In 1971, I was a young married woman fulfilling in my quirky way the role that I wholeheartedly embraced: to be a supportive wife focused on helping my husband in his pursuit of a career in art. I stored my art school paintings in a moldy basement where they disintegrated, and had no lofty ideas of pursuing a career as a writer, though I continued to write as I had always done. My personal dreams were focused on motherhood.
I was fortunate that my parents were agreeable to my choice of husband, who on the surface seemed very different from me. Compared to women in other cultures or times whose personal preferences were not a primary consideration in their marriage, I was fortunate indeed.
But there were still carryover traditions, like how I walked down the aisle on my father’s arm with the veil covering my face, as if I were a gift to be opened by my groom.
Now that I am exploring the metaphor of veils, I sometimes think of that bridal veil and the symbolism it held at that ceremony. Though our marriage is stronger and sweeter than ever, those early years of adjustment were full of knots of misunderstanding and heated emotions. I can now look back at that time and see all the threads of thoughts that our attention chased as we dealt with and wove veils about each other and our roles of husband and wife. He had unresolved emotions from his previous relationship, and I? Well, I was so young, still formulating a sense of self. My mother had modeled a role of wife that I couldn’t live up to. She was an outgoing woman who used her social skills to benefit her husband’s career while volunteering for the League of Women Voters, the Model UN, Adlai Stevenson’s presidential campaign (He kissed her on the cheek! She swore she’d never wash the spot!) I was an introvert who trembled at the thought of picking up a phone even to call the plumber, let alone to promote my husband’s art. I would never be the powerful woman behind the man that my mother was, and that felt like a failure. (Hmm, I’m noticing it still does.)
I was also becoming more aware of the idea of women’s liberation and what it revealed in my own thinking. For example, hey! Why was my life supposed to orbit around his? Why was it up to me to take care of all domestic chores and up to him to keep the car running? (No easy task. Our first car was a $600 1947 Willy’s Jeep we named Ernie. We had another one named Dudley for parts!)
In the Sixties, the largest generation in history came of age and challenged the status quo, fought for civil rights, protested against a senseless war, objected to the mindless destruction of the environment, and saw how the nose-to-the-grindstone eye-on-the-prize money chase of the previous generation was not producing much joy, so searched for other ways of being. Some Baby Boomers eventually returned to the eye-on-the-prize lifestyle, as if the Sixties had been one wild party; but others, having seen through their veils, having experienced the unitive nature of being, fostered meaningful change in their lives and in the world, inspiring generations to come.
Amidst all that, there was, not surprisingly, a great unveiling for women. Thanks to the powerful voices of strong clear-sighted women, the rest of us, or those who were willing, began to see whole sets of ideas, whole veils about gender roles, set up to keep men in power. Most girls of my generation, like previous ones, had been groomed to be objects rather than the subjects of our own lives, taught to weave appealing veils to attract a mate. (Hide how smart you are! Let the boy win the game!) Many families were so deeply ensconced in the cultural ‘truths’ of gender roles that they couldn’t help but pass them along. In our women’s sangha this week, the sharing was rich and diverse. Some had been raised in families where sons were treated like princes while daughters were treated like servants. Others had been raised by parents who equally supported and encouraged all their children. My own experience was somewhere in between, a sort of unspoken assumption that I would marry, and whatever I did until then was of little consequence. College attendance was encouraged, not as a means to a career and nothing so crass as the pursuit of an MRS degree, but simply to be ‘finished’ as an educated woman.
Eventually, regardless of how we are raised, we take responsibility for ourselves and our own lives. But to do so, we need to see how we’ve been blinded. In the 1960s, I may have felt quite liberated, yet even the most freewheeling hippie communes and yippy political groups had clearly defined gender roles, with men holding the decision-making power and women baking the bread to sustain them. There were no doubt women who managed to wield power, just as there had been in generations past, but they had to see through the veils so thickly woven by the culture.
The veils that still existed in the 1960s began to be seen more clearly by enough women that even I in my cozy little life became suddenly aware of the myriad ways women were being subjugated, not just in foreign cultures, but in modern-day America: in our relationships, in the workplace, in how we were depicted in advertising and entertainment, in the lack of ability to get credit without a husband to sign on, in the clothes we were forced to wear to work (skirts and heels) that were called ‘professional’ but in fact simply highlighted features men found sexually appealing, and often caused physical discomfort and sometimes permanent damage.
By the mid-70s, my intensive exploration and awareness of my inherited veils inspired this poem.
Stitching Admire the careful stitching along this silken seam. Thank Mama who taught me how to rip myself along the grain so that no scars would show, to pierce the cloth between the threads so that no blood would stain, remaking myself to suit my suitor, always turning the rough edges in. - Stephanie Noble, 1976
You can see that the metaphor of fabric and threads as woven identity was within me even then. And you can sense in that poem the stabbing needling anger I felt. My poor husband took the brunt of my anger. But eventually, when I took up meditation and gained mental clarity, I was better able to see the inherent faulty thinking in some of the threads of thought I had assumed was true, then I was able to live my life with greater ease, self-respect, and true compassion. This is not to say I am completely free of those veils, only that I see them and hold them more lightly.
Waves of unveiling
In generations before mine, there have been strong clear-seeing women who, despite the substantial restraints of their time, used whatever power they could muster, sometimes sacrificing their own safety and even their lives, to change perceptions and laws that kept women from voting, holding property, and other rights men, at least white men, took for granted.
Women of my generation and subsequent generations have more control over our bodies than our ancestors, yet a woman’s very personal reproductive system continues to be a very public and painful battleground. The veils are not just our own but those of people tenaciously holding onto veils inherited over generations of attitudes toward women. In some cultures around the world, these veils are even more blinding, actively imposing the fear-based idea of a woman’s place: hidden, homebound, uneducated, subservient, without any rights at all. And yet, even in those cultures, women rise up, girls rise up, like Malala who so valiantly fought for girls’ rights to education. So many amazing women we have to honor and celebrate every day, not just on International Women’s Day. Not just in Women’s History Month. We are more than half the population!! Hello?!
So here we are, all these years later, and it’s still worthwhile to look at the veils we have about what it means to be a woman. The pervasive stereotypes that are rooted in our psyches, the emotions we may feel, and the attachments we may have in every aspect of life, are all entangled in veils of identity and inherited beliefs.
Each generation discovers more veils or more threads in the same old cultural veil of sexism. When we recognize a veil that has blinded and silenced us, the power of women is astounding. Most recently the #MeToo revelations of the previously unspoken-of wrongs men have perpetrated and gotten away with because of the laws, because of the shame that society lays on a woman, and because when you have lived through hell you just want to get past it and not have to relive it again and again in court and in the court of public opinion. So many reasons to hide it away. But when women stand up and speak up for themselves and for each other, we are powerful.
The undervaluing of parenthood, the most important job of our species, and the punitive attitudes of some in our society, including many in politics, is activating another unveiling that affects the lives of women. And no doubt there are many other veils that we aren’t able to see clearly yet. So knotted are these veils that we believe them to be solid reality. But they’re not. They’re knots! Knots that entangle and blind us.
And they are not just women’s knots that are being untangled, not just our veils that are being lightened. It is heartening to know that there are men quietly meeting together to explore their veils of toxic masculinity, not to punish themselves but to awaken to the possibility of a world of mutual support and celebration, a recognition of the oneness of all life.
So let’s all set the intention to cultivate clarity, compassion, and equanimity, softening and releasing veils that don’t serve us, so that we may live more authentically.
To do so it helps to remember that unveilings are always revealing themselves. We don’t know what we will realize next, only that this is the nature of our practice, of life as humans, and that whatever is revealed will, in retrospect, be so abundantly clear that we’ll find it hard to believe we didn’t see it all along.
Each time we learn something new in this way, we better understand the value of a ‘don’t-know mind’, and we can become less attached to our solid-seeming ideas, and understand that to the degree these veils of thought define us, they confine us. Let’s let them go!
I thought it important to share an excerpt from an email I just received:
“For me, this post was quite emotional and I teared up a bit while reading it, partly because of compassion and partly through guilt. As a young married man, I too was guilty at times of perpetuating male-dominated thinking so prevalent in those days. ”
It’s so important to remember that from a Buddhist perspective, thoughts are not who we are. We might say they are just our psyche tapped into the stream of consciousness of our culture and what we’re exposed to. We’re not responsible for them, except to notice and explore how they are affecting us (and make wise choices about what we tune into for entertainment.) Of course, men of that era had thoughts that were of their time, but the question really is how they dealt with those thoughts. We are not our actions or our words either, but we are responsible for them. We are can skillfully put our awareness at the threshold between thought and action, between thought and speech. If in retrospect, you can see that you didn’t act out or voice those thoughts, then you have nothing to regret. If you did say or do things that were unskillful, hopefully, you made amends, and if you didn’t and aren’t able to now, for whatever reason, may your current speech and behavior, rooted in greater awareness and compassion, help to loosen the tangled knot of past thinking.
If you are reading these blog posts, your intentions are clearly to create a more peaceful kind world by attending to your own tangled knots. Meaning well doesn’t give you permission to be unskillful, of course, but it does help to know your heart is in the right place. A little retrospective self-forgiveness would not go amiss. — Stephanie