There’s a gap. That’s the best way I can describe it. There’s a gap women are afraid to leap or don’t know how to leap. I feel it. We — the majority of us women — still don’t know how to be primary in our own lives, how to relate directly to the world. We don’t know how to start our own engine; we feel guilt and fear at the very thought of doing so. We are deep-down sure that the only way to go our own way is alone and that the only way not to be alone is to compromise so deeply it bites to the bone.
Sure, I’m exaggerating. Go ahead, tell me about all the exceptions. Tell me love is worth compromising for. (It is, up to the borders of your integrity.) Tell me I should be saying “I,” not “we.” But I hear a lot of seasoned, accomplished women saying or hinting at some version of this — that they still feel derivative, secondary. Men romanticize this and see it as devotion. It completes them and it diminishes us. It’s also safe and easy for us, an ancient shtick, an existential cop-out with perks.
Freud thought the gap was the absence of a penis! It’s so much more — the collective memory of physical danger; millennia of forbiddenness; void of precedent; human cowardice and inertia, always more easily forgiven in women.
The best writer I know about this — so good her writing scares people, scares me — is my friend Dalma Heyn. Here she is on the danger of a new backlash, not so much against women but within them — a retreat from the challenge and chaos of rapid change into old, familiar, outgrown ways:
Women, conventional goodness isn’t your friend. Maintaining your vision for the future is. If we do all the things we used to do when chaos frightened us with, oh, loss of love, loss of husbands, loss of social approval, loss of funds, loss of everythng, we lose something far more precious: We lose our hope for evolving as women. We mustn’t ever again let anything, especially a flagging economy, threaten our own ability to push through the confines of that old story, the Romance Plot, the one that hurls women back into the kitchen. Yes, we all yearn for security, but it never did come in the form of old ideas, old roles, old habits. Don’t idealize what never was. We’ve spent years setting free a new narrative, one that promises forward movement in the home, in our relationships, inside ourselves. The old story that we fantasize as being magically problem-free, actually brought more women lifelong depression than it did safety and security.
What Dalma writes about is not spurning love, but rather the challenge of loving without lying about who you are. I’m a widow, which is forcing me to confront the gap in myself. Male friends tell me radiantly that I’ll always be one with my husband and that ours was a great love. I hate to tell them it was never that simple. Don’t misunderstand me: it was great. But it was also safe. Under his wing, my strengths were first derivative and then hypothetical. They became mine, but I was safe from having to decide how to use them. Eyes riveted on him — his grandeur, his trauma, his unquestionable genius for living — I never had to answer my own hard questions. And, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, that cop-out did not serve him well.
Don’t chicken out, women. Go on, evolve. Yes, I’m talking to you. Me.