HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Ella” is a pseudonym.
On the surface, patriarchy and sexism did not impact my childhood as drastically as many of my homeschooled peers.
My parents encouraged higher education and my mother believed that women should be able to support themselves. I was allowed to drive, vote, and even get a job the summer before I went to college. It wasn’t until later, looking back, that I began to see the way sexism had influenced our home and negatively impacted me.
My early homeschooling years were focused on unit studies, outside play, and childhood fun. My siblings and I have many happy memories of our childhood and in many ways, I would love to replicate them for my own children. It wasn’t until I was a pre-teen that other influences began to change our home life. We started receiving magazines from Above Rubies, Vision Forum, and other religious ministries that cast a vision for a happy home based on Biblical principles.
About this time, my mother discovered my father’s hidden pornography addiction and in the wake of that pain and how it impacted her marriage, this vision became a catalyst for everything changing.
I was 12 when I was informed that we would not be wearing pants anymore, because feminism blurred gender lines and spoiled the femininity God wanted us to have as women. Similarly, I learned that women have a duty to protect the men in their lives by covering their bodies and hiding any curves. I remember my mother discussing her appreciation for a large busted family friend who was “aware of herself” and wore loose, draping clothes that helped hide her figure. My brothers were not allowed to go to the mall and any family outings to the park or lake involved the awkward process of looking around for any immodest women and leaving if any were spotted. I quit swimming because being required to wear a t-shirt over my swimsuit was too embarrassing.
Puberty was a messy process of self-loathing for me and the rest of my teen years were spent with a vicious, fixated anger directed at family clothing rules. I was convinced that our outdated dresses and skirts were the reason I had almost no friends and no community.
My self-esteem plummeted and I felt utterly alone much of the time.
Occasionally I would seek to push the limits and shop for what I perceived as attractive or fashionable clothing, but usually I was directed to find other options. I remember being 16 and standing in front of the mirror with a slightly loose graphic tee, feeling a strange sense of attractiveness because I could see some curves of my body, only to be told it was inappropriate. I felt shattered.
Today, a decade later, I can look back with a degree of objectivity and see the irony of my mother responding to the way sexism had hurt her with a sexist worldview as the solution. I feel for her. She had been treated as an unworthy sexual object instead of a valuable human being and because she felt powerless to change her spouse, she focused on controlling our environment instead. Unintentionally, she took the very sexism that had hurt her and made it an integral part of our lives.
We began to see men as fragile creatures who had to be protected from their own sex drives and whose egos needed coddling to feel masculine.
Women were to publicly hide their sexuality and privately feed their husband’s sexual desires in the home to help them avoid worldly temptation. They were to “influence” the men in their lives to make proper decisions, while simultaneously submitting to their leadership. Feminism was about selfish disregard for others while true womanhood served others. At the time, it all fit together in my mind. I retaliated inwardly to the external rules of modesty, but I didn’t recognize the underlying beliefs I had developed about myself as a woman.
When I left home for college, the exhilaration was incredible. I bought my first pair of jeans. I thought (with a guilty thrill) that they were very tight, although in retrospect they were at least 2 sizes too big! I went to Aeropostale in mid 2000s fashion and re-created my wardrobe.
I thought I had left patriarchy and modesty behind me, but I didn’t realize how subtly sexist philosophies had ingrained themselves into my mind.
I turned down the first guy who asked me out because it was “dangerous” to go get dinner with him. I saw myself as vulnerable rather than self-sufficient. What if he took advantage of me? Instead, I began a serious relationship with him because I needed to “protect my heart” so I wouldn’t become damaged goods.
I almost broke off our relationship when he told me he had looked at pornography in high school, because I thought it meant he was damaged goods (to the contrary, he has been nothing but respectful and valuing of me and my body). I became engaged at only 19 even though I felt too young and unsure of myself, because I was afraid to be alone. I didn’t know how to be confident about myself as a person.
I cancelled my application to graduate school when I became pregnant, because it was wrong to continue a career when I was going to have a family (thankfully my husband supported my journey back to graduate school several years later). It took me a long to become aware of how intertwined my views about gender were with my life choices.
These days I am casting a new vision for myself.
Being a successful, happy woman looks different for every person. I can be strong and vulnerable at the same time. My body is not the property of those around me, to be either hidden to protect them or displayed to gratify them. It is mine. I can use my voice. I can have passionate opinions and speak strongly without fearing that I am dominating men.
My children are a beautiful part of my life and dreaming about my future when they are gone doesn’t make me love them any less. I can be my own person and have my own passions and interests, even if my husband doesn’t share them. We can disagree on many things and still be united as a couple. Conflict solving should involve both of us and a “trump card” based on gender is an unhealthy way to manage it. And probably most of all, it is important to learn to know myself for who I am and express that rather than reflecting the expectations of those around me.
I am still sifting through remnants of sexist philosophy and figuring out what needs to be tossed out.
I imagine it will be a lifelong process, as I mature and life experiences change me. I am excited for what the future holds and proud of the opportunity to raise a daughter who will stand with me against patriarchy in our society rather than facing it at home.