Questioning Gender as a Central "Oppressive" Force in Women's Lives

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Questioning Gender as a Central "Oppressive" Force in Women's Lives

Samantha Martinez

I have been struggling with this assignment for many reasons. What I have garnered from the discussions on both Thorne's piece in which she identifies school and teachers/educators as a location of the enforcement of gender roles and Lesnick's paper which questions the role of emotions, woman's work, and motherhood is this: it is difficult to extrapolate experiences of gender play or work that somehow does not encompass all of the intersections of my identity, whether as a Latina, or a working class person, or a dyke, or as a newly minted Mother.

My initial thoughts are that I have been playing with gender or working toward an understanding of myself with regard to the roles assigned to my gender in my culture, in my workplace, and in this heterosexist society for some time. How have I played with gender? Going back into my herstory, I have distinct memories of feeling I somehow was not conforming to what was expected of me as a girl. I got this notion mostly from my mother, and the women of my community who saw my style of dress (admittedly tomboyish), my hair (again, boyish), and my lack of desire to play the games their daughters played as some indication of my difference, my un-girly self. My grammar school, a Catholic/Parochial school, and being raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, also added to this sense of my non-conformity, especially after I came out at 18. Not only is the Catholic Church the epitome of a patriarchal system, but it expects women to be virginal lest they be evil and marry only a man and procreate. Anything else is not only scorned but demonized, especially homosexuality.

* * * *
Cutting my hair and its circumstances

As a young girl, cutting my hair was quite liberating, but it also forced me to claim my gender on an ongoing basis. I still remember the feeling of freedom from my long thick hair as the hairstylist snipped away and shortened my hair to an androgynous bob during a visit to Puerto Rico, the island's heat making my thick locks unbearable. Long hair meant having to endure my Mother's endless fight between the knots that twisted the strands of my hair and her mission to tame it to her vision of a young girl's perfect hairdo. Long hair gendered me because girls had long hair and boys had short hair and directed my experience as a child because then people expected my behavior and actions to conform to that of a young woman. Once my hair was cut, my 6-year-old child-self was (momentarily) liberated from conforming because people mistook me for a slender boy who liked riding a big wheel (not colored in the hue of girls bikes), playing basketball, wearing overalls, combing my hair like my father's, fishing, and running wildly around town. That is until my school uniform, a hideous pleated green and white plaid skirt, gave away that I indeed was a girl, a girl who looked like a boy. Or when my voice betrayed me. Or when someone would ask my mother what her son's name was and she would declare, "NO, she's my DAUGHTER." Then my playing with gender was seen as wrong, deviant and different, something that needed to be corrected. Looking back, I recall many soft-voiced assertions of my woman-ness. I also felt my mother's struggle of allowing me to express myself as I wanted and her desire for me to be like all other pretty, frilly, girls dressed in the lacey dresses Puerto Rican mothers adored.

Reflecting on this experience points to one of my questions of Thorne's analysis, specifically, she states that children are socialized by adults to perform their gender, but I would go a step further and say young people are socialized by all the influences of their lives as well as those that influence their caretaker's lives to perform their gender. Also, this experience speaks closely to what Lesnick points out in her discussion of gender play with regard to working class mothers and their daughters in which she states working class mothers do not allow for much "playing" with gender roles. I would add that this is also difficult in cultures that are traditionally conservative or follow closely the rules of a religious tradition.

Gender-Bending: An expression of sexuality, a form of security

At the age of 18, I came out to myself as Queer and in doing so felt liberated to be more open about bending gender rules and playing with the image of myself as portrayed to the world. I was lucky enough to live in a city that at least had a space for me to enact this exploration and a community that was thriving on breaking stereotypes, questioning roles, and politicizing our complex identities. So, I changed my style of dress, my hair, my walk, so that I was as androgynous as possible. This is one discussion that was lacking in both articles and in our classroom discussion: where do people who decide to bend gender rules learn this? What happens in a person's life that gives them the agency for this? For me, it was the exploration of my sexuality that gave me the agency to perform gender in a non-conformist way.

Performing Motherhood

One of my most recent experiences in gender play/work has been with the recent birth of my son and entering the world of Motherhood. Beside the fact that Motherhood in America is loaded with complexities, laws, and rules, being a lesbian mother is yet another complicated dimension. I perform Motherhood as has been taught to me by my own Mother and the other women in my family and community who have been Mothers, but I also play with this gender role because I am partnered with another woman who is also the Mother. At least, it feels like play. I struggle with society's expectations that two parents include a mother and father, and if I am not the biological mother, am I then the father? I have not lived this experience long enough to know, but none of my experiences with gender whether in the classroom, or, in my mother's kitchen, has prepared me for this type of gender play.

I titled this piece with the question of whether gender was an oppressive force in women's lives because it seems to me that it is too simple, or too easy to use gender as the sole force that can oppress women. While I agree that gender is taught or enforced in the institutions in our society, I do not think there is one single place that young people learn about gender roles. I also do not believe that we can separate gender from other aspects of one's life because I believe that there is always an intersection, always other factors that influence how they work and play or do not play with gender. Both Thorne and Lesnick provide good places to begin thinking about gender play but more should be done that does not exclude issues of race, ethnicity, culture, socioeconomic status, or sexuality from the discussion of what informs the making of an individual in society.

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