooled Girls aren’t allowed to be.
All in the name of femininity.
Kierstyne, Keep fighting for your rights as a full human being. The Republican Party is now the spokesMAN for the Christian Patriarchy movement; its war on women is being waged in the states…keep girls stupid and women barefoot and pregnant. Horrible country we’ve become. As usual it will take angry women and their enlightened male colleagues to pull us back to sanity.
What is ironic is that Jane Austen’s heroines refuse to marry people who are “chosen” by their parents. All of them live outside the box and are incredibly independent and thinking women for their time.
Jane Bennet almost loses everything due to her demure sweetness while Elizabeth sees clearly because of her intelligence and independent thought
Yeah. Apparently Jane Austin was writing parodies of conventional fiction of manners of her time and was (indirectly as Victorians were wont to do) pointing out all the holes and flaws and problems with What Was Expected of Women of the period. Showing why it was such a Bad Idea. On the surface, one thing; but when you dig a little deeper…
I am sorry you were brought up this way. I actually home-school my girls because I want them to use their minds and wills to change the world. I feel like at public school, from very early on, girls are taught that a boy can fulfill all your needs and dreams. The girls in our neighborhood from k on were dressing sexy and trying to get boys attention. Sad, but true. From a young age they seem to be taught your sex appeal is where it is at. I think that girls and women get all kinds of messages about who they should be whether home-schooled Pollyanna’s or public schooled Miley Cypris. I don’t want either for my girls. I want strong, confident girls that love God and love others. That can state their opinions and make change while showing uncommon curtsy and love. That is what I hope to be. I think there can be a danger no matter where you go to school.
Kierstyn, you have just stated why when I was playing the dating game, no matter how desperate I got I would NEVER date a Christianese girl.
This made me laugh, not because it’s funny, but because I absolutely hated the Elsie Dinsmore books. All of my other friends loved them, and chattered up a storm about them. My parents thought I’d love them, too, since I was a voracious reader. I was pretty mellow by nature, plus the culture encouraged that trait, so everyone who asked my opinion on those books or why I wouldn’t read them was shocked when I said I wanted to reach into the book and slap that girl for being so perfect and sappy to the point of being irritating and that I wouldn’t even want to talk to that girl because she was so far in looney land. LOL It was hilarious, because I was the well behaved girl most people thought their daughters should act like. I used my brain, but usually kept my mouth shut. That kind of book irked me even then. Grrrrrr!!!
I feel like I need to defend Jane Austen, because her books were so much more complicated than “be pretty and good and snag a dude.” There’s a reason English majors love them. She doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with Elsie and the rest.
(Tangent: What awful baggage the name Elsie has. It’s my grandma’s name, and she doesn’t like it much. I can’t blame her.)
I understand the need to be the perfect Homeschooled Girl, since that is what my mother wanted me to be. What she got was the black sheep in our homeschooled church, I read everything, which meant the trashy romance novels and had growing dislike of most christian authors, I am a goth and was then dressed mostly in black and had ungodly love of eyeliner and black nail polish (still love the make up end of it). I was a dancer (like my mom). Not the good girl she wanted me to be, she wanted me be like my best friend (who was just as independent as me, but just not that into eyeliner). Thou it was not until later on in my life did she see some of the bad things she was pushing, she herself went back to college and wanted to be a cop. That what our friends at our church, the daughters had no education and no way to care for their families if something was to every happen to their husbands. I had a good head on my shoulders and saw through the crap off other people ( which is known to piss people off) I may have been kicked out of a christian college, but I knew I deserved better and could take care of myself. I know have a BA in English (from a small accredited christian college) and looking into my Masters in English. I am the only girl from that church who is not married (thou have also stopped going there over five years ago) I am also one of to who finished college out of about eight. I know what people in HS world what girls to be like and just scary.
Every word resonated in my soul. Thank you for the beautiful honesty. At 31, I am still trying to leave all that behind and fully become who I am…a stubborn risk-taker.
While I read this, I probably said “God, I fucking LOVE this chick” 10 times. I grew up going to a fundamentalist school and while they weren’t in your face with their misogyny, it was hinted at when they told us that college was for finding husbands and that we should be submissive.
A while ago, I was taking a sociology class and I had gotten to be good friends with the professor who taught the course. She told me about a website that she had found called “Ladies Against Feminism” and how angry it had made her. Out of morbid curiosity, I decided to check it out and it was so twisted and backwards that it made me want to throw up. The women who run this site are nothing but brainless robots who think that women only exist to make babies and serve their husbands. I want to hug you for being able to survive a household like that for this long. I would have gone crazy. I am a video game playing tomboy. Everything that they say women are supposed to do, like sewing, cooking, cleaning, having kids makes me want to gag. I don’t ever want children so motherhood’s out, and all that other chick stuff sucks.
What you said about “hiding the real you” is so true. It is really twisted that if you are born a girl in that world, you’re not allowed to have a personality. You’re not really allowed to have fun. Guys get to do all the cool stuff in that world, and it sucks and it’s back-asswards. It is sickening that any woman would advocate such a life for themselves, their daughters, or anyone else for that matter.
I relate with everything you wrote here except I’ve never read Jane Austen. I can’t read the classics – short attention span. 😀 Only difference is I’m not Christian and I’m not even in the West. My mother was. And where we are, we are such oddities. The East have not caught up with this reject-the-mainstream philosophy. Did us so much damage. Only four years of homeschooling already did my head in. I’m already shy and reserved as is but homeschooling just made me weird and I lost out on learning how to behave normally. I behave like someone with Social Anxiety instead. I know if I could just have my chance I would learn very quickly. Except now I’m stuck in an arranged marriage (to a good guy but my feelings for him are so mild and dull). He’s traditional. He can’t help it. I’m just so mad that I’m made to be so powerless. Now, who wants to help me break out? lol.