This afternoon, engaged in a deep clean of the kitchen and listening to a playlist on Spotify, I thought about how very often narratives make women wait: in patient virtue, if they succeed, or sluttish indifference if they fail. In the long canon of Western literary tradition, waiting is the only endurance sport in which women are invited to compete.
I’m comin’ home, I’ve done my time
Now I’ve got to know what is and isn’t mine
If you received my letter telling you I’d soon be free
Then you’ll know just what to do
If you still want me, if you still want me
Whoa, tie a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree
It’s been three long years, do you still want me?
If I don’t see a ribbon round the ole oak tree
I’ll stay on the bus, forget about us, put the blame on me
If I don’t see a yellow ribbon round the ole oak tree
(Songwriters: Irwin Levine / L. Russell Brown: Tie a Yellow Ribbon ’round the Ole Oak Tree lyrics © Peermusic Publishing, Southern Music Pub Co. Inc, Spirit Music Group)
With the Odyssey’s Penelope as our model, women have been taught that endurance of a particular kind is a specific feminine virtue. Patient waiting, bearing of misfortunes, with the dim hope that we will eventually be rescued. Jane Austen, through the mouth of her heroine Anne Elliot (who of all her heroines bears the most, and for longest), recognised that the narratives of strength are constructed by men, and constrain women who have no option but to endure; who if they want to be strong, have only a very narrow model through which to develop that strength.
“We [women] live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. You are forced on exertion. You [men] have always a profession, pursuits, business of some sort or other, to take you back into the world immediately, and continual occupation and change soon weaken impressions… Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. … All the privilege I claim for my own sex (it is not a very enviable one: you need not covet it), is that of loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone!”
(Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter 23)
Austen knew that this was not a satisfactory mode of living: but of course her Anne is eventually rewarded for her patience by her marriage to Captain Wentworth, for even one of our greatest women novelists had internalised the messages of her own time about the nature of female virtue.
Were it only about romantic and marital love it would be a perfidious message enough; but the idea of women sanctified through endurance has transmitted itself to our expectations of bodily and psychological suffering. According to Dr Jennifer Kelly, (cis) women endure chronic pain longer and more intensely than men. (I don’t believe there are any studies involving trans patients but please let me know if you have seen any!) Yet cultural expectations about bearing pain encourage women to underreport their symptoms – and when they do report them, for doctors to take them less seriously. 35% of heart attacks in women go unreported or unnoticed – partly because women’s symptoms differ from men (and campaigns about heart health very rarely emphasize that key fact) and partly because so many women are raised not to “make a fuss” about their health.
I have a good deal of experience in this myself. 23 years and counting of being a menstruating person who suffers from a complex range of reproductive health problems means that I am used to having my pain sidelined, something I am supposed to tolerate until…? “Until you have a baby!” was a popular one, until that proved to be entirely untrue, and since it didn’t happen until I was nearly 33 that was a good 21 years after I started my periods. I have got used to very assertively arguing for my reproductive health to be taken seriously and for doctors to consider that living in pain is not something that is simply a woman’s burden.
I may owe my life to this tenacity, since my symptoms of pulmonary embolism were not textbook signs of a blood clot. But many years of paying close attention to what is baseline “normal” for my body meant I decided to go to A&E. It is unlikely that my blood clot would have killed me that day, or perhaps even this year. But one day, there would have been a good chance that it meant death. Now that seems unlikely; but how many other women have died, being too busy at home and work, tired from family obligations and anxious not to cause a fuss with doctors whose authority they are taught to respect and not question?
A final brief thought on endurance. Narratives of bearing pain stoically have been a key element of childbirth stories across time – from the medieval Virgin Mary bearing Christ serenely, to Scientologists espousing silent birth (a method dreamed up by a cis man, of course) to a trend I’ve noticed online where women have birthing videos made which soundtrack the process to sweet, upbeat music and even contractions are cast in a glowy film light. This is of course a positive move forward from expecting all birth to be highly medicalised and where the only response to pain is to whip out an epidural (a vital choice for some women, but not without risk), and even more a very important way of taking back agency from our collective history of being literally sedated and shackled during birth. But it is a fiction, too, disassociated from the smelly, sweaty reality of any kind of labour.
Giving birth was a test of endurance for me, but not a passive one. I’ve written before that the pain in my labour – which was a very ordinary sort of labour, without complications – felt like falling into a a dark tunnel without any kind of light at the end of it. I did not fall helplessly, or alone; I had a great midwife and a great husband to coach me through it. But I also drove myself forward, enduring a kind of agony that even now I can’t find words for, pushing my body to – it felt like – turn itself inside out and produce a child. It was endurance – and like all kinds of experiences women have endured, it was an entirely active process.
She set up a great loom in her palace, and set to weaving a web of threads long and fine. Then she said to us: “Young men, my suitors now that the great Odysseus has perished, wait, though you are eager to marry me, until I finish this web, so that my weaving will not be useless and wasted. This is a shroud for the hero Laertes, for when the destructive doom of death which lays men low shall take him, lest any Achaian woman in this neighborhood hold it against me that a man of many conquests lies with no sheet to wind him.” So she spoke, and the proud heart in us was persuaded. Thereafter in the daytime she would weave at her great loom, but in the night she would have torches set by, and undo it.
(The Odyssey, 2.93-106)
Penelope sat weaving, waiting for long years for her husband to come home, making and unmaking a shroud – a clever trick, but one that may seem like the ultimate symbol of the essential helpless passivity of women waiting, a time that passes in an unproductive blank until the hero of the story comes home. No woman who has endured suffering would read it so, of course; in Penelope’s every stitch they would recognise life and death.