This ancient article about the farm I own in Kentucky—which is in conservation easements and will never be strip-malled—and the woman who saved the grist mill, Eva Lee Cooper, echoes ancient sayings from decades ago about The Female of the Species, sayings that seem, horribly, to have new resonance today.
“The female of the species has her finger in every pot…” And one of those pots is the Republican presidency.
Yes, hard as it is to believe, more than fifty-one percent of white women voters supported the man who is now our president-elect. Nothing he said, or did, to harm woman made any difference.
A friend of mine who suffered through years of abuse, growing up in a fundamentalist family, told me she believes this shocking statistic proves that more women were abused as children than we have ever wanted to believe.
One of the way survivors adapt is to bond with the abuser. Emotionally, it must seem a safer place to be than rebellion or escape. And of course this includes the many women in the president-elect’s family.
The other half of the sentence “The female of the species” ends “is deadlier than the male.” I heard this more than once growing up, as an accepted opinion that needed no proof. And there was none. The women I knew spent their lives laboring, often for almost no money, to take care of men, women and children, who still sometimes distrusted them.
This attitude is embedded in all layers of our culture. In African-American families, girls were married too young to escape rape and concubinage, as in Zora Neale Huston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. When Janey’s grandmother finds that she has been out late with a boy, she tells her she must be married right away: “I don’t want no trashy nigger, no breath-and-britches, lak Johnny Taylor, usin yo body to wipe his foots on.” And so Janey’s childhood ends abruptly when she is married to an older man she dislikes.
Something similar runs through the lives of women and children in Native American communities. In LaRose, Louise Erdrich’s new novel, girls are warned not to step over boys’ things lying on the floor for fear that their power will “short out” the boys’ power.
Well, at least our power is recognized, if only in a destructive form.
Does any of the above explain the support our president-elect found in white women?
If we follow the thread of abuse in girls’ and women’s lives, we often find a desperate attempt to form an alliance with the abuser, both in the hope of escaping further harm (probably fruitless) and in the hope of sharing some of the male’s power, money and status. It seemed for a while as though Hilary Clinton’s connection to her husband was a plus—until it didn’t.
Because no connection erases the primal fear that is a constant in our culture: the fear of the power of women.
That’s why, when hopeful people speak of Elizabeth Warren running, or Michelle Obama, I shake my head in disbelief.
What woman would expose herself to the kind of abuse Hilary Clinton endured—verbal abuse rather like what a friend of mine, a psychotherapist, describes enduring while trying to treat his borderline personality disorder patients?
And what woman, studying Mrs. Clinton’s extraordinary credentials, commitment to public service, and deep understanding of government, would imagine that an equivalent resume would provoke a different response?
“Barefoot and pregnant” was another prescription for women when I was growing up, which explains, in a nutshell, the attack we will soon see on choice. Barefoot and pregnant—the one because of limited job opportunities and low wages, the other because of rape and lack of access to abortion, or even birth control—is the one sure way to eliminate our power.
My farm’s owner, Eva Lee Cooper stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, only partly because she inherited a million dollars. In Tennessee, where she was set to lead a conventional life as wife of a newspaper publisher and mother of three sons, she endured her husband’s never-solved murder and took the advice of friends to flee the state.
Coming over the mountains into Kentucky with her three small boys, she found the mill, the miller’s cabin, and a few acres the miller had planted with butterbeans. She lived there for the rest of her life.
Was it her physical strength and ability that kept her from caving? She rode horses almost to the end of her life, checking fences, supervising livestock, organizing help.
Or was it her daring, even outrageous, personality? When she lit out in her car, the telephone operator called the neighbors to warn them, “Stay off the road, Mrs. Cooper is going to town.”
Or was it her refusal to be limited to the usual occupations and preoccupations of a small time farmer?
When her barn caught on fire one summer as she was about to leave for Paris, she let it burn to the ground and continued on her trip.
All of these, probably. And it is this bouquet of characteristics that we must hold in our arms as we begin the perilous journey into next year.
So wear your safety pin. Make plans to be in Washington, D.C. on January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration, for the Million Women’s March.
I’ll be there.
[Download a .pdf version of the Kentucky Progress Magazine article.
Recommended, from The New York Times: “After the Election, Some Women Assert Themselves With Small Gestures“]