University of Georgia
Terry College of Business
Orchids in the Arctic:
The Predicament of Women Who Love Men
By Kay Leigh Hagan
When we undertake a difficult task, our chances of success are increased if we understand the level of difficulty involved so that our efforts can equal the challenge. For instance, if we attempt to raise orchids in the Arctic, we would be well advised to appreciate the effects of the frigid culture on the fragile blossoms we want to grow. So it is with heterosexual feminism.
Women do not live in a benign or even neutral society. Most of us move through this culture in denial of its prejudice because the reality is too horrible to bear: the absurd injustice of a caste system based on gender. Feminism teaches us ways to recognize this prejudice in institutions, systems, and individuals around us; to understand how we have internalized the prejudice; and finally to acknowledge that our private, personal relationships are affected by it. Yet whether or not we call ourselves feminists, we know this caste system exists. All of us, women and men alike, are conditioned to conform to this culture. Men are trained to be dominators, women to be subordinates. No one is exempt. Everything we do, think, and feel takes place in this context of male supremacy and climate of woman-hating.
To survive in a misogynist environment, a woman must learn how to protect innate female power from a society designed to destroy it. After she learns to recognize and avoid male violence in its many forms, a woman's capacity for self-love blossoms, and her female power begins to thrive: creativity, vitality, and confidence emerge, along with a refusal to subordinate herself to male power. But heterosexual women--those women who choose men as their primary affectional, sexual, and domestic partners--face particular challenges. Essentially, the predicament is this: what kind of intimate, individual relationship is possible between the oppressor and the oppressed?
Over the years, from a heterosexual and now lesbian perspective, I have pondered these questions. Can orchids grow in the Arctic? Possibly, providing a woman has adequate resources and information, and prepares herself appropriately for the relentless hostility of the climate. So, button up your overcoats. In the spirit of the scientific inquiry, I want to explore this predicament, and the floricultural potential of frozen tundra.
What is the orchid?
What is the Arctic?
Male supremacy, woman-hating, patriarchy.
What is the climate?
Hostility and aggression, expressed by males to females.
What is the culture/soil?
Frozen tundra: the practice of dominance and
THE PREVAILING WINDS: HETEROSEXUALITY
Heterosexuality may be the norm in our society, but there is no way to know if it is actually normal. If you currently identify as heterosexual, think back to the first moment you realized that you were heterosexual. As children, most of us never questioned our sexual identification. We followed the cues, both subtle and obtuse, telling us that the opposite sex was attractive, compelling, and correct for our affectional partners. But if, in fact, heterosexuality was the only option perceived, can we call it a choice?
Until we elect to take over the job, the dominant culture constructs our reality and forms our values. Our sexual orientation is not exempt from this process. We cannot know what our choice of sexual activity would be if left to our natural desires in an unbiased culture. As feminists, we come to understand that while heterosexuality may in fact be a natural choice for many women, when practiced under misogynist rule, it also functions as a tool of oppression.
Unlike white supremacy, in which the dominant caste prefers segregation in housing and intimate partnerships, the gender caste system directs members of the subordinate class to take a "partner" of the dominant class. The result is individual monitors, constant exposure, and unlimited access. Under male supremacy, heterosexuality ensures that each woman is intimately colonized by the dominant class.
Having been thoroughly trained to subordinate her needs to his, the heterosexual woman has few opportunities to experience her own power, or to feel the surge of energy that comes from connection to other powerful women. The impact on possible unified action of the subordinate class of women is devastating. In this way, we see how heterosexuality functions as the fundamental institution of male supremacy.
Prevailing winds arc constant, frigid, fifty miles per hour from
LEARNING FROM THE INUIT:
PRIMARY RELATIONS WITH MEN
The Inuit people learn to live in the Arctic. It would behoove us to observe Inuit tactics, which demonstrate a few simple principles:
You cannot deny the Arctic is hostile to entities accustomed to a warmer climate.
You cannot pretend the Arctic is the tropics.
You must accept the Arctic's constancy if you are to survive.
If you understand these principles, you can learn how to meet your basic survival needs. If you do not, you will gradually freeze to death and not even know it.
The cultivation of female power under male supremacy takes a similar level of consciousness. Individual men are microcosms of the larger misogynist climate. Interaction with men is hazardous for women because men who are born and reared in a male-supremacist, woman-hating culture such as ours have internalized those same values. At some level, men actually believe in them. Some men are nicer than others; some are more violent than others; some believe their superiority is innate; others eschew their gender privilege as false and constructed; some are homosexual, men of color, or physically disabled. But all these men live daily in a society designed to benefit their gender. They will act out of their conditioning of male privilege unless they have consciously chosen to select other behaviors.
Generally, a woman coming to feminist consciousness will gradually remove herself from overt, grotesque woman-hating, such as a battering relationship. a psychologically/emotionally terrorizing one, an economic dependency that is being used to control and manipulate her, sexual harassment on the job, or discrimination on the basis of gender. Then, if heterosexual, she begins to choose her intimate male partners more carefully, searching for men who are not threatened by female power. Trudging through miles of frozen tundra, she looks for a site for her greenhouse.
The Inuit people have igloos; orchids need greenhouses.
ASSESSING THE CLIMATE QUESTIONS FROM THE FIELD
To understand what is necessary to cultivate the orchid of female power in the Arctic of misogyny, we must carefully observe and realistically assess the climate itself. Women who attempt this feat return to the tropics with many questions, some of which I will address here.
Q.: Are men conscious that their behavior is frequently oppressive, violent, or hateful to women?
A.: Probably not. We think, "Surely, if he understood the effect of what he is doing, he wouldn't do it," and this reasoning is somehow soothing to us. When the behavior has taken place in the company of others, we are sometimes compelled to assure them (and ourselves), "He's not really like this." The man who practices woman-hating with conscious intent is much more predictable than the one who is reacting unconsciously to the culture's directives. There can be no mistaking or excusing the deliberate male supremacist, and thus he can be easily avoided without confusion or guilt. It's the nice men who allow us to slip into denial. A chilling rule coined in my early forays into the Arctic is, "If he can hurt you, he will"--meaning, that is what he is trained and directed by the culture to do. As harsh as it may sound, when I remember this rule and act accordingly, I find that my interactions with men improve considerably.
The Hawaiian shirt is not appropriate attire for the frigid zone: we must pull out the oiled and fur-lined sealskin parka.
Q.: My father/husband/dentist is not "that way." Aren't there exceptional men?
A.: No. The myth of the exceptional man is a product of denial. None of us have escaped the conditioning of the dominant culture. To pretend that a few of us have escaped is to destroy our only opportunity to create authentic relationships by not holding men accountable to confront and change their basic conditioning.
Always close the greenhouse door.
A.: Certainly. This is evident because they have learned to practice dominance so well. The more pertinent question might be, "Can men be reeducated?" And my observation is that some of them can. Be wary, however, of men who are motivated to change solely to save a relationship. Their changes are superficial and will dissolve when the relationship appears secure. Also avoid getting rooked into being the teacher or trainer: this is an inappropriate role for women and ultimately counterproductive. As women, we do not really know how a man deconstructs his conditioning: he comes to consciousness as an oppressor, we come to consciousness as the oppressed. The curriculum for reeducation is entirely different. Ultimately, to make authentic change, a man must take responsibility for his own education (just as whites must assume responsibility for learning antiracist behavior). A woman may significantly contribute to a man s reeducation, however, by modeling self-love, which prohibits him from violating her.
You cannot teach an iceberg how to melt.
Q.: Can a woman ever trust a man?
A.: A woman can trust a man to be a man. She cannot trust a man to never hurt her. Under male supremacy, a woman's mistrust of men is a healthy attitude.
The Arctic is cold.
Q.: Under these circumstances, how does one overcome hopelessness?
A.: By realizing that in accepting the truth of our plight we create the opportunity to address the actual problem. It is through our grasp of the real situation that we find creative and effective ways to progress.
The Arctic will always be cold.
Q.: Is separatism the only solution?
A. Well, it is one of the real solutions. Separatism is the practice of limiting access of the oppressor to the oppressed. This practice exists on a continuum: one act of separatism is to require a man to wear a condom during intercourse--you are still very close but there is a boundary. Another is to claim a room of your own with a door that locks. Another is to leave a man who persists in violating you. Another is to walk out of a room where men are verbally demeaning women. I believe the cultivation of female power under male supremacy requires the practice of separation to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the individual situation. Relief from constant exposure to men and male needs is necessary for a woman to perceive the depth of her innate female power.
The purpose of a greenhouse is to simulate the tropics. Its seams must be tight. The prevailing winds of the Arctic are persistent.
Q.: Aren't you really saying that to be a real feminist, a woman has to become a lesbian?
A.: No. I believe a "real" feminist is a woman who loves herself and who acknowledges the admittedly depressing reality of how the ideology of male supremacy is designed to keep her from doing so. Lesbians are not necessarily more feminist than heterosexual women. Lesbians, too, must work hard to create new ways of being in a relationship. Eliminating men does not eliminate unconscious obedience to oppressive values. However, it is important for heterosexual women to respect the fact that, metaphorically speaking, lesbians definitely log more time in the tropics.
To find a warmer climate, move closer to the equator.
CONTROLLING A GREENHOUSE
MEETING THE NEEDS OF ORCHIDS
To grow orchids in the Arctic, we must build a greenhouse that will approximate a tropical climate and create a nurturing space while withstanding an aggressively antithetical environment. An effective greenhouse for the heterosexual feminist might consist of the following:
participation in a consciousness-raising group of like-minded women to share experiences and strategies in the Arctic;
logging regular time in a woman-only space, and spending time alone;
practicing conscious acts of separatism and observing your reactions;
becoming a skilled observer, and avoider, of the dynamics of male supremacy;
keeping a journal to increase self-awareness;
working actively in organizations that confront male power abuse and serving women damaged by it;
never tolerating a male companion's violation of your being;
maintaining a clear perspective and assessment of the pervasive influence of male supremacy and woman-hating on your intimate relationships;
expecting the men you love and who love you to work actively to make the world safe for women, and to be your allies against male supremacy.
When heterosexual feminists deny the risks and dangers inherent in a woman's intimate proximity to men, they consign their female power to the icy tomb of cognitive dissonance--the ability to hold contradictory beliefs in the mind simultaneously without acknowledging the contradiction. Denial only benefits the oppressor. The goal here is to be wise and successful cultivators of our essential female power, wherever we are, whoever our companions of choice. Assess the relative challenge of your chosen situation and devise your strategy accordingly. For the heterosexual feminist, however, hoping for an early spring is not an option.
From Ms. magazine. Kay Leigh Hagan is the author of "Internal Affairs: A Journal-keeping Workbook for Self-Intimacy" and "Prayers to the Moon: Exercises in Self-Reflection " (both from Harper SanFrancisco). This article is an excerpt from "Fugitive Information, "her subscription series of feminist essays, available by writing to: Box 18482, Denver, Colo. 80218-0482.
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