The upsides and the downsides of being a woman


Something made me re-read a book for girls which my Victorian grandmother had pressed on me when I was seven. It was about a girl who’d lost her mother, and whose military father was absent. It pressed a few buttons for me, though at seven I didn’t realise why. ‘The Wide Wide World’ by Miss Wetherell, was published in 1850, and became an instant best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s a vivid picture of rural America in the 1840’s, and the forerunner of all those other girls books. Jo March reads it in ‘Little Women’.

Ostensibly the story of an orphan who becomes a fervent Christian and whose faith sustains her throughout constant miseries and trials, re-reading it I saw something else. It was a perfect picture of the powerlessness of women, and of how ingrained this powerlessness was.  Ellen, the heroine, never has any choices, and even when she finds happiness with the upright Christian, John Humphreys, she is totally subservient to him, and finds her greatest happiness in pleasing him. So powerlessness was held up to generations of girls as being a virtue.

This theme of powerlessness was on my mind, after reading a wonderful list in another blog, of a person’s rights, which included having the right to say no, to remove oneself from an abusive situation, not have to explain oneself etc. And as I thought about these rights, and how I’d painfully allowed myself to claim them over a long life of invalidating myself, I realised that the reason most people – but especially women – have to be reminded of these rights is because they do feel powerless, and this is too often the result of the way we bring up our children.

We don’t allow them to be angry and say no, or choose what foods they eat, or what subjects they will take at school… too often from the day they are born, children are treated like brown paper parcels, and rarely given information about where they’re going or what they’re going to be doing; often their needs are secondary to the needs of parents or other pressures, and in so many tiny ways we unwittingly make children feel powerless and without a voice. They learn to please their parents by giving away their power and conforming. I’m not talking about permissive parenting here, but about the courtesy we give to adults, but not to children

In the book, Ellen is often in floods of tears, which reminded me of my childhood, and it’s only well into life I realised that I was always in tears as a child because I so often felt powerless and therefore angry. Saying how we feel, expressing anger, was not allowed, and it’s a skill that many of us haven’t mastered or taught our children.

So the only other way people can express their anger and powerlessness, is to be destructive, and we see this constantly in the courts, on the roads, and in relationships. But it was comparatively safe for a child to cry, so many children from Ellen onwards, learned to divert their anger into tears. As a mature adult whenever I was angry, to my annoyance I would cry…  until I realised that this was the way I’d dealt with anger as a child. They were tears of powerlessness.

It was gentle Anne Bronte in ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’, published two years before ‘The Wide Wide World’, who challenged this powerlessness of women in her book which was considered shocking when it was published, and instantly became a best seller! In the book, which is about a woman trapped and terrorised by a drunken and sadistic bully, the wife, driven to desperation, slams the bedroom door in his face and locks him out, before eventually escaping.

This one act of slamming the door in her husband’s face reverberated throughout Victorian society. She had violated her husband’s rights, and broken the law at the same time. Some have called this the first feminist novel. This heroine had defied the centuries old acceptance that a woman was a father’s property until she married, when she became her husband’s property.

When Mrs Caroline Norton, whose husband was also a drunken bully, famouslyleft her husband in 1836, she not only had no rights to her children and no rights to divorce him, but when she earned money to support herself it became her husband’s property. The Married Women’s Property Act in 1870, finally allowed women some independence in England. But women were still powerless in many other ways, as Mary Lincoln’s incarceration in a lunatic asylum for no reason other than eccentricity, unresolved grief, and falling out with her son over money, showed.

While slavery – owning a person, buying and selling them, breaking up their families and working them to death  – became illegal in the western world, it wasn’t for many more years that women achieved the vote and a measure of freedom. And still, in some places in the west women are struggling for equal pay and equal rights.

Religion has not been on the side of women – as President Jimmy Carter has said:  “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”

They have in fact chosen to play the power game. And it isn’t just Christianity which has made this choice. There’s hardly a religion in the world which doesn’t rate women as lesser beings. In Jerusalem these days, women are now segregated on buses, not allowed to pray at the Wailing Wall, and subject to increasing discrimination by extreme members of the Jewish faith. And we all know the fate of too many women in Muslim, Hindu and other religious societies.

Marve Seaton in her courageous blog about the abuse of women, continually draws attention to female circumcision, breast ironing, gang rape, acid attacks, stoning and “honour” killings, (a euphemism for male sadism, ego, and heartlessness) amongst other outrages inflicted on women. Most religions, including extreme Christian sects, still think that it’s okay, and a husband’s right to beat his wife.

The UN figures show that two thirds of illiterate people in the world are women, that women work harder and longer hours than men as well as being responsible for their households, and  that men own most of the land in the world, and most of the money.

Women in the west who feel powerless, who are struggling with low wages, male chauvinism and hostility from the far right of some Christian churches, have it easy compared with their sisters in the third world and elsewhere…  and women everywhere are often too emotionally connected to the needs of their children to find any way out of their dilemmas of poverty and powerlessness.

But when I look back at the position both of slaves and of women and children a hundred and fifty years ago in the west, I can see how far we’ve come. And now it’s the time for our sisters in the rest of the world to start to edge towards their freedom too, which for many of them means feeling safe. Anne Bronte’s book also preached universal salvation, and it must have seemed an unattainable vision when she wrote ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.

But western men did change their minds, and western women are well on their way now. So it IS possible that things can and will improve for our sisters in the rest of the world, that the climate of thought can change other men’s minds. Changing the way men think is the challenge for those women, and it’s our challenge to support them in doing it. We’ve come so far, that we can be optimistic that the time will come when we will all be free. Progress does happen. Change does happen. This is the blessing of modern times.

As Emily Dickinson said back then: “Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—


Food for Threadbare Gourmets

Deep disappointment today! Desperate for something sweet, I decided to make myself a banana split. I knew I had some ice-cream in the deep freeze, because I’d seen the plastic container. Alas. It wasn’t labelled, and turned out to be soup. Undeterred, I dashed up to the village shop and bought a packet of vanilla ice-cream. By the time I was home I’d changed my mind, and instead of banana I made a quick hot chocolate sauce to pour over the ice-cream. It’s heaven, and used to be the children’s favourite pudding outside chocolate mousse.

It comes from Mrs Beeton, the famous Victorian cookery writer. All you need is one rounded dessertsp of cornflour, two of cocoa and three of sugar, half a pint of water, half an ounce of butter and some drops of vanilla. Mix the cornflour, cocoa and sugar together with a little of the water. Boil the rest of the water, and pour over the chocolate mix. Pour into a saucepan and boil for two minutes, add the butter and vanilla, and pour over the ice-cream. Delectable and cheap.


Food for Thought

Looking after oneself, one looks after others.
Looking after others, one looks after oneself.
How does one look after others by looking after oneself?
By practicing mindfulness, developing it, and making it grow.
How does one look after oneself by looking after others?
By patience, non-harming, loving-kindness, and caring.   Samyutta Nikaya 47.19  Verse from the Buddhist scripture





Filed under books, cookery/recipes, great days, history, life/style, literature, philosophy, slavery, spiritual, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, Uncategorized, womens issues

58 responses to “The upsides and the downsides of being a woman

  1. Michele Seminara

    Wow Valerie, i loved this post.The point you make about women being held in place by their emotional attachment to their children is profound. Isn’t it cruel that such a beautiful emotion as mother love is exploited in this way? You have such important things to say, and such a powerful and no-nonsense way of saying them! Great.


    • Thank you Michele, great to know you enjoyed the post, and thank you so much for your generous comments… yes, mother-love is probably the strongest power in both the human and the animal kingdom, and infinitely precious….I always think it’s one of the privileges of being a woman….


  2. My goodness Valerie, I would love to sit a spell with you. Your mind is a well oiled machine of wisdom, education and of grace, not to mention humour a-la-mode !!


  3. your topic was so well written you had me from beginning to end – I am reading the book “Lean In” right now and it is an eye opener–and in the book she asks men to help out with the mission of equality — both sides have to be on the same side


    • Thank you LouAnn, lovely to hear from you, and so glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve been reading about ‘ Lean In’ and all the controversy it’s aroused – I shall look forward to hearing about it in your blog! I so agree that we all have to be on the same side…


  4. Amy

    Thank you for explaining the powerlessness and why women were and are powerless. “..often their needs are secondary to the needs of parents or other pressures” is the key factor.
    I agree with Lesley that your mind is a well oiled machine of wisdom, education and of grace.


  5. Your post is as delicious as the hot chocolate sauce on ice cream. I ate up every last word and then licked the bowl. What amazes me is not so much the powerlessness but the women who through the ages have not succumbed to it. How did they do it? Some common threads I see are education, skills and income.


  6. Wow, Valerie… that was some time travel through history, and actually, very empowering. I love that poem of Emily Dickinson’s, and your point about the way kids are brought up to give away their power is illuminating. It’s true, I think – and kids have much more capacity to reason than we’ve traditionally given them credit for – the question is how to do it without going too far the other way.


    • Thank you Alarna, glad you enjoyed it… As to your last comment about how bring up children without being permissive – I know what you mean, and children without boundaries are anti-social and a pain to be around.

      My solution was to think: how would I like to be treated? and it seemed to work for us… we went for courtesy, cooperation, compromise and discussion rather than ‘do as you’re told!’.
      I loved being a mum!!!


  7. I live in Africa and spend a lot of time in the Middle East – specifically Saudi Arabia.
    The Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University (PNU; Arabic: جامعة الأميرة نورة بنت عبد الرحمن‎) is a women’s university in Saudi Arabia and largest women-only university in the world.[4][5] It is composed of 32 campuses across the Riyadh region and a new library capable of holding 4.5 million volumes.[3] The university was founded as Riyadh University for Women in 1970. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz launched the building of the world’s largest and most modern women’s institution of higher education in a self-contained higher education city. A new campus dedicated May 2011 can accommodate 40,000 students and 12,000 employees. It has a 700‑bed teaching hospital[4] and research centers for nanotechnology, information technology, and bioscience.[6]. The PNU campus spreads over 8 million square meters,[9] including a new library which will hold 4.5 million books. There are 800 buildings and ten gates between Riyadh and the university campus. In addition to housing for university staff and students, it features mosques, schools and kindergarten for children, and recreation facilities. It is one of the ten largest universities in the world and the largest university for women.[10]
    When a country like Saudi Arabia starts educating the women it shows us how far we have come…


    • The university sounds wonderful Tersia, and I gather that women can drive while they are on campus, which of course is not the case in cities… which when one considers women are also banned from much of the public transport systems, or have to have a male family member or guardian with them is pretty limiting.
      Sadly I feel that Saudi Arabia is one of the places where women get the worst deal, like the 21 year old gang- raped, who became pregnant and unlike her attackers was not only imprisoned for adultery, but sentenced to 100 lashes postponed until she’d had the baby.
      KIng Abdullah makes the right noises, but doesn’t seem to come up with the goods, and I feel pays lip service to the whole question of women having more freedom…. and the kingdom is 130 out of 134 in the table of women’s participation in public life.
      it’s great that some women are getting an education, and now the Saudi culture needs to change the hostile climate of thought towards women.



  8. Tears of powerlessness hit a cord with me. And the whole progress of women… what a journey. I hope the young women of today truly learn and understand how far women have come. Not that long ago you had to get the permission of your husband to get a credit card … yikes. And the Chocolate sauce … oh my. Thank you for sharing that soon-to-be-tried recipe!


    • Hello Kathie… I’ve got behind with my replies! Thank you for your comments… yes, I hope young women today do realise how precious their freedom is… I think our history should be part of the curriculum in schools… and hope you get onto the chocolate sauce!!!!


  9. Well said. I almost didn’t read, because I took your title to mean that you’d say something like ‘We women have to look after our men, but they’re so kind, so long as we’re good!’ You didn’t say any such thing. I like what you did say and how you said it.

    In case you’re not already following these blogs, I recommend and


    • HI there,
      Just found your comment in among five hundred spam messages for viagra etc!!!
      Thank you for what you say – I will certainly investigate the two blogs you suggest. Your comments about why you nearly didn’t read this post actually suggests to me that others felt the same way, because I was surprised at the low stats for it, and surmised that the word women was a put-off!!!
      I was totally uninspired about a title for it, as you can see!


  10. I was moving and being moved right along with your post, so understanding and so ready to comment, then you blogged about the Chocolate Sauce and THAT TOOK OVER MY MIND! I so thoroughly forgotten how wonderful that stuff was and how my Dear Sweet Departed Momma would make it for us and for company…not only for ice cream but for cake too!

    Thanks for the memory!



    • Hello LInda… yes the stomach can dominate the mind!!! and who can blame you when chocolate is involved!!!
      So pleased you’ve re-discovered the chocolate sauce… I can see some grateful grandchildren enjoying that!!!!


  11. It’s hard to comprehend the powerlessness of women through history and difficult to express to young women how they need to be diligent to keep it because there are many forces still trying to wrest it away wherever it sprouts.


    • Good to hear from you,,, yes, you’re right and I think many younger women have no idea how tough life used to be, and I’m not sure they realise how precious our freedom is either….


  12. Boy, could I associate with this one. I’ve been int the process if finding my voice and power for the past several years. It’s an arduous journey but the alternative is bleak … Thanks, for sharing …


  13. We are all created equal by our God. If only we all lived in that manner.


  14. For me Valerie this is so well timed, beautifully written as always and such food for thought. I still cry when I am angry, this is such an emotional reaction for me, I know why I do it but cannot seem to help myself. The alternative is fury, I have a terrible temper and it is not something I am proud of.

    I remember reading ‘The Wide Wide World’ when I was quite young. My reaction to it was not positive then. I don’t believe I could pick it up today and get through it.


    • Val, thank you for your thoughtful comments as always, and thank you for what you say.
      Our patterns are so ingrained aren’t they! but at least now we recognise them for what they are!… I hope you don;t beat yourself up because you think you have a terrible temper… I always think that underneath the fury is despair, and when that’s healed, the rage dissolves too. I speak from experience.
      Yes, The Wide Wide.. is infuriating reading with all the evangelical Christian masochism, but at the same time, it”s a really fascinating picture of rural life at that time, and I loved the descriptions of the unspoiled countryside …


  15. So true, valerie, so so true, I read this at 5.30 am this morning and then thought about it all day, checking off your points against my own life, so often to gain equality in our lives we women need to live alone for a very long time, i know that because i ran my own life after husband number one for almost twenty years I have become selfish.. delightfully so. How liberating when we take a task (like our own good lives) and own it. I don’t cry anymore.. Bugger them. This was a great essay Valerie, a great one. c


    • Hello Celi, lovely to hear from you, and I loved what you had to say… Yes, I found it very hard to give up my independence and re-marry – forty years ago!!! And I still love my independence.
      I don’t think it’s selfish – if not you – who? – if not now – when!.
      And no, I don’t cry any more – except over animals!!!!
      Thank you so much for your appreciation – I really value it.


  16. Valerie, your words are so enlightening and the powerlessness of women has indeed been overwhelming. Yes, we have come a long way. The progress of women is astounding but even today there are multiple areas where women’s rights are nonexistent. Woman is subservient to man. She has very little respect. Even in America, there is still evidence of inequality in the realm of man vs. woman. Is it possible to change the way men think? Yes. Will it happen? We can only hope and instill in our youth the importance of standing up for one’s self.


    • Hello Sharla,
      I can only agree with everything you say, and especially about impressing the importance of our freedom on young people – who I think tend to take it for granted…Thank you for your thoughts – lots to ponder there…


  17. Valerie, this blog post of yours is outstanding – like all of them are. Have you read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening? It was published in 1899 and created outrage with Chopin’s depiction of an unhappy wife who has an affair. (The story ends with her suicide, but outrage at the very telling of her story was still huge.) Your post reminded me of this book and the effect it had on me as a college student. And, as you so eloquently argue, things for women in many parts of the world remain difficult at best and oppressive at most. —Jadi


    • Jadi, thank you so much for your appreciation, which I value greatly.
      No I haven’t read The Awakening, but it sounds as though I should…. and wasn’t Madame Bovary considered immoral and outrageous? – must check…So good to hear from you, and to have your comments…


  18. elisaruland

    As always, I enjoyed your post, Valerie. Women’s rights have come a long way, but on the global level there is so much more work to be done. I look at my daughter and see so much hope for our future. She was born with an iron will, stands up for what she believes is right or wrong, and has a natural instinct to fight for the underdog. She’s been a tough one to raise at times, but I’ve delighted in her passion for life and have encouraged her to express herself in a thoughtful manner. I am curious to see how she harnesses this fiery energy as she transitions from high school, to college and then out into the world. I have great hope that she, and other women of her generation will be a force against inequality which will, in turn, start to erase the global human rights abuses against women.

    Also, the Buddhist scripture is lovely!


  19. Elisa, so good to hear from you and I’m glad you enjoyed the post…
    Your daughter sounds wonderful… I think there are some wonderful young women these days, and I always hope there are enough wonderful young men who are good enough for them !
    And yes, they are the next generation to tackle the next steps in our progress as a civilisation…
    So glad you enjoyed the Buddhist verses..


  20. Alice

    One of your finest pieces–which is saying a lot because they are all mighty fine. I have heard recently that what human traffickers most often use to control the women they exploit is “hope.” Of course that is a pseudo hope and a liar masking as the real hope with feathers.


  21. Oh Alice – yes, that is the cruellest thing to trick the poor women with hope, hope that they can help their families, find a better life and so on. Doesn’t bear thinking of. We are so fortunate aren’t we….
    So glad you enjoyed the blog, that was such a generous and appreciative thing to say, thank you so much Alice. I really value it.


  22. Another satisfying and nourishing post. I love the way you don’t compartmentalize your experience, and thus your writing. You
    don’t use conventional separation – you use connection, because that is what you see. And of course, everything IS connected – the clarity with which you see and express that is an invitation to any of us who need a reminder.
    I was struck by your insights about crying. I went through a long ordeal a couple of years ago, when as a reporter, I was bound by my deepest beliefs to protect the identity of a confidential informant in a murder trial I was covering. I stayed tough the whole time, as I was fined $1000 a day (later revoked), just barely escaped serving six months in jail, stood up to threats and taunts, was fired – and then finally discredited via outright lies.

    I never lied, not once. And I never cried.

    Now that its all over and I’m trying to mount a defense effort via public support, I often start crying when I talk about the case. Just when I most need to appear strong, rational and unemotional, I begin to weep. It’s humiliating, and it doesn’t inspire confidence. Yet, the entire force of my will can’t stop the tears. I just can’t figure out why I was in such control before, and now I’m the stereotypical weeping woman ?????
    (Ironically, I won a first prize press award for the very story that targeted me for attack.)
    Valerie, do you (or any of your readers) have ideas on how I can force myself not to cry? I just need temporary solutions because I’m heading back into battle soon (so any kind of longer-term thing such as therapy, etc just has to be postponed) Pragmatic advice very gratefully appreciated.

    Thank-you for another beautiful post, Valerie.


    • My best wishes to you; you did a brave thing. What has worked for me in years past to stop crying is to find a mirror and look myself in the eye. For some reason, this worked every time.


      • This is a sound idea! I had to call both of my stuffy brothers ( we all agree that some travelling hippies or revolutionaries on the lam must have left me on the doorstep as an infant ( : and for the first call it didn’t work.
        But for the second – it did!
        I’ll keep practicing,
        Thanks a lot!


    • Claire Marie, your reply really moved me – how courageous and good to you are and what a tremendous job you did, and then got picked on… it seems so unfair…
      As I thought about it, I wondered if that was perhaps behind the tears…. All the time you were in the struggle with the other side, you were brave and powerful, But now, trying to get people on your side, and get their support, maybe you’ve started to feel how unfair it was, and then we seem to slide into feeling victim. I know that as soon as I start feeling how awful things or people are to me, and start to feel sorry for myself, that’s when the tears come these days. So as soon as I feel them start to prickle my eye-lids, I know I’ve slipped into feeling victim.
      I hope you don’t find this objectionable… it’s perfectly natural that you should feel that way, but I find that if I can step back, and decide I don’t like feeling like this, the tears dry up…I’m damned if I’m going to let anyone make me feel like a victim any more!!!!
      Of course I didn’t take your military joke any other way!!!!
      I really respect your fine mind and insights, and value your interest in my blog.
      As for your lovely comments – well, I am so fortunate to have such a discriminating and understanding reader.
      Your comments are so validating.

      I have one other thought… when we’re under stress we use up huge amounts of elements in the body, and I do know that when we are short of magnesium we cry easily… you probably need to boost your calcium and magnesium levels – your zinc- when we’re short of zinc, we get depressed, and also your vitamin B , which the nerves also use up constantly. Do you have a good health food shop, or nutritional healer near you? Do keep me posted….Warm wishes to you


      • Valerie! You always make me feel like a better person than I am.

        You’re perfectly right: I DO feel sorry for myself.That would be okay to express to a trusted friend, but as you said, I do NOT like feeling that way when I’m trying to persuade a disdainful male editor to take me seriously. I don’t think there’s a faster way for a woman to just hand over her power.
        Men aren’t really any stronger – consider what women actually get up and do after they dry their eyes – they are just trained since boyhood not to cry or otherwise reveal their feelings. It’s a habit.

        Before I go into a meeting Tuesday, I’ll go the loo as you guys say – when are you people going to learn to speak proper English? – and tell myself just how much I dislike crying re. this situation.
        And I’l take your vitamin advice, too.
        I’m so glad that you and Writing Waters happened to know what I meant:
        I know many women who believe that crying is healthy and that women should insist upon crying until it becomes the acceptable social norm.
        Well, I’m sorry, ma’am, but reporters don’t cry.
        And besides, I don’t LIKE it.

        Thank-you so much, and warm wishes back, Luitenent !

        ( I can never remember how to spell that, and have lost SpellCheck).


  23. I’m hoping that in the not too distant future, before Darwinism and testosterone desroy the planet, our species will become sufficiently enlightened that all oppression, including that of women, can be conquered.

    And last weekend I watched a film called ‘Made in Dagenham’. It’s about the victory of the female employees at the Dagenham Ford car factory in the UK in their battle with the management for equal pay. It’s a wonderful story of the girls saying ‘We’ve had enough of this’ and fighting their corner against the misogynistic nastiness of the 1960’s British establishment and the equally vile practices of a US indistrial giant. Their victory resulted in equal pay being codified in UK law. So real positive change can happen – let’s hope for lots more of it!


    • Loved your comments about Darwinism and testosterone !
      Yes, I’ve read about that film, it sounded very interesting. Whenever I hear the name Dagenham, I think of my father telling me how just after World War 1 he used to go out to see his uncle on his farm at Dagenham in some sort of horse drawn conveyance! Even in the fifties I found it hard to imagine anywhere green there.


  24. Came back several times. We stand on the shoulders and aprons of giants. I think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton when she went against everything sacred and braved the wrath of the institutions that give structure to our society. We have no excuse – we must move forward…

    “When women understand that governments and religions are human inventions; that Bibles, prayer-books, catechisms, and encyclical letters are all emanations from the brains of man, they will no longer be oppressed by the injunctions that come to them with the divine authority of *Thus sayeth the Lord.*”
    ― Elizabeth Cady Stanton


    • She was amazing. I shall never know how she managed to do all she did, plus bringing up her children… whenever I read of these wonderful women,including Lucy Stone – have I got her right? – I’m awed by their energy as well as their brilliance.
      I love it when you say you’ve read my post several times Rebecca – you are so appreciative and I value your support, thank you…


  25. Oh, yes. And when the suffragettes were jailed for that one substantial period, the veneer of their class privilege was brutally revealed to be so thin. I mean, many were the American equivilent of aristocrats.
    But what they endured amounted to nothing less than torture – and how brave they were! Very painful, deliberately rough forced feedings with no medical basis almost killed several. At every opportunity, their bodies were appropriated, exposed and humiliated in order to be sure they got the message that in the end, they were just — women.
    Ha! The plan was to break them and make them hysterical, but they drove the jail superintendent crazy instead!


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