©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
It is one thing to hear generic descriptions of societal injustice; it’s another to experience this personally. And it’s quite another to come face to face with specific incidents that have happened to real flesh-and-blood people and to read, firsthand, the effect those experiences had on their lives.
Nearly one third of then nearly six hundred women who responded to my PhD dissertation project, Contemporary Women's Issues Survey (1988 and 1990), wrote comments on the returned questionnaires. These "women pioneers," by writing snatches of past history, speaking openly of personal experiences, and revealing glimpses of hidden pain—the impact of which is still with me years later—prepared the way for others.
NOTE: Because of the project’s specificity, all survey respondents were female. This in no way implies that males do not experience societal injustice. Sometimes the injustice is similar and sometimes it is different. Unfortunately, it seems to be part of the human experience for many. Fortunately, there have been some positive changes since the survey....
Comments, like those that follow, expressed a depth of emotion that would often leap up at me from the pages as I sat cross-legged on the floor reading the responses.
- "As a physician, I had to take a year off and then re-apply for a residency because I had the audacity to get pregnant. It would not have happened to a man if he had an operation and needed to be off work for a few weeks."
- "How do I get rid of the resentment that wells up within my soul after years of emotional abuse? I feel so guilty feeling that way."
- "After receiving a BA with a major in business administration, I applied for an opening at a regional church headquarters office. In spite of a BA and six years solid accounting experience, the male chief treasurer and department manager hired a man who had no degree and very little experience. The reason? The treasurer said, “I don’t want to hire a woman who had children!"
- "I worked and cared for an invalid husband on a tiny salary with no rent subsidy or travel allowance--because I was female. I knew then, that if I had been a man with no more ability, the financial picture would have been much different."
- "When I worked for the denomination, there were many times when I could have done the job better than the male who was assigned to perform it. But because I was a woman, I could be only a secretary and do all the work anyway—so the male could get the credit."
- "After twenty-eight years of marriage I was divorced because of physical abuse. My church was useless in my situation. I could not be remarried in the church since my ex-husband had not been cheating on me—just beating on me."
- "I am not sure what I feel about being physically and sexually abused as a child (by a man who was thought to be an upstanding church member); I am sure that I do not know how to deal with what I feel."
There was anger in some of the comments—at the injustice of a culture that oppresses the other half of the species “man” but it was largely unrecognized as such or disguised under feelings of frustration and futility. The women talked all around this misunderstood emotion using synonyms like resentment, pain, incense, and annoyance.
In addition, some of the women seemed confused about the difference between "caring" and "caretaking." They seemed unclear that caretaking is doing for people what they are capable of doing for themselves. It not only wears out the caretaker and causes fatigue, resentment, and personal burnout, it also deprives others of the chance to take responsibility for their own personal growth—preventing them, in many cases, from developing, learning to take risks, and becoming actualized and differentiated. Caretaking is unhelpful to everyone involved.
For those of you who study Scripture, following are a couple of examples:
- The book of Ephesians chapter four NIV advises: "In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry." I am sometimes amazed at how this admonition has become twisted into: “It’s a sin to be angry.” That is not what it says. This injunction recognizes that anger exists and that this emotion is regularly felt by human beings. It need to be recognized and dealt with constructively and in a timely manner as it occurs. To do otherwise, to deny that anger occurs or to pretend it does not occur and thus avoid dealing with it appropriately, results in the very condition the Apostle Paul was trying to help its readers avoid¾living "in a state of anger." Christ experienced the protective emotion of anger but did not stay locked in the emotion. He moved quickly on to resolution and forgiveness.
- Christ took care of himself. He even sailed away for the weekend with a few close friends to obtain a much needed mini-vacation; notwithstanding 5,000 needy people were standing on the beach wanting his time. What a model of self-care.
Caretaking others typically results in self-neglect, which does not help anyone in the long run because an empty cup has nothing of value to give away. Caring, on the other hand, involves healthy nurturing of self as well as others, with a goal of supporting everyone to become as actualized and differentiated as possible.
Because of my family-of-origin, I had a hard time coming to grips with anger and identifying it as a protective mechanism, a red flag to indicate something is wrong. Anger is just a signal, but a signal worth listening to. It always deserves respect and attention because it exists for a reason: to give you needed information from your subconscious mind. It may be a message that you are being hurt or violated; it may be an indication that you are being overly compromising or compliant in a relationship; it may be a warning that you are doing too much caretaking in an effort to free better about yourself—and insufficient caring; it may be evidence that an important emotional issue is not being dealt with. Like unresolved grief, unresolved anger is cumulative. Small incidents can trigger large reactions because of all the past emotion that has not been appropriately handled.
In our society, anger has been largely the province of men. It is considered "masculine" to bluster, stamp, swear, and yell. In my family it was never okay to exhibit any anger, unless you were male. Then, it was described in euphemistic terms as “righteous indignation,” or “getting your attention because you’re not listening,” or “trying to make a point,” or “saying it in a way you will remember,” or some such reason.
On the other hand, it is "feminine" to cry and to comply. Women have long been discouraged from identifying or expressing anger. The taboos have been so powerful that some women do not even know when they are angry. As a result, many women end up whining (anger squeezing out through a very small opening), developing symptoms of physical or mental illness (e.g., depression), and receiving cultural approval for burying a portion of their innate emotional self.
According to Dr. Harriet Goldhor Lerner, women today are "nothing short of pioneers in the process of personal and social change." The challenge is for them to identify their anger, listen carefully to it, and use it constructively and appropriately in the service of change, in recognizing boundary invasions and developing functional behaviors, and in living authentically. They can still hold to what they value in female heritage and tradition. In this work of personal growth and exploration, this combination makes for the “best of pioneers."
The downside of pioneering is that it is very hard work. It requires learning, increased awareness, personal growth, exploration, collaboration and some compromise, combined with willingness to role model standing for what works for your brain. Because of that and often due to socialized disapproval, some prefer not to do that hard work. It is, however, essential. Both males and females observe the behaviors exhibited by the generation that spawned them. You can only teach what you know. Only when larger numbers of role models are willing to be pioneers will there be hope for succeeding generations to exhibit behaviors (on a more consistent basis) that represent the authentic and appropriate use of anger.