“She would not possess the feminine qualities such as proper dress and coyness.”

As long as we’re on the subject of sexuality.

I believe this sentence comes, alas, from an essay on Virginia adoption laws, which at the time (and evidently again!) forbade adoptions by homosexuals, and on a child-custody case that referred to those laws in a child-custody dispute. The case the students were writing about actually involved the daughter of a married couple who were divorcing because the husband had come out as gay. Some of the background is here; if you don’t have time to follow the link, the Virginia Supreme Court awarded the daughter to her mother (who smoked heavily despite having already had one lung removed for cancer and whose state of health gave her daughter frequent nightmares) rather than leave her with her father, whose homosexuality, in the opinion of the court, would expose her to taunting at school and her father’s partner at home, where she nevertheless had claimed to be happy. So much for family values….

Anyway, obviously my student was in favor of removing the child from her father’s custody (and, presumably, influence), principally expressing the conviction that daughters can be properly raised only by female parents, regardless of the quality of the parenting. How, he wondered, could she possibly learn about the mysteries of the female body from somebody who didn’t have one? And then he bumbled on in the dark a little farther.

Here you see his belief that girls cannot learn to “possess the feminine qualities” from anyone but their mothers. I know I wouldn’t have learned “coyness” if I hadn’t had my mother. Right. My mother was anything but coy: she was outspokenly intelligent, persistent (okay, we sometimes called it “stubborn”), honest, outgoing, decisive, creative, articulate, forthright, and not afraid of confrontation when she believed she was in the right. She despised hypocrisy, flirtatiousness, and false modesty, all of which I associate with the idea of “coyness.” I learned, or inherited, a number of her traits. I also admired and emulated a lot of other people’s qualities, and I hope I got a measure of sweetness (and a lot of other things) from my father. But in my student’s mind, a girl has only one teacher and one role model: Mommy.

I hate to think that a young girl has to learn “proper dress” from Mommy, though. It’s true that some of my own style choices—I remember in particular the first Easter hat I was allowed to choose for myself, a variegated-pink flight of fancy that could be, and may have been, achieved by inverting a flower pot and wrapping it with a very long chiffon scarf, layers overlapping—were unfortunate. But I was finding my own sense of style; and all through knee socks and sweaters and pleated skirts, shirtwaists and trench coats in floral fabrics (sewn by me), blue jeans and chambray work shirts and beads and buffalo-hide sandals, floor-length ensembles with an Edwardian feel, and now a general hodgepodge of whatever fits, is clean, and conveys a vaguely shabby-academic effect—all interspersed with dramatic formal gowns whenever I got a chance—I have NEVER dressed like my mother. She did indeed have a strong sense of “proper dress”; but hers was formed in a different era, and I live in MY era.

In "the" Easter bonnet. You can't really appreciate its splendor here. All the other women in this family Easter photo are wearing hats with wider brims and massed flowers, a lot prettier and a lot less dated than my choice. Live and learn.

In fact, as long as my student writer was indulging in stereotyped thinking, he might have considered the fact that many of the designers who have “dressed” women with success have been gay, and therefore assumed that this child’s father might be a better fashion adviser than her mother. But his stereotypes seem to have been limited to the negative.

Anyway, here I stand, a woman raised by her mother (and father and family and friends and peers and aspirations and sociopolitical contexts) and COMPLETELY LACKING in “proper dress and coyness.” Somehow I thought I did “possess the feminine qualities,” partly by genes and partly by choice; but now I find I don’t. Luckily, this realization does not unsettle me. Generalizing is a necessary part of communication, but the kinds of generalizations that are embodied in stereotypes are a pretty bad guide to reality.

My student wrote these words decades ago. I hope he’s learned something since then. If not, I hope he hasn’t married, because I can’t hold out much hope for a relationship based on stereotyped assumptions and superficial values, no matter how “properly” gussied up.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““She would not possess the feminine qualities such as proper dress and coyness.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    In “Annie Hall” Woody Allan’s character is trying to figure out why he can’t make a relationship last. He’s walking around Greenwich Village, near the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South. The sun is shining pleasantly but brilliantly. As he walks along, he notices a good-looking young heterosexual couple, walking hand in hand, obviously happy to be together. And he stops them and asks them what is behind their obvious compatibility and happiness with each other. They reply, very cheerily, that they’re both superficial and very attractive; so how could there be any problems. Woody gratefully thanks them for the insight.
    (Of course, we don’t know how long that kind of contentment can be sustained. Depends upon how cynical one is.)

    • RAB

      I remember that scene now! Yes, as a superficial person she must have possessed those feminine qualities. I imagine a relationship where both partners were superficial and stereotypical might work, and maybe their lack of imagination would enable a lack of boredom?

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    By the way, loved the hat. Love all these photos of sweet young you.

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