Susan Brownmiller has a remarkable talent for framing slippery sociological concepts. This quote is from the introduction to her book “Femininity” and it lucidly describes the nature of the viscous catch-22 women experience for the crime of being born female.
“Femininity always demands more.
It must constantly reassures its audience by a willing demonstration of difference, even when one does not exist in nature, or it must seize and embrace a natural variation and compose a rhapsodic symphony upon the notes. Suppose one doesn’t care to, has other things on her mind, is clumsy or tone-deaf despite the best instruction and training? To fail at the feminine difference is to appear not to care about men, and to risk the loss of their attention and approval. To be insufficiently feminine is viewed as a failure in core sexual identify, or as a failure to care sufficiently about oneself, for a woman found wanting will be appraised (and will appraise herself) as mannish or neutered or simply unattractive, as men have defined these terms.
We are talking, admittedly, about an exquisite esthetic [sic]. Enormous pleasure can be extracted from feminine pursuits as a creative outlet or purely as relaxation; indeed, indulgence for the sake of fun, or art, or attention, is among femininity’s great joys. But the chief attraction (and the central paradox, as well) is the competitive edge that femininty seems to promise in the unending struggle to survive, and perhaps to triumph. The world smiles favorably on the feminine woman: it extends little courtesies and minor privilege. Yet the nature of the competitive edge is ironic, as beset, for one works at femininity by accepting restrictions, by limiting one’s sights, by choosing an indirect route, by scattering concentration and not giving one’s all as a man would to his own, certifiably masculine, interests. It does not require a great deal of imagination for a woman to understand the feminine principle as a grand collection of compromises, large and small, that she simply must make in order to render herself a successful woman. If she has difficulty in satisfying femininity’s demands, if its illusions go against her grain, or if she is criticized for her shortcomings and imperfections, the more she will see femininity as a desperate strategy of appeasement, a strategy she may noe have the wish of the courage to abandon, for failure looms in either direction.”
-Susan Brownmiller. Femininity p. 15-16