If I fail to be a “good woman” it is not for lack of training or aspiration. I grew up surrounded by messages of the “submissive” and “virtuous” woman. I wanted to be a “good” woman, because like many girls, I aspired to be happily married, and I had been taught, that successful marriages were made up of “submissive” and “virtuous” femininity. I knew the hourly time schedule of the Proverbs 31 woman, because I aspired to one day, “bring honour to my husband in the towns”.
That was not my only dream though; I also aspired to travel the world, be highly educated, have my own money, and significantly influence society. These two dreams were a source of great conflict for most of my adult life. I struggled with what society expected of me as a woman, who I was, and who I wanted to be. Although it was clear in my head that I wanted to be treated as an equal, I also understood that “men could not handle a strong woman” and I therefore had to compromise, and shrink myself. I didn’t want to shrink myself though, and every time I did, I sensed that I had lost something, that I could never recover.
It was frustrating to hear men who were my equals in many respects, imagine that their gender was an automatic ticket to domination in a relationship. I shared my dilemmas with people that were close to me, and I got all sorts of advice; all given with my best interests at heart.
An older woman, whom I confided in, was surprised at the content of my conversations with “potentials”. She advised me to be less intense, and to be “smart”, which I interpreted as manipulative. The strategy was, to make myself sound “normal”, which I interpreted as less smart, with the ability to “submit” and be a “good wife”. Once I was married, I would “slowly unleash my true colours”. I can only imagine the warfare that would ensue, if he also had true colours to unleash.
When I confided in a male friend of mine that it felt like I had to choose between a successful life in the public domain and a happy marital life, he encouraged me that I could pursue both to the fullest. He gave me the example of a woman who was a highly accomplished professor, married to a man who was less accomplished academically, and financially. Although she owned most of the property in their marriage, her secret to a happy marriage though, was to claim ownership of her property by her husband. My friend hailed her for remaining a “good woman” even when her success had potential to “corrupt” her.
I shared with a close friend of mine, about the frustration of finding men who believed in gender equality. I argued that perhaps the best thing would be to find someone that had potential to be nurtured into believing in gender equality. My friend rubbished my thinking and argued that if I strongly believed in equality, I should find someone who believed in equality as well. She warned me against the idea of thinking that I could change a person’s view of life. I must say, that was the most profound and empowering piece of advice I ever got on dating: find someone who believes in the same things that you do, and with the same intensity.
My newly empowered self, got back into the dating game, this time, unapologetic about what I believed in. I met fun, intelligent, widely travelled, and well-read, men. Their messages remained clear and consistent: “I will love you, I will do my best to ensure that we have a good life together, I will provide, but you have to be smaller than me; I have to be the man, the leader; your role is to support and help me”. Some got biblical, “God created woman from man’s rib, and not the other way round”. In some cases I went through short courses on human anatomy, “there is no body with two heads; any functional body has one head, and a neck to support it”. In other cases I learned a thing or two about leadership and how to run organisations; “any successful organisation has one leader and followers”. Dating was turning out to be school in itself.
My newly – empowered response, also got consistent. Determined to stand for what I believed in, I got a new mantra, “My dreams are too big, my view of life too broad, my passions too many, my interests too varied, my imagination too wild. I refuse to shrink”. I determined not to entertain any demands to shrink myself to fit the size of any man’s ego.
I noticed something peculiar with my male friends. Their language shifted significantly when they become fathers to daughters. I now realise how having a daughter can transform a man into a feminist, when I see my young father friends, make posts about their daughters on social media.
These young fathers speak with such pride and sometimes exaggeration about their daughters’ achievements and ambitions. They have such big dreams and wild imaginations of what their daughters can become. They see their daughters as CEOs, great artists and musicians, and even presidents. I haven’t come across any one describing their daughter as submissive, future helper, or future neck to a great man. It is clear that the daughters of these young fathers are their own products, and not the products of the rib of another man. I imagine that they would be outraged at the thought of their daughters’ potential being shrunk to fit the size of the ego of the man they love. The irony of needing a smaller spouse to raise a great daughter, remains baffling.
Today is International Women’s Day, and the theme this year is Make it Happen. We need to raise sons whose masculinities are not threatened by strong women. We need to raise our daughters to refuse to shrink. We can make it happen.