The inside of inequality, the cellular scrapings of being considered lesser than, lies in the reflex of deference.
Deference is the wee tiny rock that women carry in their pockets, the signal to tell them to get out of the way, sit down and be quiet, to become small and unremarkable in the presence of men.
Men didn’t put the tiny rocks in women’s pockets. They didn’t have to. Women put the tiny rocks there themselves.
Deference is the last crumbs of inequality that remain after civil rights acts and equal rights amendments, court cases and marches down the street. Deference is what keeps the pilot light of inequality burning long after equal opportunity has been installed in education, government, and business. Deference is the evidence that women believe what they’ve been told. No, not even what they’ve been told. What they absorbed from the world. No, not even that. What was packaged up as part of their whole being. Is deference part of a young girl’s genetic code?
I watch women and girls and I wonder could this be true?
My eight year-old granddaughter abruptly changes course when she sees a boy heading for the monkey bars where she was going to show me her latest trick. She didn’t explain, just made a sharp left and headed to the swings.
I caught up with her. “You can use the monkey bars first. The boy could have waited his turn.”
“Oh, it’s not that,” she answered, unwilling to show me the little rock in her pocket.
How could she have learned that, I wondered. Have I given her a message of deference? Were there expectations coming from her father or grandfather that I couldn’t see or sense? Was she seeing the instruction to defer to a boy in something they said, a nod of their heads, a look?
Who put the rock in her pocket? And what does this mean for her future? If she backs away from the monkey bars now, will she stay silent in class? Will she acquiesce when a boy decides they should do things she doesn’t want to do? Will how she feels about herself be a synonym for how a boy feels about her?
Will it take years for her to realize she has the rock in her pocket?
I am frustrated by this because I have spent so many years struggling with my own tendency to defer to men. Raised in the fifties and sixties, men were more competent and successful, largely because they had all the opportunity. My mother’s success was limited to her sewing table and her remarkable ability to endure difficult times. So as a young woman during the blooming of feminism in the seventies, I began to realize I had a lot of rocks in my pocket and I started throwing them at everything.
My consciousness-raising involved, to a very large degree, a reckoning with how much I had accepted a label of inferiority. This fact made me as angry as the oppression itself. It is the ultimate, I thought then, when the oppressed believe the lies of institutional racism or sexism, when they absorb those lies, wear them like a second skin. That’s the real victory of oppression, having the oppressed just eat it every day and think it’s nutritious.
So I watch my granddaughter, see her getting out of the way, and I wonder where is my power to change this. How do I explain to her that she is entitled to be on the monkey bars first if she doesn’t believe that in her heart, if it is already her reflex to defer.
I want to turn her pockets inside out. I will. I just don’t know how.
Thank you to The Daily Post for telling us it’s Blog Action Day on the topic of inequality.