The ideals our culture installs in little girls to make them into “real women” hurt close relationships. The goal is to make women the warrior support personnel needed to maintain masculine-based warrior culture. The pattern of masculinity that destroys deep relationships requires the pattern of femininity girls get squeezed into as early as possible.
By the time they’re in junior high — or sooner — girls should have internalized the message that in spite of all else they’ve been taught, their real value is their ability to get the attention, approval, and partnership of a man. As many still put it, a real lady needs a man to “love and protect” her.
To the extent that a woman hasn’t internalized the ability to love and protect herself, she won’t be able to form a close, all-that-it-can-be relationship with a man who shows vulnerability, sensitivity to her feelings, and the ability to learn from her.
She’ll have to find one who looks as if he can beat the system and fend off other men and their threats. He must be strong, no matter what, steeled, no matter how she wishes he’d share his feelings with her, and resolute, no matter how reading directions or listening carefully to her might improve the relationship.
She learns to adjust her body so that men approve — no matter how much, before she was told, “you’ll never get a man that way,” she had valued her body for what it could do foor her. She learns to be demure, diminish herself, take up less physical space, never threaten a fragile masculine ego, and never, ever compete with a man.
A lady sits quietly and looks pretty but never too independent. As a diminished human being she needs that man who’ll make her complete. If she can’t get a boyfriend, there’s something wrong with her. A desperate need for a man damages her ability to choose an equal and supportive companion who’ll support her flourishing as a whole human being.
She’s taught to seek male approval. It’s more valuable than self-approval or the approval of women. And no matter how much fun she has when she’s “out with the girls,” she’s set up in the end to compete with them for manly attention.
I’ve watched women together without their male companions sharing, laughing, and playing with a freedom I’ve never seen them have with their boyfriends. And almost every woman knows how the dynamic in a room full of women changes when an “eligible” man enters. A hint, or more, of competition for the man’s attention interferes with women’s closeness.
When a woman has been so conditioned to need a man, she’ll freak out when her companion begins to show his emotions, fears, and confusion, even though she might otherwise complain that he’s emotionally unavailable to her. How will he be able to protect and love her when he’s so emotional? And is his love really worthwhile if he isn’t capable of being her manly savior?
This need for masculine approval, as well as the need to convince herself that, and to appear as if, she’s successful at the feminine role, impels her to settle for the best catch she thinks she can get. And once she’s gotten her man, she must hold on, rather than fail at womanhood, and possibly never do any better in the desperate search for Mr. Right. Settling, convincing herself this is how it has to be, learning what issues never to raise with him, and distracting herself from an underlying, deepening depression through children, fantasies, or substances, helps her cope.
If she chooses to reject this diminishment and demeaning, chooses to develop her self-concept and to protect her own space, and refuses to settle for the least awful manly alternative available, she must face the fear of being “alone” and the accusation of being a lesbian. Again, as long as it’s considered bad to be a lesbian in a culture, women can be squeezed back into their place with a lesbian slur. Otherwise, the slur has no power.
It’s a double dose of this female gender conditioning that complicates intimacy between two women, especially if they’re lesbians. The culture, of course, prefers to blame their sexual orientation for what are really the results of turning girls into little ladies.
Many lesbians themselves accept this as “the trouble with lesbians.” It’s in lesbian jokes and their interpretations of their own personal troubles.
The inability to believe in one’s own value, wholeness, and completeness, coupled with the lack of a man in their life, adds a new dimension to the need for a relationship. Seeking the solution in coupling with another woman but having been brought up with the seldom examined conditioning that it’s a man’s approval and love that are really supposed to matter, hinders her ability to rest in the positive valuation of another woman, whether she’s a friend or life-partner.
When the initial romantic endorphin high fades and without healing, awareness, and support to break the installed “be a lady” emotional patterns, the alternatives that seem available to her will damage a same-sex relationship. She may hang on awhile hoping “things” will change in the relationship.
When they don’t, there’ll be a desperate need to couple up again as quickly as possible with almost anyone. Maybe another woman, she believes, will be the one who solves the unexamined problems she feels. Maybe she’ll be the one who will really love her, thereby finally proving she really is loveable. She may even be willing to settle for a demeaning or abusive partner rather than face the fear of being alone. Being without a lover, she feels, means she’s not loveable enough to find anyone.
All the while at work is what women’s movement leaders have identified as the cultural conditioning of most girls. Unhealed, it’s tragic. But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be. What is learned can be unlearned, and every woman can unlearn it to find her wholeness again.
Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Kansas where he taught for 33 years and was department chair for six years, Robert N. Minor (he/him), M.A., Ph.D is the author of 8 books as well as numerous articles and contributions to edited volumes. He is an historian of religion with specialties in Biblical studies, Asian religions, religion and gender and religion and sexuality. His writing has been published in Whosoever since 2005 and he continues to speak and lead workshops around the country. In 1999 GLAAD awarded him its Leadership Award for Education, in 2012 the University of Kansas named him one of the University’s Men of Merit, in 2015 the American Men’s Studies Association gave him the Lifetime Membership Award, and in 2018 Missouri Jobs with Justice presented him with the Worker’s Rights Board Leadership Award. He resides in Kansas City, Missouri and is founder of The Fairness Project.