“Perhaps the best example of the contradiction of female actuality occurs in the competing ideals that govern femininity: the caring maternal figure and the alluring sexual object. Of course, in order to become a mother, a woman must at some point act as a sexual object, but this contradiction remains unthinkable within the patriarchal universe. The mother and the sexual object are opposed rather than contradictory. They are simply different women.”Todd McGowan, Emancipation After Hegel
For today’s self-portrait, I would like to reflect on the contradictions inherent to womanhood; specifically, I would like to consider the perceived contrasts of woman as mother versus woman as lover. It is unfortunate that in spite of the manifest paradox inherent to human existence, we struggle to reconcile these things in our minds and therefore, often reduce contradictions to oppositional forces, beings, or ideals. As noted in the McGowan quote above, the patriarchal tapestry of human society refuses to interlace the dual roles of womanhood into one, unified whole. Instead, the approach is to separate and identify women into one of two categories, either the chaste madonna or the destitiute whore. Nevertheless, as McGowan conveys, a woman cannot become a mother without first engaging in the act of sex. You cannot have a mother who is not also a sexual being.
This harrowing contradiction elicits endless suffering for women, across time and space. My experience is exemplary. I was taught the virtue of chastity. I desired to embody such. In high school, I began dating a young man who perceived in me only sexuality–imbued in the female form. After clearly articulating my boundaries and intent to abstain, he aggressively violated all. Feeling bound to him because of my christian upbringing, I remained in an abusive relationship that escalated over the course of two years. Having done everything I could to preserve my virginity, I compromised my integrity as a means of daily survival. About a year into the relationship–a year into the mire of unsolicited and undesired sexual activity–I wondered aloud at the status of his brother’s romantic relationship, “Do you think they are having sex?” With a scowl on his face, he said something that still makes me cringe, “Not L. She’s a good girl.”
After several failed attempts to end the relationship, I finally severed ties a year or so later. Not long afterwards, I became zealous in my pursuit of purity and holiness, which I believed could only be found in a relationship with God. I met another young man. He pursued me aggressively, in spite of the commitment he made to abstain from dating in the name of faith development. Over the course of several months, he invited me to several group outings, church services, and even a few individual hangouts, which any normal person would have considered dates, but for the fact that I paid for myself. He was enamored with me, yet our status remained friends. He went on a mission trip, and returned changed. He called me once afterwards and indicated his attraction to other girls on the trip, which I believe was a foolish attempt at letting me down gently. Then, he never called again.
A year later, I became friends with another young woman whom he’d pursued; they’d since broken ties. She told me that he truly cared for me; in fact, she considered me a threat, but he’d chosen to cut off our relationship because of his older sister’s influence. She convinced him to hold out for a purer girl–someone fully chaste–untouched, inexperienced–because that was God’s best for him.
Two young men demonstrated patriarchal resistence to the contradiction of womanhood as embodied within me. The one saw worth only in my ability to please him sexually. In other words, to the former, I was none but an object of sexual pleasure. The second could not perceive in me the wholesomeness required for marriage and motherhood, for I’d been used up (who cares that it was entirely due to duress and manipulation?!).
To both, as a woman, I could fit into only one category: that of the destitute whore. Neither could perceive the chaste daughter, the maternal helpmate.
When I married, I found it incredibly difficult to unleash the sexual aspects of myself, and I have heard that many people heavily influenced by strict religious ideology face similar challenges. After years of repressing desire, it’s not always easy to unlock the hidden chambers of our hearts. I had to learn, through a long and arduous road, that I am both lover and mother. I am both full of desire and longing and also capable of empathic maternity. I have my husband to thank for that, as from the begininning, with full disclosure of all I’d experienced, he embraced the whole. He desired me as a lover and future mother of his children. Eventually, I learned to embrace the duplicity–the multiplicity–of my womanly essence, perhaps, because of love itself.
Unlike the two who came before him, my husband truly loves me. McGowan says “Love has no limits because, in contrast to duty, it has the ability to identify with the difference of the other without eliminating that difference.” My husband embraced (and still embraces) all; this taught me to, likewise, embrace all.
In conclusion, a woman embodies contradiction as both lover and mother. She cannot come into motherhood without first having the experience of being a lover. She must become impure in order to know and experience the purest form of love, the love between mother and child. Patriarchal society resists her contradiction and resorts to an oppositional perspective of the identity of women. The only thing that can bridge the gap is love; for, it is said, “love covers over a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8, NIV Bible). If my sin arises from my being, then only love can rectify.