On women: ready, willing and able

When I think of the word woman, I think of bosoms. A word I found difficult to say out loud because of its salacious quality, as if the very word bosom was as unspeakable as any idea I might have had of sex. 

And then I think of the word cunt, a word I also find difficult to say out loud. A word I might find less disturbing when it’s said by a woman but when I hear a man use this word, and men tend to use it in anger or as a form of denigration, I feel troubled but in a different way from when I was a child. 

When I was a child the word bosom had an exciting quality. As much as it set my heart racing, it also felt pleasurable. I practised saying it whenever I sang out loud the words to ‘The Lonely Ashgrove’. 

A song about a man who has lost his beloved and wanders down by the ash grove in search of solace.

‘in sorrow deep sorrow, my bosom is laden, all day I go searching in search of my love. 

Ye echoes oh tell me where lies the sweet maiden? 

She sleeps ‘neath the green turf down by the ash grove.’

The word cunt, on the other hand, speaks to me of sexual violence, which is the other association I make to the word woman. I heard it first when I was at university, and someone told me it was the worst word in the English language, far worse than fuck. 

So why is the slang for vagina such a powerful and unacceptable word?

Sure, the collection of letters offer the satisfaction that comes out of uttering certain letters together, the emphasis on the ..unt, beginning with that hard ‘c’, and then something else, the hidden and secret nature of vaginas, the part of women’s body that cops such bad press these days. 

I didn’t consciously realise I had one until I hit my early teens when talk of periods first entered my life experience. It was all tied up with the making of babies, the vagina as that tunnel, or so my older sister told me when I was fourteen, the route up which the man put his thing, the thing I could not even name when I was still more a child than an adolescent because it felt so dangerous. 

‘Yuk’, I said when my older sister told me the facts of life, just as my father had told her when she sat on his lap on a Saturday morning when our mother was away at work. 

I walked up the hall way from the kitchen to my bedroom and there was my father in his usual chair and my sister curled up on his lap. He is whispering things into her ear. 

If this was the lot of women I thought then, I did not want a bar of it and more so when my sister decided she needed to tell me the facts so that my father did not get to me with them first. 

Our father told my sister he said, because he wanted to prepare her body for a man. Our mother he told my sister was too much of an innocent. She knew nothing about sex when they married twenty years earlier and he had to teach her everything. 

They did not teach us about vaginas at school. The only thing they taught us about being a woman at school was to do with the need to maintain our purity and help the man control his impulses over which he had no control. 

You’ve no doubt heard all of this before. Stock standard for the education of young Catholic women in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Hold onto your passion and your desire. 

And so, I learned to hold onto my passion and desires for many a year. 

Made worse by the fact that my father used to visit our bedroom at night when all the lights were out. His visits were so regular I learned to wait for them, to anticipate them and to brace myself for his arrival. 

In those days I shared a room with my older sister and our beds ran side by side with a narrow corridor in between. My father padded along this corridor and turned to face my sister, this then was my cue to turn and face the wall. To face the wall and hold every fibre of my body tight so that he might not notice me, he’d think I was asleep and therefore leave me alone. 

Which he did, night after night. I heard the rustle of blankets the slip slide of hands on bodies the muted muffles of my father’s breathing and the occasional sigh from my sister. 

I never imagined it to be a sigh of pleasure. Instead I heard it as a sigh of duty. 

In the mornings she climbed out our bedroom window early to go off to mass and from this I imagined she was escaping any further visits that night.  

This then was the lot of women, I decided as I anticipated my own future. To be ready willing and able and if not to escape into the dark.

She who once thought these thoughts.

The male gaze

If I were to do one of those free association tests to the word ‘woman’, the first thought to enter my mind is one of ‘sexual violence’.

This comes first and then the words of a song from Calamity Jane tumble into my brain,

‘A woman’s touch can do so much.’

Most likely because I saw the musical recently.

Woman – inequality. Woman small: too small or too big. Silent or too loud.

Woman, a creature who is defined by all the things she must not do, or be, or say.

Woman, the missing rib, the appearance of things, bosoms, that almost unthinkable word from when I was a child growing up.

The Virgin Mary in her blue gown, her dainty foot on top of the snake and a look on her face that suggests she has no notion in her head of what is going on at her feet.

Woman equals innocence.

Or its opposite, rat cunning, treachery, malice.

When I was a child and sat through Sunday mass, bored to desperation by the priest’s drone, I took to staring at the faces of people nearby, in so far as I could get a look at them and not just the back of the heads of the people in the pews ahead.

I never looked at the men. They all looked the same, short neat hair or bald, suit coats or thick jackets in winter, yellowing white shirts and nondescript ties even in summer.

But the women were different in shape and size and colour.

I took pleasure in singling out those females who to my mind were the most beautiful. I wrote lists in my mind.

First, out of obligation, I listed the Blessed Virgin Mary and in second place, although I knew she would not pass in a beauty contest, I put my overworked careworn mother.

Second out of love and recognition and for the way she looked in her photographs from the days before she married my father, when she showed off her movie star looks, dark hair, tied back in a French bun, clear white skin and bright eyes.

My mother came second out of love.

And then the fun began.

My third-grade teacher, Miss Anderson, tall and thin with black hair scraped off her face in a tight bun was my actual favourite followed by a woman I saw in church every Sunday. A woman I did not know but followed with my eyes. A woman who reminded me of Ava Gardiner, the star my mother singled out on the television, second in beauty to Grace Kelly.

 Poor grace Kelly, one of my mother’s chosen women, chosen both for her beauty and her cascading curls, and because she was married to the Prince of Monaco. But she died too soon in a car accident.

Today, I do not go for looks. I go for the mind. Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Barret Browning, because of her poetry: ‘How do I love thee…’ and for her romantic escape from a possessive father into the arms of the poet Robert Browning.

But why as I sit here, do so few women come to mind from today.

The women who slip in are poets like Emily Dickinson, and writers like the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, even Sylvia Plath. Women whose lives were marked by sorrow.

I can have my female heroes from today but it’s like I’m looking into a crowded room, rather like the senate in Australia and although there are a few shiny faces of women present in their colourful clothing, the men in suits dominate.

Always the men in suits, the men shackled by their uniform of respectability and control, controlling them as much as those uniforms impose a right to inflict control over others.

No wonder I relish the transgender movement where people are now freer to experiment with their gender, to dip in and out of their femininity and masculinity.

Now there’s a hero, Hannah Gadsby, her position in the world, ‘a little bit lesbian’, as she likes to say, in her more masculine clothes, her soft face etched by a bob of hair cut in a way that disguises her gender.

And her sharp mind, a mind that recognises one of the puzzles of art history, the way the women in the paintings of the old masters lacked a spine or must have done so, according to Gadsby, because in almost every painting from those days with few exceptions the painted women rest on their sides or drape their bodies across a chair.

 And always the style of their dress seems half finished, as if they lack the capacity to do up buttons. So often, as Gadsby observes, one breast flops only the rim of their blouse as if they lack the capacity to tuck it in or to hold their clothes firmly together.

When I think of women, I see them through the male gaze, even as a small child. And though I can imagine now that in those days when I wondered about the most beautiful woman in church and wrote down my lists of desire, this came from a need to rekindle the feeling of being a baby in her mother’s arms.

My mother then, any baby’s mother then, the most beautiful woman in the world.

Could it be it begins as most things begin, with mothers and babies. Though where then do the fathers fit in, those seed-bearing men who start the process through their desire that is also kindled in their mother’s arms?

And why do things go so terribly wrong that as much as mothers are admired like the virgin Mary, idealised and propped up like saints, they are also despised.

As a woman – another of Gadsby’s beliefs – you’re either a prostitute and sexually available, or a virgin and there is nothing in between.

I used to think of homosexuality as sexually driven but more recently after I have spent time with gay people, I realise it’s as sexually driven as being straight. Sex is only a part of it. Again, perhaps because that’s where it begins in infancy, at conception, in the making and maintaining of life.

But there’s so much more to us woman than mere producers of life. As there is so much more to all people, women, men and all those who traverse the genders more freely.