Feeling Like A Girl: Femininity After Homeschooling, By Kay Fabe

Image source: http://kerbear88.deviantart.com/art/Femininity-207270064
Image source: http://kerbear88.deviantart.com/art/Femininity-207270064

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Kay Fabe’s blog Post-Fundamentalist Fashion. It was originally published on May 31, 2014.

Pearl’s story the other day really resonated with me, and I know I’m not alone. I’m sure lots of you have had the same experience I had: after years of getting told that the “girly” outfits you wanted to wear were “immodest,” “revealing,” and “inappropriate”, you just gave up and went butch, with lots of baggy boy shorts and shapeless sweatsuits. (Which is fine if that’s what you’re into – but I know that look wasn’t me.) Wireless cloth bras, hand-me-down underwear and a ban on perfume, makeup and hair products probably played a part in your systematic de-feminization. Eventually – if your experience was like mine – you became so disconnected from your body that you hardly felt like a person anymore, let alone a girl. And that’s a tragedy.

It took some cataclysmic life events – a failed courtship, starting a business, moving out of my parents’ house and eventually out of state, and meeting a supportive partner – to give me some distance and perspective on my homeschool years. Along the way, by trial and error, I’ve slowly been figuring out how to become a girl again. At 26, I finally feel more at home in my skin. Here are some of the things that helped me – maybe they’ll help somebody else, too.

Read drag websites. I’m not even kidding. They’re full of helpful information on how to walk, talk, dress and act in order to “pass” as a female. Granted, some of it’s a little over the top – skip their make-up tips, for instance. But I remember how astonished I was when I discovered that somebody had actually written reams of detailed instructions for presenting as a lady. It felt like Christmas.

Reclaim the skirt. It took me the longest time to figure out that dresses are not a badge of shame! Big jean jumpers and long khaki skirts are not the only option. Skirts are supposed to make you feel pretty and sexy, and if they’re not doing that, then they’re not doing their job. Swishy maxi dresses, cute cocktail dresses and tailored pencil skirts are incredibly fun to wear. So are heels. They are designed to make your legs longer and that’s a GOOD thing!

Have some little signature “girly” thing that you do or wear all the time. Or more than one! For me, it was getting my ears pierced and always wearing earrings. Having a little pair of sparkly studs in your ears all the time really does make you feel more feminine. I gradually added in other things and now I always have on earrings, toenail polish, a silver ankle bracelet and a little bit of perfume. It makes me feel pretty.

Practice showing a different bit of skin at a time. I remember the first time I tried to walk outside my apartment in shorts and a tank top, “cold turkey.” Bad idea  – I felt completely naked. After a while, I figured out that I could ease into it if I only uncovered one area at a time. If I had on shorts, I wore a big, loose t-shirt. I paired tank tops with long cargo shorts or capris. Eventually, I just got used to having various parts of me out in the sunshine and I didn’t mind anymore. (Shocker – nobody ogled me and drooled with lust, either.)

Go and get an actual bra fitting at Victoria’s Secret. And then get some lovely lingerie that fits. I am ashamed to say that I could not actually make myself do this until I was 25 years old. They’re totally nice. All you do is lift your arms, and they run a tape around your bust and tell you what size you are, and then give you some sample bras to go try on in the fitting room. It’s not embarrassing at all… nothing like bra shopping for “appropriate” underwear with your mother. (P.S.: You may be surprised by your bra size! For years and years, I assumed I was an A or a B cup, and figured bras were supposed to squash me in and feel uncomfortable. Guess what? I’m a D.)

Have bottles of nice stuff in your shower, and use them. I wish someone had told me that I needed to put SHAMPOO and CONDITIONER in my hair, and use SHOWER GEL and BODY BUTTER on the rest of me. (When I was a kid, we used this weird organic shampoo/soap called “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap” where every square inch of the label was covered with manic stream-of-consciousness meanderings in TINY print. It was an entertaining reading experience but as far as soap went, it wasn’t awesome.) The Warm Vanilla Sugar stuff from Bath and Body Works is awesome, though. So is the Moonlight Path (lavender) and the Japanese Cherry Blossom.

Drink wine in the bathtub and listen to jazz. It completely makes you feel like a movie star.

Dance all by yourself. Put on your favorite music and move with it. Learn to feel the evil jungle beat that kills all the plants. Feel how your body is all connected together, how it’s a physical, material being, how it moves through space, how it responds so beautifully to touch and sound. You are designed to be a beautiful, corporeal person, not a disconnected intelligence trapped in a useless body.

That’s really the most important thing: You are beautiful. You just need to know it, and feel it, and own it.

The Ideal Homeschool Girl

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 8.55.03 PM

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Faith Beauchemin’s blog Roses and Revolutionaries. It was originally published on January 29, 2014.

There’s a sick little article floating around the homeschool/ex-homeschool blogosphere right now.  It’s basically one college professor’s gross fetish fantasy about “homeschool girls” (meaning, his formerly homeschooled students who are actually presumably grown women).  He likes them so much because they’re so feminine (“just like a Jane Austen character,” he says repeatedly, leading me to wonder how drastically this English professor has misread Austen and other groundbreaking female writers) and not like those ugly mean selfish feminists.

My most creepy-crawly feeling while reading the article came from the total objectification and dehumanization of women who have been homeschooled.

Mr. Markos, you revel in interactions with homeschooled women because homeschooled women were brought up specifically to please men like you. What goes on behind the scenes to craft that “glorious and unashamed femininity”?  You see the finished product, a woman poured into the mold of a conservative Victorian ideal and seemingly content there (“enthusiastic”, you say, and I am trying to remember any of the legions of homeschool girls I’ve ever known who was truly enthusiastic about performing any part of traditional femininity that was not already rooted in her own personality).  You don’t see how many girls are brainwashed, shamed, abused on a daily basis before they are finally broken down to the point where they can be thus remade.

You would admire my sewing skills, but you would never know about that winter day when me and all my homeschool girl friends were stuck inside learning to quilt while our brothers played in the snow.  You wouldn’t know how badly I longed to be outside, sledding and throwing snowballs, instead of inside learning the traditional feminine arts.

Performing traditional Victorian femininity can be fun….
Performing traditional Victorian femininity can be fun….

You might be impressed that I can draw, until you learned that most of my drawing was used to illustrate a fantasy universe that was populated by women having adventures, going on quests, fighting battles side by side with men.  Or used to illustrate my Star Wars fanfic, where I piloted a space ship and spied for the Rebels.  Or used to design dresses not to be sewn by me, but as part of a secret dream to move to New York City and be a fashion designer.

You’d have praised my “razor-sharp wit” when it was parroting Ann Coulter or whatever I’d learned at church that week, but now that I use it to eviscerate folks like you, it is “marred and twisted by the politics of identity and victimization.”  (And see here you set yourself up to win against all critics, because if I argue that our original identities, pre-brainwashing, are not like the “femininity” you describe, I am now playing the victim card and am therefore “unfeminine” and undeserving of your time).

You might not know, Mr. Markos, anything real about these formerly homeschooled women you interact with.  

Because do you know what we learn above all?  We learn to hide.  

We learn that our real selves are not acceptable.  Anything within us that does not fit into the mold doesn’t necessarily go away, we just have learned not to show it to authority figures or, many times, to potential suitors.  Those in authority over us are the ones enforcing the “ideal girl” model, so the quickest way to avoid punishment and shaming is to perform femininity as we have been taught to.  Because we aren’t taught to be feminine.  Where someone falls on or off the gender spectrum is, I believe, something that is found on one’s own, inside, not something that is taught (gender does not really make sense in my head, but I think that’s probably a side effect of growing up with such strict gender roles).  A person can learn to perform gender traits that have no real resonance with who they are.

And wouldn’t you?  If you were constantly under threat, continually told that god, your parents, and your future husband (who is The Most Important Person You’ll Ever Meet) would all hate you and shun you and turn up their noses in disgust at you if you didn’t fit this particular mold, wouldn’t you force yourself to fit it?  If you were constantly told that “this is what a good woman is,” by everyone around you, wouldn’t you think that you were the problem, that you were a thing to be fixed?

You don’t know these “homeschool girls” you’re talking about, Mr. Markos.  

You don’t know the actual story of their lives, possibly because the real world of homeschool women is kept very segregated from the world of men.  And you don’t know how many of them will join me and my friends in the feminist camp before too long.

…but then, swinging on a vine across a chasm to escape Stormtroopers is pretty fun too.
…but then, swinging on a vine across a chasm to escape Stormtroopers is pretty fun too.

So stop fetishizing my pain.  

It is distressing to see you and so many other Christian men drooling over a neo-Victorian mold of “femininity” (that you label it “Austen-esque” just adds insult to injury).  Drooling selfishly over the idea of a woman whose only purpose in life is to keep your home and to keep you happy.  Drooling over the thought of a woman whose only thought is to please and serve you and maybe oh-ha-ha-ha take you down a peg or two if you are being too “bombastic” but only because she respects you so much.

Women who fit the classic “feminine” mold aren’t less human than women who don’t.  I have never, and will never, think so.  But you’re not saying your personal romantic/sexual preference is women who are quietly intelligent and skilled in the arts.  Many people have romantic/sexual preferences, and that’s completely acceptable.  What’s not acceptable is generalizing your personal and oh-so-weirdly-specific preference and turning it into what everyone born with a particular genital configuration “should be.”  You’re saying that all women, in order to be true women, in order to be truly “feminine” (feminists, you say, are more “masculine” than even you! *gasp*) have to be like this.  And you’re looking at homeschooled women, who were brought up in a culture that thinks like you do, and praising them for being, as you think, monolithically “feminine.”  That perception is not true, not fair to homeschooled women, and insofar as it does bear resemblance to reality, is because of cultural pressures and religious threats, not because of any innate “feminine” qualities.

I’ve seen too many women (and too many people who were assigned female at birth but, surprise, aren’t female, because yes Mr. Markos gender is not the same thing as what you consider biological sex, and conflating the two as you do causes untold damage), myself, my friends, my sister, unspeakably harmed and psychologically and physically abused all for the sake of fitting into that false ideal mold.  I’ve seen peoples’ vibrant personalities little by little give way, squashed into the mold.  I’ve seen other friends who weren’t brought up this way torture themselves, briefly, to go from independent woman to some Christian boy’s submissive ideal, and fortunately escape before any lasting harm was done.

Any man who marries a woman because she fits the “ideal homeschool girl” mold is only perpetuating oppression.  And maybe that’s why they all think feminists are “mean”:

Because we’ll never stop calling you out on this.

Mr. Markos, you can go home and rub one out to Lizzy Bennett as many times as you want, but please stop reducing real human beings to nonconsensual players in your little fetish game.

False Dichotomies: “Homeschooled Girls vs. Feminists”

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 8.36.12 PM

Samantha Field blogs at Defeating the Dragons. This piece was originally published on her own blog on December 18, 2013, and is reprinted with her permission.

So, Robert Knight, an extremely conservative writer for Townhall and whose articles occasionally appear in publications like the Washington Times, wrote an article last Tuesday called “Homeschooled Girls vs. Feminists.” Since the article spends most of its time talking about grown women, I have to admit to some mild annoyance to the persistent infantilization of women in conservative circles.

College-aged females are women, thank you.

My real problem with his article, however, is the false dichotomy he frames in the title and then argues in the piece itself. Just a quick review: a false dichotomy, also known as the false dilemma, is an attempt to reduce a complex, nuanced argument down to two separate, extreme positions. This type of argument is probably more familiar to people as “black and white thinking.” Knight’s article is an excellent example of how fundamentalists approach almost any issue– it’s us against them. Good, godly, homeschooled “girls” (grr) verses those big, bad, bra-burning, man-hating feminists.

First of all, I’m a homeschooled graduate and a feminist. My existence flies in the face of Knight’s argument. Also, there has not been any backlash against homeschooling led by feminists. If a feminist figure says anything at all, it’s to comment on the sexist attitude in religious homeschooling culture. Also, the feminist who said that, Laura Collins Lyster-Mensh, homeschooled her children and published that article in Home Education Magazine. The only people who really seem to be saying that feminists oppose homeschooling are homeschoolers. In fact, there are many feminists who choose to homeschool– women like Sara Schmidt. And Suki Wessling.

But it’s not an uncommon reaction for homeschooling advocates to point at people like me who want to see common-sense policies introduced and start shouting “you’re all a bunch of feminists!”

See Robert Knight, and “Overhere” (who was commenting on a secular homeschooling forum). In these sorts of discussions, feminists get painted inaccurately, and motivations are attributed to us that fall right in line with the anti-feminist rhetoric that’s existed for decades. We’re just selfish. We think homeschooling means signing ourselves into a “concentration camp” (which, granted, that comparison comes from The Feminine Mystique…).

Which is, le sigh, not true.

But, I’d like to address how Knight sets up this dichotomy in his article. He’s responding to an article I can’t read, “Feminism’s Worst Nightmare: Educated Women,” by Lou Markos for The City (published by Houston Baptist University), but giving the somewhat paranoid nature of most of his writing, I’m going to assume that this essay is pretty typical fare, and probably falls inside CBMW and CWA -type arguments, which Knight seems to share.

Knight shares Markos’ presentation of the “homeschooled girl”:

They possess a razor-sharp wit with which they can cut pretentious people (especially males) down to size, but they rarely use this skill, and only when they are sorely provoked …

They have a firm knowledge of the Bible, but they (unlike my biblically-literate male students) don’t engage in forensic debates over minor theological points of controversy; they will, however, step in if the boys get too contentious or triumphalist …

Home-schooled girls have wonderfully synthetic and creative minds that make connections across disciplines … they are gifted in the arts; almost all of them can sing and most play instruments and draw. …

They have not bought in to the lies of our modern consumerist state: that is to say, they do not judge their value and worth on the basis of power, wealth, or job status.

There are some pretty specific attitudes that Markos (and now Knight) are praising.

  • These young women are quiet and submissive, meek and gentle– they rarely react, and only when “sorely provoked.”
  • They understand what their place is when it comes to the Bible; they always let men lead discussions and refuse to become involved in discussing theology or become a part of a debate– they only lovingly point out that a debate has become “contentious.” They know better than to think they can engage with men on theological issues.
  • They pursue stereotypically feminine talents.
  • They find their value in the patriarchal attitudes of being a mother, wife, and homemaker and see employment as inconsequential.

Knight follows this up with talking about how Jane Austen and Downton Abbey are so popular– which he attributes to these works as not catering to “politically correct feminist lenses.” All that claim does is demonstrate a rather astonishing lack of historical awareness of either the Regency Era or WWI-era Britain. Trying to appropriate Jane Austen as some sort of anti-feminist figure is ridiculous. I’m not overly familiar with Downton Abbey, but many of my friends love it for explicitly feminist reasons.

And, apparently, feminists are engaged in the “real war on women” because we have some sort of campaign to encourage promiscuity and convince women not to ever, ever get married. Which is a pretty typical conservative phrasing of feminist arguments– they take the sex-positive, anti-shame, you-can-get-married-when-you-want-to-who-you-want narratives of feminism and completely flip them upside down.

Feminists also supposedly scream a lot about how there’s no differences between men and women and about how much we hate femininity and feminine women:

They have the wit and discernment to perceive that the feminist is finally a greater threat than the male chauvinist: for whereas the chauvinist demeans femininity, the feminist dismisses it altogether as a social construct that has no essential grounding in our God-created soul. It’s no wonder feminists hate the feminine Sarah Palin with white-hot intensity.

I would like to actually address this issue, because it’s something that as a feminist I bump into a lot, and I think it’s the essential disagreement between egalitarians and complementarians. Feminists and egalitarians both assert that while biological factors exist (besides the obvious reproductive differences, there’s also different skeletal and muscular structures), that substantial and essential differences don’t. Men and women are both created with the imago dei, both receive spiritual gifts, and both can serve in equal roles. Egalitarians recognize the variety and complexity of all people, and are uncomfortable with dividing that variety according to patriarchal stereotypes.

So yes, feminists actually believe that “femininity” is a social construct that has little grounding in biological sex–  men, women, and trans* persons can have traits and attitudes reflective of socially constructed “feminine” and “masculine” traits. Knight isn’t wrong here.

However, what Knight believes is that there is absolutely fundamental difference between men and women– and it’s doubtful if he recognizes the legitimacy of trans* persons (which would be an attitude he shared with some). He believes that this difference is a part of our “God-created soul” and arguing any differently is akin to arguing against God and his Holy, Inspired, Infallible, Inerrant Word (instead of just a traditional interpretation of it).

It’s interesting to note that Knight spends so much of his article recognizing women he describes in terms of Proverbs 31– as “strong” and, at many points, very capable and intelligent. I think it’s possible that if Knight could engage with feminism, he’d realize that the feminism he’s portrayed here is nothing more than a straw man. I think the views he’s expressed here are sexist, but they come from this conservative preaching-at-the-choir that’s happened for decades now. Organizations like CBMW and CWA have spent a long time telling Christians what feminism is and what feminists do, and it’s gotten to the point that many Christians accept these portrayals without analysis or research.

Feminists don’t hate men.

Feminists want a world where gender privilege no longer exists, where people are treated the same regardless of their sex or gender identity, where women and trans* persons are no longer oppressed by violent systems. That’s it, really.

Sorry Gentlemen, This Homeschooled Girl’s a Feminist

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 8.20.19 PM

HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on January 29, 2014.

You know those moments where you step back from something and you’re not even sure what you just read? I’m having one of those moments, because I just stumbled upon Louis Markos’ article, “Why Homeschooled Girls Are Feminism’s Worst Nightmare.” Speaking as a homeschooled girl and a feminist, let’s see what Louis has to say, shall we?

I have become famous (or infamous) at my university for my ability to spot immediately a homeschooled girl, at least the kind of homeschooled girl who majors in the Humanities (English, Writing, History, Philosophy, Christianity, Art, Music) or who joins an Honors college devoted to a classical Christian curriculum. What is my method for spotting such literary homeschooled girls? If when I speak to a freshman girl I feel that I am speaking (literally) to a character out of a Jane Austen novel, then I know that she was homeschooled. (To date, my success rate is about 85%).

I . . . feel . . . objectified? I am no one’s specimen.

I’m also slightly disturbed by his equation of “homeschool girl” with “Christian homeschool girl,” and not just that but “super conservative Christian homeschool girl.” I’ve met secular homeschool girls who were complete tomboys. Actually, strike that, I’ve met spades of super conservative Christian homeschool girls who were tomboys—and then were taught, over the years, to repress it. But for many of us—most of us, probably—it didn’t work. I never fit the perfect feminine ideal, and I knew it. I was always too loud, or too clumsy, or too forward. Actually, I’m feeling more erased than objectified at the moment. Or maybe both.

Speaking of years, why is Louis calling these college students “girls”? I get that to a professor undergraduates can look increasingly young, but this isn’t an article about children, it’s an article about women. When I hear the term “homeschool girl,” I don’t think of a grown woman, I think of a twelve year old in braids. Perhaps Louis thinks young adult female homeschool alumni—which is what he’s really talking about—need to be forever infantilized as “homeschool girls.” But why he would infantalize individuals he is claiming are a threat to feminism—unless he thinks the real threat to feminism is for women to never grow up—is beyond me.

On the surface, the link between the homeschooled girl and Elizabeth Bennet is part educational and part linguistic. Most homeschooled girls—henceforth, I will be focusing on the literary type—spend a great deal of their time reading great books, especially eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. They therefore possess a much higher level of diction and understand the finer rules of etiquette. They value good conversation and are able to participate in it without succumbing to arrogance or false modesty.

First off, do you know why we spend so much time reading great books? It’s often because our math and science education is given comparatively less time and emphasis—and because we don’t have a lot of time with friends. Second, we learn these “finer rules of etiquette” because we are quite literally taught them (Charm Course anyone?), as though our parents have a grand plan for sending us back in time two centuries. These things are not coincidental.

But the link goes far deeper than that. The Jane Austen connection only rests partly on the homeschooler’s ability to speak with eloquence and wit and to conduct herself with grace and charm. She resembles Elizabeth Bennet because she shares with all of Austen’s heroines a firm and rooted sense of herself as a female member of the human race.

Sigh. It is true that as a “homeschool girl” I learned to tie my identity closely in with my femaleness—and the fact that I was destined first and foremost to be a wife and mother. But honestly? All of this eloquence and wit and grace and charm is way over the top. Louis may be describing some ideal he has, but he is not describing the homeschool girls I grew up with. Although, to be honest, he’s doing a pretty good job of describing someone I’ve met as an adult—and she was a Christian school graduate, not a “homeschool girl.” We most of us were simply normal—though we did wish we could be what Louis describes, for that was the ideal constantly held out to us.

What I have found in my homeschooled students is what one used to find frequently in Catholic girls who attended parochial school. Such girls do not consider their femininity a limitation to be overcome or a weakness to be hidden, but something special and unique that must be nurtured and developed. The properly Catholic-educated girl of the past, like the homeschooled girl of today, is less likely than her peers to engage in pre-marital sex: not because she thinks sex is dirty or men are pigs, but because she views her own sexuality as a gift to be treasured by her and by her future husband.

You know, I actually think Louis is making a mistake in assuming that all feminists everywhere flee their “femininity.”

I don’t think this is true.

While many feminists are queer or prefer an androgynous look and affect or just don’t like gender boxes, plenty enjoy being feminine. But then, I think the problem here may be one of definitions. Louis seems to think that the true essence of being female is exhibiting innocence, being shy, demure, and untainted by the world. He seems unaware that femaleness can be something very different entirely, that it can also be fierce, and independent, and worldly. The fact that we do not exhibit our femaleness in the way that Louis wants us to does not mean that we do not have a firm and rooted sense of ourselves as female members of the human race, as he suggests in the end of his previous paragraph.

And as for the bit about premarital sex—I am pretty sure Louis has never been inside of the head of a woman raised in the purity culture that pervades conservative Christian homeschooling, so I don’t know how he could possibly insist that these “homeschool girls” he knows are truly at such peace with their sexuality.

Louis then turns to “other admirable qualities” of homeschool girls, offering a bullet point list that includes such gems as these:

They know what they believe and have a firm knowledge of the Bible, but they (unlike my biblically-literate male students) don’t engage in forensic debates over minor theological points of controversy; they will, however, step in if the boys get too contentious or triumphalist.

See actually, I and the other homeschool girls I knew spent scads of time engaging in forensic debates over minor theological points. What could be so fascinating as trying to bring out the nuance of a Greek word! (That is actually not sarcasm.) But in a world where so much was off limits, this was a way we could exercise our minds within the safety of our subculture.

Like the aristocratic ladies of the Old South, they are gifted in the arts; almost all of them can sing, and most play instruments and draw.

I can’t sing, I hated to play my instrument, and I couldn’t draw a stick figure. But I wished I could do all of those and well, because I knew feminine accomplishments were important if I wanted to attract a godly suitor.

They proudly identify themselves as daughters, sisters, and granddaughters, and aspire to be identified as wives, mothers, and grandmothers—a self-identification that enhances, rather than diminishes, their sense of themselves.

They desire to be helpmeets in the full biblical sense and to have their husbands trust in them and call them blessed; they desire as well to be mothers who will raise up godly children.

And this would be because this is all they know, and all they have been allowed to know. I know, I’ve been there. When you’ve never been allowed to dream other dreams, it can be surprising how universal your and your friends dreams all seem. How coincidental!

Though not all of them plan to be stay-at-home moms, they all make it clear that if they have children, they will put them first.

You know, I don’t think I have ever met a mom who doesn’t make it clear that she puts her children first. And it’s not just children—it’s family. Most people value family, whether the family the were born to or the family they create. Including feminists. Shocker, I know!

The glorious and unashamed femininity that radiates from my homeschooled students is a beautiful thing that at times brings me close to tears. These young women will give all they have to nurture the children God puts in their care and to make their home a humane and creative place where faith, hope, and love can thrive and bear fruit. And they desire to do this, not because they do not think they can contribute to the business world, but because they consider motherhood a high and noble calling.

Oh good grief.

Try to imagine, for a moment, that you are told from early childhood that your role in life is to be a wife and mother, and that women who are so selfish as to have careers—or even want them—will live lives of pain and sorrow in rebellion against God’s plan for their lives.

Try to imagine, for a moment, that you are taught form early childhood that wives must submit to husbands, and daughters to fathers, that women are to always be under male headship and authority—and that the woman who steps out from under her male head has stepped into danger and will likely come to untimely end.

Try to imagine, for a moment, that you live in a world where finding a godly husband to support and care for you and your future children overshadows every other thought from age twelve on, and where you are told that you must attract a husband through your feminine skills—your cooking, your sewing, your sweet voice, your delicate beauty.

Try to imagine, for a moment, a world where any male characteristics or attributes you may exhibit are fretted over by your mother and the other mothers, where you are put in ballet and put through etiquette classes, where you are told to mind your posture, lower your voice, and not be so rowdy, or who will want to marry you?

Try to imagine, for a moment, a world where your virginity is your most precious asset, where losing it risk utter ruin, where even a stray dalliance that comes to no more than talk can sully your reputation, where bringing your virginity to your wedding day is the most important thing you can do for your husband.

That, gentle readers, is what it is like to grow up female in the super conservative Christian circles of the homeschool world.

And do you know what I just realized? That is also what it was like to grow up in the world of Louis’s beloved Jane Austen. And now I’m not sure what to think.

I read Jane Austen’s books as a girl because they were some of the most steamy love stories available to me that were also approved reading. I read the scenes where Darcy proposes over and over. I reveled in Elizabeth’s wit—a wit that pushed the boundaries, but was careful not to digress so much as to bring censure. I wanted to be a character in one of Austen’s books—but then, I really didn’t. That was the ideal were were taught to aspire to, but even then I could see that women got a raw deal. You see, I read Austen’s other books as well—Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey—and I knew that on some level these were tragedies in the dress of romantic comedy. Perhaps, in some sense, it was Jane Austen who set me on my first step toward feminism.

I’m not going to finish going through Louis’s article. You can read the rest yourself, if you like. I want to finish, I think, on a slightly more somber note. Louis is wrong in his monolithizing of homeschool girls—and he seems unaware that many of us “homeschool girls” join the dark side and proudly take up the title “feminist”—but he is right that this is the ideal so many homeschooled girls are raised to embrace. It is the ideal I wanted—and yet somehow internally resisted. It was an ideal I was unable to obtain, and for years, that tortured me. But no longer.

Being a feminist is not about rejecting family, or rejecting compassion for others.

In fact, I would argue that feminism is very often a fulfillment of both. For me, feminism is the revealing of my inner self, a self that is fierce and somehow calm—a self I tried to hide for so long as a girl. For me, feminism is about unhindered compassion, global interconnectedness, and created community. It is about righting wrongs and asking questions. It is about separating who I am as a woman from the toxic messages of passivity and submission. It is about releasing myself to the wind, and finding myself again. It is about being loud, and being deathly quiet. It is about building new families and forming new relationships—families built on undemanding love and relationships built on honest trust.

It is about a storm, and a calm.

And it is beautiful—more beautiful than that “homeschool girl” ideal I strove for so unsuccessfully for so many years.

Good Homeschooled Girls: Hide the Real You

Screen Shot 2013-10-21 at 3.20.26 PM

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 DinsmoreBeautiful 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.

Just, no.

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.

My first ballet recital to “Femininity” from Summer Magic.
My first ballet recital to “Femininity” from Summer Magic.

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.