Let’s talk about fear, shall we? I want to talk about fear because I’m tired of it. I’m tired of being afraid, and I’m tired of watching other women and girls be intimidated. We have a culture so laced with intimidation norms that we are often cornered by fear without even fully realizing it.
It happens every day on scales large and small. It’s the small scale ones, I think, that are the most powerful. When women are obviously and broadly discriminated against, we have strength in numbers. We can fight against it. It’s not so easy on a smaller, more nuanced scale. For example, we learned this week that a majority of men resent it when their wives are more successful than they are. While the study is a large, glaring piece of evidence of emotional discrimination, how do you think that resentment manifests itself inside a marriage? I imagine it’s subtle, the way husbands express their displeasure with their wives’ success. I imagine each wife feels sorry for her husband, stressed by the tension his resentment creates, and gradually backs off of her upward movement in the interest of her marriage.
Another example from this week was the internet to-do that happened when a blogging mom of teenage sons posted an open letter to teenage girls about how their sexy selfies were a temptation to her sons and how these girls must learn how to control themselves lest they lose the ability to access her very holy sons online. Much of the outrage, rightfully so, focused on the fact that she included shirtless photos of these saintly sons flexing their muscles in the blog itself, but the thing that got me was the ultimatum: You girls fail to take the responsibility of sexual restraint off of my sons’ shoulders, or you are not deserving of a good man.
That’s how our culture responds to women. Don’t meet our double standard, live your life without a good partner. Be too successful, upset your marriage. And as we learned in Lean In, you’ll also be less liked by your co-workers. Report a sexual assault in college and risk being expelled, slut-shamed or ignored. Run for statewide office, have the quality of your parenting questioned.
Just because these intimidation norms are psychological and the blunt ends of their ultimatums rarely tangible, does not make them less powerful. Psychological fear is paralyzing. We only have one life; especially when these threats are not empty ones, we risk giving up the one chance we have to find the love of our life, be respected in our careers, pursue our own happiness and raise our children. And we’ve seen, from historical accounts of feminism such as When Everything Changed, those who put up a fight often sacrifice these things in their own lives only to have the fruits of their labor given to the women who would follow them.
The continued oppression of women in our culture is a matter of death by a thousand cuts. It seems the only solution is survival by a thousand guts. And guts are neither easy to come by nor even easily identifiable. What does having the guts to refuse to buy into fear culture look like?
I don’t know if I have the perfect answer to that yet. For me, it looks like refusing to look the other way. It’s looking at every truth I know about myself and decision I’ve made and ask, “Is this really what I wanted/meant/believe? Or did I act out of fear?” It’s acknowledging when I feel afraid, accepting the possible consequences, and proceeding forward all the same. It’s confronting the cultural norms that propagate fear and refusing to let the intimidation stick.
I don’t always pull this off, and I don’t believe any of us do all the time. But I want to be braver. I want all of us to be braver, not because women are responsible for fixing the problem of fear culture, but because, one small but tough decision at a time, I believe we can.