In my youth, I was blessed with a working class family. It was comprised of strong women of Irish stock, men who were close to the Earth, and siblings--male and female-- who respected each other. My brother, father, grandfather and uncles never doubted for a moment that the women of the clan could accomplish anything they wished, from lecturing at University to cooking a roast. It was the 50's. No one had coined a special word for people concerned with women's issues. I was simply a child, not a Feminist. There were no boxes.
In the 60's I was schooled in Irish Catholicism as well as the family's Pagan traditions. I accepted both as normal and viable, depending on one's personal leanings, and I chose to follow a Goddess based Wiccan path. No one indicated that it was fey or forbidden to view Divinity as both Male and Female, and so I embraced my spirituality as natural. I was a Witch, not a Feminist.
There were no boxes.
In the 70's I attended the women's college of the state university. The term "Feminist" had been born, and women in my collegiate culture raced to act upon it. I didn't. Others burned their bras; I really needed mine. I wore underwear. I read the literature of the Bronte sisters because I liked it. While others interpreted symbols of menses and female angst in the imagery of red rooms and decorum, I saw well-behaved people in Victorian decor. Despite an environment bleeding with the Dialectics of Sex, Virginia Wolf, and Ann Sexton, I was a scholar, not a Feminist. There were no boxes.
In the 80's I fell in love and married. I suffered six years of a failing relationship, and divorced. It was a necessary lesson, something which helped me define my own limits. To me, it was a confirmation of my ability to rise above my own errors. It meant I was human, not a Feminist, and STILL there were no boxes.
It wasn't until the 90's and middle-age rang together like bell metal that I finally found them--the boxes . Feminist had alluded to them for years. Society had been strewing them in my path for decades. However, I finally experienced them by merely falling outside their neat boundaries. Ah ha! I said to myself. I finally got it.
It was a small thing which eventually led to the discovery. Since my divorce, I had contented myself by establishing my own home, enjoying the participation of my siblings in my life, and taking comfort from my friends. Being a product of the 60's, these friends came from a variety of Life's paths, male and female, gay and straight, Christian, Pagan and beyond. I was also blessed with close female friends with whom to share some of the rocks in Life's river.
One, in particular, was a young, divorced mother of 2 when we met. We shared many of the same interests, but with decidedly different approaches. Together we guided her children to adulthood, saw relationships come and go (including my marriage), and watched the face and texture of the Craft change, expand, transmute. We became as sisters walking down the Path, people who could lean against each other when the road got tough, or when one or both became too jaded to go any farther.
Then, one bright Sunday morning, over breakfast, my ex-husband let it drop that mutual acquaintances had speculated if my friend and I were an Item. An Item? I was stunned! He quickly assured me that he had corrected the notion, then observed that even if I had such compulsions I would never act upon them. Again, I reeled. Here was my ex-husband, who's own homosexuality led to the end of our union, calling my heterosexuality into question. It was an assignment of an identity not my own-- an assumption of urges foreign to me, by the one person who should have known better.
It was then that I saw the boxes. Established by men since the dawn of Father/God monotheism, held tightly even in the psyches of some gay men, they are the containers with which half the population defines, catalogs, and shelves the other half:
Folks more eloquent than I have probably researched, documented, explored and challenged such packaging, and yet they remain: Wife, Mother, Nun, Whore, Dyke ... and me. What do the boxes mean to me and others like me?
Having been married, both my friend and I fitted neatly into the box of WIFE. Being both divorced, we had officially been drummed out of the category. As my divorce was predicated on my husband's newly discovered homosexuality, I was potentially double-damned by the more righteous segments of the male population. (Surely, if I had been wife ENOUGH, his identity crisis would not have occurred).
I have never reproduced. Therefore, the MOTHER box has been sealed to me (being Mummy to a shih tzu and a foster child obviously doesn't count.). My friend, being a biological mother, definitely fitted comfortably into this box while in her 20's and 30's. But then, a subtle shift began to take place. Once the absolute needs of nurturing waned (feeding, burping, pampering, girl scouts, lugging to school, high school prom dress sewing etc.), her place in the MOTHER box started getting dicey. Mothers of adult children slowly find themselves displaced by 20-something women with infants at each breast. If their grown children are male, they may dangle on the edges of two boxes if widowed, divorced or abandoned: MOTHER and NUN. On rare occasions, should such mothers dare express sexuality, they may even become the hybrid MOTHER-WHORE to the horror of their offspring. Regardless, their place in any specific box is in peril.
Those women who have taken the veil, in any spiritual tradition, are definitely secure in the NUN box. Despite age or spiritual path, (Catholic Nun, Buddhist Renunciant, Vestal Virgin, or miscellaneous), they are the expressed property of the Divine, forbidden from mortal men and thus unobtainable. Theirs is a marriage to the All Father himself, the brides of the Lord, ( and nobody messes with the Alpha Male). This is a fairly restrictive box, one in which sexuality is cashed in for a prime crack at the Eternal. Few outside the spiritual community are deemed members of this exclusive box, with the exception of widowed mothers, mentioned above.
For unmarried sexually active women, women with open marriages, sexually active widows and professional party girls, there is the WHORE box. This is rather a self explanatory realm, one which males eschew, except when no other box is available. Suffice it to say that if the clergy can preach against you from the pulpit, your assignment to this receptacle is certain.
Lastly, there is the DYKE box. This is for lesbian or bi-sexual women, or women who have had no relationship with a man for a specified period of time. The jury is out on the statute of limitation for this fallow period. It varies according to each male. The Dyke renders unnecessary the presence of the male in a sexual partnership. Like the classical Amazons, they are thus viewed as legitimate prey, usurpers to be eradicated. Suffice it to say that women who do not fit into any of the above boxes may fine themselves slipping into the slot at the top of this particular container. It is here that I've suddenly found myself, and several other female friends, being pounded like the proverbial round peg in the square hole.
But there is another box. Men sense it, but it is hidden from view; like the face of the Gorgon they fear to look upon it. It is the realm of mystery, the Pandora's box of all ills...that which is concealed behind the Priestess's veil. It is a box only women seem able to see and appreciate. It is the box marked...ALONE.
Alone, to men, is the world of shadows. Here dwell the women who do not rely on men to define themselves, satisfy urges or provide financial support. Alone is not lonely--in fact, it can be a full and rich place where women, without agendas (emotional, financial, sexual) can bond and become friends. It is non-restrictive and non-differentiated. Women from all walks can meet there in peace. Alone is the magic of the Moon, the mystery of blood flow, the sound of wild birds, and the taste of the night air. For some men, truly enlightened, it is a wonder. For the majority it is an enigma, a box which defies strict definition, the beginning of every witch hunt.
Is it so surprising? Look carefully at the women who's fates were sealed in the Great Burning or in our own Salem trials. First to the pyres or the gallows were the Crones, older women. Women without men folk. Women earning their keep from the Earth's own cures, or by the art of Midwifery (thus women who have gone beyond all female boxes to the very domain of men--the control of the quality of life!). Women schooling other women in the old, forbidden ways, condemning them eternally to the Sixth box unless re-defined by a willing male in the role of Partner (Wife/Mother), Pastor (Nun), Pimp (Whore) or Predator (Dyke).
The criteria for the Sixth box is independence of thought. It is the potential realm of those women escaping from the other 5 boxes and, therefore, the harborer of reactionaries and (dare I say it?) Feminists--but not exclusively. In the Sixth box women may be gay or straight, active or celibate, not driven by only one aspect of their lives. Thus, the Sixth box is also where the "picky" women dwell, those who don't accept every sexual advance as a form of flattery or evaluation of worth.
There may be several ancient, western social groups which have viewed the Sixth box as acceptable. In my experience, however, only the Irish have encouraged it through their concept of "Anam Cara." Anam Cara is Irish for "soul friend." The Anam Cara was Father/Mother confessor, the voice of reason, and the echo of one's own conscience. He or she supported you in crisis of faith and doubt, shared your secrets and helped you face your fears. The relationship was uncomplicated by sexual attraction, familial obligations of the relentless needs of the ego.
Even in Ireland's golden monastic age, the Anam Cara fulfilled a role. Unlike the modern concern in Catholic convents that religious might develop "particular friendships" in lieu of loving mankind equally, the early monastics were free to discover a soul friend with whom to share spiritual development. It is the same spiritual bonding, encouraged in ancient Erin, which falls so heavily suspect in the modern era. The male promoted mythos survives: women are not intended to be friends. Men who work together in harmony are a Society. Women who work together in harmony are a Coven, straight from the pen of Shakespeare.
And so, we return to the Sixth box. It is a place against our nature, as men have explained our nature to us. It is a place unsatisfactory to those women taught by men to define their desires. It is a box virtually without lid or walls, yet supportive of individualism. It is the realm of choice, just as I have chosen through life to be child-like, Wiccan, scholarly, fallible and, yes, alone. Perhaps at this “Crone” stage of life, the visions of women, like myself, are finally clearing, and other round, free-spirited pegs, wedged girdle high in square receptacles, will begin to wiggle free and join me in the Sixth box for a bit of conversation, and a sharing of their unique lives. It is, after all, an all-encompassing experience, and I find that I couldn't be more contented there, even if I had been a Feminist all those years.
The next time your brothers ask if they should set you up with one of their widowed buddies because you "can't find a man," or when your father asks, once more, if you're ever going to give him grandchildren, or if a compassionate waiter asked if you're dining by yourself because you got "stood up," tell them "Sixth Box" and leave it at that. If enough of us give this answer to enough of these compartmentalized questions perhaps, in a generation or two, men will become frustrated enough to finally abandon attempts to toe tag and classify women at all...
...and then there will be no boxes.