Woman Unbound: Some Notes on Gender in Capitalism

by Teresa Smith

When I was a kid, my mother taught me how to manipulate men.

She was a single parent with a disability that prevented her from working, and her smile and charm helped us get the resources we needed to survive. She flirted her way into getting our car fixed, into having overdraft fees waved at the bank; she even got a social services worker to eliminate her massive student loan debt. When mom got pulled over by cops, she would bat her eyelashes and pretend to be an idiot: “Oh my goodness officer! I had no idea the taillight was out!”

It always embarrassed me and my sister to watch this performance. It wasn’t mom’s real personality. Afterwards, she would regain her pride by telling us, in her most macho voice: “I hope you were taking notes, girls. This is what you have to do to survive.”

We lived in a large government-assistance housing complex, and I frequently babysat for sex workers, watching their kids while they were out making extra cash. I remember one girl, a six-year-old, Sarah, tore a large chunk of her hair out one night when her mom was late getting back from a job. It was getting later and later, and we kept watching Disney movies, pretending everything was okay, and I didn’t notice the way Sarah was pulling one strand of her hair out at a time until there was a big, bloody bald patch on the side of her head. This was the Seattle-area in the ’90s, and the Green River Killer was still out there. A couple of the bodies of women had been dumped within miles of our apartments.

When Sarah’s mom finally showed up, Sarah threw her arms around the woman’s waist and began crying.

“Get the fuck off me,” her mother cussed her out and hit Sarah a few times before the woman locked herself in her bedroom and bawled.

I never asked what stalled Sarah’s mom that night. I didn’t want to know.

Most of the woman I talked to growing up had exchanged sex for money at least a few times. My mom frowned upon sex work — she was religious and came from a wealthy family — but she borrowed money and favors from her boyfriends all the time.

Patty, the lady who lived next door, once laughed and explained that sex work is “just the same as marriage, only you don’t have to clean their damn socks!”

I got a lot of advice from the women in my apartments: “You should shave your legs, paint your nails.” “If a man starts talking, pretend you’re interested in whatever he says, no matter how stupid he is. Don’t ever act bored by a man.”

These were life-skills they were teaching me. Skills to survive, or at least live more comfortably. But the whole thing disgusted me. When I asked about love, these women tended to laugh. And I hated the way they complained about their men: talking about them behind their backs, much the way a worker might rant about a boss.

But perhaps that is exactly what was going on: Just as the males/workers were lying about themselves in order to manipulate their bosses into giving them cash, the females / dependents were inventing ways to more easily extract that money from the workers.

With our system of care so wrapped up in money, we find that the rarest luxury in this society is trust. Trust that your lover/provider will keep paying your bills even if you don’t have sex with them whenever they want. Trust that you will still be loved by your lover/dependent even if you lose your job. More often than not, this kind of trust is destroyed by the statutory nature of such relationships, and love is left wounded somewhere in the dark.

I didn’t realize my mother was actually trying to help me when I was twelve and she nagged me for months to pluck my eyebrows — “You’ll never get a husband with that unibrow!” — until finally she lost patience and pinned me to the bathroom wall and I wept while my little sister solemnly tweezed the offending hairs. How obsessed my mother was with my imaginary future husband! As if he were a specter lurking over me, watching for any sins against his taste.

In the early 90s, everyone knew the story of Lorena Bobbitt, the woman who chopped off her husband’s dick threw it from the window of a moving car. Some storytellers made Bobbitt out to be a harpy worthy of Greek legend: Lorena innocently smiling as she invites the ill-fated man into her bed, a murderous glint in her eye.

My mom had the best version of the Bobbit story, and the neighbor kids used to come over and beg her to tell it. Mom made Lorena into a trickster, much like Briar Rabbit, with the husband cast as a sort of Elmer Fudd character, hunting through the reeds for his escaped penis. “It’s got to be here somewhere!”

All of us kids disliked the men who prowled around our apartments, beating on doors and moms, drunkenly crashing into things with their cars, leaving a trail of dented mail boxes, scuffed up garbage cans, and fist-sized holes in walls and doors.

When I was in the fourth grade, my best friend Joey and I frequently spent our afternoons together, taking apart old radios, playing with soldering irons, eager learn how things work.

One night, Joey came straight to our apartment after spending the weekend at his dad’s trailer in the Cascade Mountains. I knew something was wrong: his shoulders were pulled up around his chin like his head was trying to escape into his neck.

We sat down in the kitchen and my mom brewed us some tea.

Finally Joey started talking. He spoke for about twenty minutes, and the only part I remember is the way he described his dad holding him down and jamming things into his ears. “First it was a pencil…”

Joey’s face was pale and a little green, like he was about to throw up.

“I hate it when people touch my ears,” he shuttered.

“I hate high places,” I said, and I told him about the time my mom’s boyfriend dangled me from the highest bridge in Eugene because I was “giving him lip.”

I didn’t talk about the time my dad was in town and tried to crush me under a mattress.

Then my mom spoke up and told her finest rendition yet of the Lorena Bobbitt myth, opening with the husband running into a police station, hollering, “My wang! My wang! That woman’s wacked off my wang!”

When I was thirteen, I stopped shaving my legs and became involved in a political battle to save some wetlands in my town. When this happened, many of the women in my apartments stopped speaking to me. I was blatantly ignoring their advice about looking pretty and not speaking my mind. Many of the moms discouraged their daughters from hanging out with me. A ten-year-old girl confronted me and said, “My mom thinks you should shave your legs.” During that time, I got death threats from two of the teenaged boys in the apartments.

By the time I was sixteen, I stopped hanging out with poor people, and started befriending folks in wealthier cliques.

My new friends were all children of white-collar workers, and their parents seemed to have gender all figured out: they spouted theories of gender equality and encouraged their daughters to become scientists. They acted as if sexism didn’t exist, as if women can be independent self-possessed individuals without fear of any social repercussion. And in their homes, this seemed to be the reality. I began to wonder if all the gender nastiness from my earlier life came simply because I hung out with poor people.

Some friends I met through activism helped me get into college, and I dreamed that academia would be a place where I could interact with men honestly, without fear or manipulations.

After going off to university, however, I found myself combating whole new restrictive gender dynamics: teachers who tended to call on male students more than female. Male students who became furious at me if I rejected acts of chivalry. Two of my female roommates had verbally abusive boyfriends. Several of my female friends were raped during college. In fact, I am pretty sure that all of us were raped at least once somewhere along the line: every time I made close friends with a woman, she would eventually disclose the details. It hurt my heart to hear it every time. And when a rapist finally got me, I was startled by how fast all the bullshit started hitting me: Trying to share it with people and having them ask, “What were you wearing?” And, while getting the restraining order, which involved the traumatic experience of seeing my rapist in court, having the judge repeatedly ask me, “Was there any alcohol involved?” As if these are worthy excuses. As if consent can be overridden so long as certain factors are involved.

After my rape, I found out my mother had also been raped. I already knew that my sister had been raped.

One in three American women admits to having been raped at some point in her life, but in my family, none of the women escaped.

When I told my older cousin about my rape, she said, “That’s the thing about college: all your friends start raping each other.”

Female oppression expresses itself differently among the wealthy: the designer date rape drugs, the games played with money and favors, shaming culture that frightens rich women away from voicing their abuse. But underneath it all, there is still that same dehumanization, that same belief that a female is nothing more than a body, and that body is simply a product for consumption.

What does it mean to be a woman in 2013?

In Dreams of Donuts #15, Oakland zinster Heather Wreckage wrote, “I pretty much believe that all female-bodied people have P.T.S.D. because of the constant trauma due to our “gender”.”

When I first read this, I was somewhat annoyed. I don’t want to think of myself as a trauma survivor. But, to my greater annoyance, I think Heather is on to something.

There are so many jokes about the “battle of the sexes,” but how frequently do folks bring up the war?

A friend who works at a woman’s shelter told me an alarming statistic: “During the Vietnam war, 58,000 American men were killed overseas. Meanwhile 62,000 American women died from domestic violence back home.”

But it isn’t just the moments of violence that make womanhood so difficult. To rephrase a Nietzsche quote: Rape is perhaps the dark flower of the horrible seed of America’s culture around gender.

A woman in this society is socialized to be a dependent. Being a dependent means that someone in your personal life has taken charge of your ability to receive money, and under capitalism, it is your access to money that determines how and whether you will survive.

To make her a better dependent, a woman in this society is conditioned to be working customer service all the time. She receives constant social pressure to undermine herself, to repress her ability to articulate her desires. She is supposed to be receptive to the situation, to make others feel comfortable and say “yes” to everything all the time. She must take responsibility for the “mood of the room,” to accommodate the needs of everyone else the moment they feel them. She swallows her anger. She stifles her pain. It is all about pleasing others while looking “attractive,” while appearing to be enjoying herself.

Isn’t it strange how everyone talks about the way a woman looks? It is usually the first thing people say about a woman. It starts to get to you, after a while. A multimillion dollar cosmetics industry has built a veritable empire upon this insecurity, selling women beauty supplies that are frequently made of glass, road kill, lead, and other toxic materials. Many women don’t care if their makeup is increasing their risk of cancer: better to have a shorter life than live with the constant insecurity that, if I let my appearance slide, my food, clothing, shelter, care, and companionship will disappear. Only, no matter how much makeup you lather upon it, that sense of swelling panic never quite leaves.

In my daily life — walking to the supermarket, riding the bus, going to workshops, parties, and classes, I frequently find that I am treated poorly if I don’t act in a self-deprecating way. As a woman, if I’m too assertive, people tend to respond negatively. When I was young, I had more energy to face this shit. In fact, I welcomed it. Once or twice a week during my sophomore and junior years of college, I painted a mustache across my upper lip and sagged my jeans and went to class in my “man costume,” and when people asked me if I was dressed that way for a reason, I’d ask them if they were dressed their way for a reason.

It is strange remembering those college shenanigans now, and asking myself why my energy for such things has disappeared.

Once, in college, a male student opened a door for me. I thanked him, even though I really didn’t need the door opened, and I decided to return the favor by walking up to the next door and opened it for him. He scowled and said, “I was just trying to be nice!”

Another time, I was trying to hang my bicycle from a ceiling rack in my apartment building, and, as I had the bike precariously balanced over my head, a guy suddenly walks in and eagerly says, “Let me help you!”

“I got it,” I grunted and finished hanging the bike. “But thanks for the offer.”

“Yeah, whatever,” my neighbor mumbled as he locked up his bike. “Fucking feminist bitch.”

So what’s with that, anyway? All those guys who get mad at you for denying them the ability to rescue you?

But then there are the times that, to my great shame, I’ve allowed myself to be rescued.

My last year of college, for example, I got out of a parking ticket by batting my eyelashes in traffic court, talking in a fake bimbo voice, and saying to the judge, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t even see that it was a No Parking Zone!” And the judge dismissed the ticket, just like that. Before this, I’d watched three other people — all male — have their parking ticket appeals rejected. The judge seemed quite pleased with himself for having rescued me, and for the next five minutes, he lectured me about staying safe while driving. I nodded and smiled as he droned on, and all I could think was, “So this is what it means to be patronized.”

The judge was in a position of authority over me (I did not have the money to pay that ticket, and he had the power to relieve me of this financial burden), so I allowed him to play rescuer.

So perhaps, we might say, that a male’s ability to put himself in the role of “rescuing” a woman is totally dependent on how much more power he has than her based on the inequalities that exist in our class system. If those eager young bucks who tried to help me with the door and bicycle had had me by the balls the way that judge did, I surely would have allowed them to play out their fantasies of “chivalry.”

Sometimes, I allow myself to imagine what life would be like if I lived in a world in which the dynamics of gender are no longer reinforced by class, a world in which everyone could emerge as the people they would be if we weren’t bound to these weird social roles that are assigned to us at birth based on the lottery ticket of genitalia. What would sex be like if it was impossible to attach all these strings to it? What would it be like to ride the bus? What would it be like if my boyfriend and I didn’t have to work so hard to “contribute equally to the relationship,” to no longer to go through all the discussions and extra chores and exchanges of money and guilty feelings and all the “I really want to check in with you on this because I need to know if I’m being a burden?” What would our relationship look like, post-capitalism? But my big hopes are reduced to something very small when, every day, I am confronted with gender dynamics. Because even though he and I live in a consensus-oriented co-op, and even though he wears eyeliner and I orate about politics, neither of us can escape the subtle power that finances have over both of our lives.

One in four American women experiences chronic nerve pain. When I find myself stuck in bed, grappling with the sense that my lungs and chest are imploding, I often realize that the pain started when I allowed someone to overstep a boundary.

American women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. In the book Silencing the Self: Women and Depression, social theorist Dana Jack shows how women are conditioned to self-silence: to bottle our opinions, thoughts, and feelings. By doing this, we become disconnected from our surroundings and the people around us.

Our mothers and grandmothers didn’t implement better gender relations by simply wishing or lamenting. They were actually out there in the factories, unions, and courts, negotiating for new laws and protections for women.

4000 American women die each year from domestic violence. What would happen if we took a page from our foremother’s books and united to protect each other? We have a lot of power–we make their food, live in their homes, care for their children…

This is the ugly direction we face as every relationship becomes increasingly politicized. If the cultural theorists are right, as capitalism enters its final stages of decay, we are seeing individuals (rather than companies) pitted against each other, until every type of human interaction becomes meditated by the negotiations of capitalist exchange. So perhaps capitalism’s dying days will be marked by women rising up Fight-Club-style, pinning our former masters to the ground, razor blades held to their quivering balls, as they beg us for mercy while we demand that the rapes, the murder, the oppression end.

But rather than war between the sexes, perhaps we will find a way to peacefully relieve each other of the arbitrary duties assigned to us by gender. We could harness the power of language–the power that language has to represent and reinforce our myths. We could liberate our genitals from the straight-jacket of gender and start telling different types of stories, stories about our day, stories about how, this morning, I had amazing sex with my partner, and as the ravenous jaws of my cunt closed around the swelling bud of his gentle phallus, both of us were consumed. And it is a coincidence that the penis in this story belonged to someone who considers themselves male, and that the vagina to my female-identified self, because it could have been any combination of adjectives and body parts. And I do believe that, if there is a moment in physical reality from which the myth of gender emanates — it is the moment when pleasure is transcribed into language.

And yet, I hesitate to get too excited about dismantling gender. Even if we successfully liberate ourselves from arbitrary gender roles, capitalism will simply develop a new game to dictate who will receive care and who won’t. One can only imagine the types of new cruelties people will invent if capitalism continues, what kind of new myths will be used to justify the inequalities inherent in the system.

When I was nine years old, my mom was having trouble with a former lover and we decided to move away and change our names. I told my sidekick, Raymond, a seven-year-old who liked to wear a bath towel cape. His mom, Brandy, was pissed when she heard we were leaving. She came over to our apartment and told my mom to buy a gun.

Brandy was six months pregnant, and let me feel her baby kicking while she explained to my mother: “You have to wait until he comes inside the house to shoot him. That way it’s burglary. If you shoot him on the porch, you’ll get murder, and that will put you in jail for a long time. But if you kill him in the house, then he’s a burglar, and you’re free to go.”
The man they were talking about was my father.

Mom thanked Brandy for her advice and a week later, we packed up all of our things and drove to a new state. The Witness Protection Program gave us some ridiculous new names.

According to family legend, my dad was part of the Symbionese Liberation Army, a group of radical insurrectionists who kidnapped and killed people in the early 70s. The group’s name comes from the word “symbiosis,” and their manifesto was all about how they considered themselves to be “a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body.”

My dad wanted to change the world, to make it a better place. But he believed that change had to be obtained through a fight. Perhaps that was why he was so violent at home: unable to find place to vent this violence after the SLA collapsed, he inflicted it upon his family.

We think my dad is dead now.

According to his friends, he was living homeless for several years in a small city in Oregon. Two years ago, he crawled off into the woods and never emerged.

In this war, there are no victors.