Thursday, April 14, 2005

Single Sex Politics

So, since Leah of "The Law of Ma" and I have been talking about cultural identities, I thought perhaps I'd tell you about this book I just read, and LOVED.


My dear friend, who I have mentioned before, is an Orthodox Jew-- I can't even tell you how much I am looking forward to Passover at her house. We'll be there all night, and I have been studying the Haggadah that she gave me in prep. I want to ask good questions! I have also been practicing my reclining at the table...

Anyhow, she loaned me this book thinking I might enjoy it, and I loved it. I have recommended it to two students thus far, and one of them (God bless her) has already read it! Stephanie Wellen Levine, the author of this book, spends a year in the Lubavitch community in Crown Heights Brooklyn in order to write an ethnography for her PhD project at Harvard. Her particular interest is focused on young Lubavitch girls/women-- from about age 16-22-- and how they negotiate between their Hasidic tradition and mainstream American life. I am already largely sympathetic to Orthodoxy, and of course this is a few steps beyond my friend's Modern Orthodox life. Levine also approaches the community in what I feel is a very non-judgmental sympathetic manner. If someone read this and didn't feel that "pull" or sympathy, the reading experience might not be as rewarding.

Now, while the portraits of the young women themselves are interesting, and could prompt some deep discussion in and of itself, I am more interested in Levine's conclusions. She found that these young women were inordinately confident and self-assured in ways their mainstream American counterparts were not, and she attributes this in part to the separation of sexes that is mandated by their Hasidic tradition. (I'm oversimplifying her conclusion in part here-- it's more complex, but there's the kernel for you.) Levine herself, even after spending a year with this community, has no strong desire to stay, and she certainly doesn't mean to suggest that we all turn to Lubavitch Judaism as a solution, but one suggestion she does make from this experience is that we give young girls (in particular, since that was her focus) more opportunity to participate in single sex forums. This may take the form of single sex schools, or camps, but her reasoning is strong. Part of me agrees with her very logical stance. By the same token, Levine is sure to point out that she is not advocating "repression of sexual feelings... [her] argument is not that teen sexuality in itself is dangerous or immoral, but that the constant onslaught of overt eroticism that overtakes adolescent life can be harrowing."

Um, yeah. Last night driving home my favorite Springsteen song came on the radio. No, I am not talking about "Born to Run," but that's up there. I am talking about "I'm on Fire." I remember loving and being slightly scared of this song in high school. But as it was playing, I was overwhelmed with the memory I had about a high-school that harbored a wish a man was singing this song about me (even as I was slightly scared of the passion expressed in the song). For the most part even though I was boy-crazed in high school (!!), I think I was pretty self-assured. I had (and still have them) a strong group of girlfriends which probably helped me to stay balanced. But I can remember "performing" for boys. Thinking about what I said and how I'd say it, dressed, etc. (Levine has a better story related to this in her book. )

When I went away to college, I ended up living in an all-womans residence. Mostly I stayed there because we were inordinately spoiled. (We had tea on Fridays and sit-down dinners (with waitstaff!) four nights a week. Newspapers were delivered to our door on Sunday mornings. I stayed there my whole time in college. I'd still move back.) But even then in the midst of all that pampering, I couldn't help but notice that my residence felt like a haven in the midst of big-ten craziness. I have always maintained that living in Martha Cook gives residents the best of all worlds: the positives of attending a competitive public school, but with all the perks of attending a small all-women's college. Many women who lived in Martha Cook were graduate students, and quite a few had in fact attended small all-women's liberal arts colleges as undergraduates and they concurred with my conclusion. (Too bad my lesbian nature was latent then, otherwise-- whew-- ) I was on the House Board for MCB and noticed that our communication with each other in this single-sex atmosphere was markedly different than in my classes. Levine notes that she attended a roundtable discussion with Harvard undergrads who lamented the lack of single-sex forums. Probably some of these young woman were acutely aware of the difference.

Levine also cites some of the insights Rosalind Wiseman, the author of Queen Bees and WannaBes, has on this subject:

At some point, a girl who pretend to be not as smart, strong, or capable
around a boy she likes. She may be embarrassed by her behavior but not now
how to stop. Girls understand their social status and identity are tied to
relationships with boys. Even when [a girl] knows better, she may
sacrifice her personal boundaries to please a boy.

Also according to Wiseman one in four girls endures an abusive relationship during high school. Right away I could identify that girl we knew about in high school who was getting knocked around by her boyfriend. It actually started in middle school. I mean, for God's sake, adults do not often even know how to handle this themselves or when it's happening to their friends. We were twelve when it started for this girl. (Give her credit-- she figured it out and broke up with him late freshman year). Levine cites surveys that state 40% of boys condone coerced sex when the guy takes a girl on an expensive date, and 32% of young women think it's okay for a guy to force sex upon his girlfriend if they have been dating for a long enough time! Jesus, Mary and Joseph!!! (If you got to this blog through a search and any of this is happening to you, IT IS NOT OKAY!)

Neither Levine nor I are naïve enough to assume that single sex forums or education could solve all these problems, but it might be part of a solution. Of course, good parenting might help some of this too. I was never told it was right or correct to sublimate myself for a man. I might have been told I was too loud and that wasn't attractive, but no one encouraged me to act stupid to "catch a man." With my own children, if they are girls, I plan on emphasizing independence and strength to them, but I do also hope to find some single-sex activities for them. I wouldn't say no to an all women's college. And like Levine, I know this doesn't exactly work if we're dealing with little baby dykes!

Yet be assured, I also think there are positive things to be gained from interacting with the opposite sex for both sexes. Don't be deluded into thinking you are reading a lesbian separatist account of gender segragation here. I really like men, a lot. I dated and slept with them for years, and wasn't unhappy about it. I have seriously good male friends, but nonetheless feel it's important for young women to have the opportunity to grow up, partially, in a setting where sexual politics does not play a central role in their socialization with peers.

Now, read the book! Tell me what you think!

4 Comments:

Blogger Soul Searching said...

I can't wait to read this book! What a fabulous post that was. Perfect timing for the summer of books :)

6:52 PM  
Blogger Career Guy said...

When I was in grade school, after fourth grade (1959-1960) in our Catholic school, boys and girls were kept in separate classrooms in separate wings of the school. When I started at my coed high school, I was overwhelmed by all the girls and didn't know what to make of them. Looking back, grades 5-6-7-8 with all boys were OK, I don't feel deprived of anything. I'm all for improved self esteem in girls (and boys) and I can see how separation of the sexes, at least for time, can help. I'll try to find the book, but your summary was terrific!
John.

9:43 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

Your summary makes me want to read this book also, as I watch my friend's teenage children struggle academically as they attempt to manage the social side of their coed environment.

Your words "I really like men, a lot. I dated and slept with them for years, and wasn't unhappy about it." would be, to many lesbians, a dirty little secret revealed. However, I feel the way you do and am pleased to hear another lesbian say it.

2:17 PM  
Blogger WordsRock said...

Your summary makes me want to read this book also, as I watch my friend's teenage children struggle academically as they attempt to manage the social side of their coed environment.

Your words "I really like men, a lot. I dated and slept with them for years, and wasn't unhappy about it." would be, to many lesbians, a dirty little secret revealed. However, I feel the way you do and am pleased to hear another lesbian say it.

2:18 PM  

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