Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 2

This is part 2 of the UU  talk (“sermon,” delivered in 1976) that I had begun here:

A thousand pardons for such a posting delay! I was in the Michigan wilderness for two months this summer and had almost no internet or phone access.


So what is it that mothers teach their daughters about who they are and how their lives should be led? I realize I will be generalizing when I make the following observations, and there are certainly many individual exceptions to what I say. But as I read the mother-to-daughter legacy, which is transmitted most of the time by most mothers (and I am not excluding myself), it goes something like this:

  1. A mother says, “Don’t compete with boys or you’ll never catch a husband.” (In other words, don’t live up to your potential.)
  2. A mother says, “You should always look pretty.” (Appearance is the main item of value in a woman.)
  3. A mother says, “Wait until your father gets home and he’ll punish you for that.” (In other words, I, a woman, have no authority, and neither will you.)
  4. A mother says, “You have to clean your room and pick up your clothes, but your brother doesn’t.” or “You have to help with the dishes, but your brother doesn’t.” (In other words, you are going to become a drudge, and he will be free.)
  5. A mother says, “My name is Mrs. Charles Edward Jones, and my husband is an engineer.” (I, a woman, find my identity in my husband rather than in myself, and you will too.)
  6. A mother says, “Don’t trust other girls; they will take your boyfriend(s) away from you.” (A boyfriend is more important than girlfriends.)

I could go on, but the above list is long enough to make the point. The consequences of all this very subtle and more-or-less continual conditioning is that, when little girls grow up to be women, they have pretty thoroughly incorporated ideas about themselves and about other women into their very sense of being, such as:

  1. I have no authority
  2. I have no mechanical ability
  3. I must have a man through whom I can find my identity and in the light of whose accomplishments I will be judged
  4. I must not defend myself overtly
  5. The condition of my house is a reflection of my personal worth.
  6. I am of value so long as I am attractive.

Women learn these things about themselves very thoroughly, and they often resent any challenge to such entrenched generalizations about their selfhood. It has become increasingly clear in the women’s movement during the past few years that the greatest obstacle to equality of the sexes exists in women themselves.

Sometime last fall, after a sermon by one of the male members of the congregation, another woman and I were discussing the service, and she said, “Oh, if only he and ___ and ___ (she named two other male members of the congregation who have given sermons from time to time), if only these three could take over, we wouldn’t need a minister.”

Now, there have been several female speakers in the pulpit over the past two or three years, some of them quite good. Several recent vestry chairmen have been women, and they have done a fine job of keeping the church functioning in difficult times. Several women have been active in organizing and running church programs at times other than the 11:00 am service. And certain women in the congregation take upon themselves readily, even automatically, such pastoral duties as visiting the sick and the elderly, and caring for those who are troubled.

And yet, none of these women was named to the suggested ministerial triumvirate. Why? Because—and I’m guessing now—a minister is a person of authority, and women have no authority.

I am guessing again when I say that I would bet if a man had been naming people to a team of substitute ministers, he might well have included a female’s name on the list, since men often have more respect for the abilities of women than do other women. And they are often able to be more objective about analyzing women’s abilities without the self-doubts that color women’s views of other women.


Next installment here/.

About joannevalentinesimson

Scientist, traveler, woman, writer, spiritual explorer, mother, grandmother, fascinated with the world, appalled by deliberate human ignorance. Blogs include:
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5 Responses to Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 2

  1. This post resonates with my own understanding and experiences. I spent the bulk of my career as a female executive working for the state I live in. I used to comment quite a lot that women fought over their positions and projects as viciously as previous generations used to fight over their husband-prey. While they would tend to become subordinate to a male in a power position, the fangs and claws came about quickly if the opponent was another female. I’ve tended to see this behavior as a form of philosophical conditioning from years of female subjugation where “my man/livelihood” has been upgraded to “my career/livelihood”. But even if I am wrong in my assessment, the one thing that I know for certain is women in a corporate environment do not support and encourage each other. Instead they go to extreme lengths to make sure the other one is not successful.
    I agree completely with your statement, “It has become increasingly clear in the women’s movement during the past few years that the greatest obstacle to equality of the sexes exists in women themselves.”

    • Thanks for the comment! And it saddens me that your experiences a generation after mine reflected a failure of women in the workplace to support each other. My experience was a bit different, in that I was in a predominantly male profession, biomedical sciences. Most of the (few) women I knew in the profession tended to be helpful and supportive. It was the males who seemed threatened.
      But I have heard from many other women that, when there are a lot of women workers and a male boss, the women snipe about each other continuously. There may be some harem complex going on in that setting.
      However, when it came to trying to pass the ERA, hostile women (comfortably married and insecure about change?) seemed to want to torpedo the effort.

  2. Julie Frayn says:

    I am happy to report that my mother didn’t pass on any of those thoughts to me. Or to my sister. I have authority. I am adept with tools and computers and logic and machinery and anything else I need to be adept with. I am divorced and happily single because while I am single I can fully be myself with no one questioning my choices. I will defend myself, my position, my children (the daughter and the son equally) with strength and conviction. My house is my own special kind of ‘neat’ – and is a reflection of my comfort within its walls. The last one is a toughie. I do care how I look. But not for any man. For myself. For my peers. For my children. It’s not about beauty or attractiveness but about confidence.

    I am fortunate to be the CFO in an organization where 60% of the senior management team are women, including the CEO. It’s not perfect, but I don’t see women undermining women.

    I am passing all of this and more on to my daughter. And teaching my son the right way to treat women. His father certainly can’t.

    • Thanks, Julie, for an independent woman’s credo! I’m feeling pretty much that way, myself these days, but it took awhile. My mother was her own person in many ways, but she gave in to my father’s wishes and judgement more than she probably should have. These reflections were written years ago, around the time my youngest daughter was born, and she’s now 37 years old. It’s sort of a “mea culpa.”

  3. Pingback: Mother to Daughter: A Questionable Legacy – Part 1 | joannevalentinesimson

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