After finishing her BA in English with Film at King’s, Lea decided to stay for another year to pursue a Master‘s in Shakespeare Studies and the Principal‘s Global Leadership Award. She loves the Victorian age, black coffee, and hot sauce; and her goal is to establish a programme that establishes access to higher education for working class kids.
[Featured Image: An illustration of five women and men sitting opposite one another on a seesaw. The men’s side is raised, whilst the women’s side is lowered. Source.]
Upon being asked whether Fröndenberg is feminist, the only response I get is an amused chuckle followed by a silence that speaks louder than words. “Feminism is barely even a concept here” says Laura and I immediately agree with her. Instead of providing a safe environment that fosters growth and empowers people unconditionally, communal thinking patterns haven’t changed much from the post-war mindset that placed men in business and women at home. Of course, it would be bold to assume that everyone aims to live a sheltered life as a housewife, but both Anja and Sophie recall how they asked female students for aspiring female leaders and role models and hit a wall of silence. There is no lack of women at the local workforce, yet the percentage of them working at supermarkets, bakeries, hair salons, in daycare, or at the local elementary school is substantial. Men, however, are usually business owners, politicians, handymen, mechanics, or headmasters. If they work in the service industry, they usually own the establishment. At least that is what everyone assumes. The implication is very clear: if you want to work hard, do business, and become a high earner, there is only one thing you have to do. You have to be a man.
This gendered way of thinking clearly enforces patriarchal structures and positions girls in a social system that makes them believe in their own inferiority. Sophie remembers that she was not aware of the many possibilities open to her after she graduated and experienced a boost similar to mine in her feminist beliefs once she moved away and was subjected to the multicultural and considerably less gender-focussed academic culture of her university. She describes the process as an eye-opening and overdue one, one simply not possible before. Anja experienced a similar culture shock after leaving the patriarchal structures of her hometown and family behind. Even though the town was a different one, the narrow-minded, traditional community she grew up in mirrors Fröndenberg’s even though almost a decade has passed since she left to pursue her studies. Women were expected to cook and clean or work at local retailers while the men brought home the bacon. Despite the female coded household tasks, the house itself was the male domain where they could take pride in similar to their car, their dog, their children’s report card, and, of course, their wife. Objectification seems to be more common in those rural communities than the metropolitan mind wants to believe, for all three women could instantly recall multiple instances where they had felt marginalised and like “the special offer at the meat counter” as Laura puts it. Those instances range from glaring voyeurism over catcalling and unwanted comments to physical interactions, often in form of subtle yet unsolicited and unasked for touches at the waist, for instance at parties or even in more casual encounters at a pizza place, where an older man naturally placed his hand on Laura’s hip to move past her. Instead of issuing an apology after being confronted with her adamant rejection, the man got upset and said that he “had a girlfriend”, although it still isn’t clear to anyone why or how that was a relevant piece of information at that point.
There is little space for female self-expression in this ‘patriarchal bubble’ that thrives on judgement and exclusion of everything threatening the beloved status quo. When Anja’s husband decided to focus on his career development by educating himself further, the two accepted that her anyway higher salary would be the couple’s main source of income for a while. After all, he had been supportive of her career development before and taken a step back so she could thrive. What sounds like a very healthy and desirable relationship where both partners perceive the other as an equal, Anja decidedly shifts around the topic on family functions and in talks with people from her former hometown. She says that the issue is too sensitive, too hot of a topic that will only result in misunderstandings and heated debates about the unquestioned necessity of having a man to provide for her, which eventually lead to nothing but the painful realisation that the concept of equality that exceeds the existence of a female football league hasn’t found a footing within the rural community yet. Sophie and Laura came to similar conclusions, however, the experience leading up to them is quite different. Instead of having heated debates, they report that their attempts to have a deep and insightful conversation about anything remotely feminist mostly result in silence. Feminist captions under Instagram pictures or messages are bluntly ignored. Instead solely the corresponding pictures, for instance of female bodies in regular underwear that promote female empowerment and physical diversity, are perverted and yield eroticised reactions or complaints about ‘inappropriate’ exposure. On the same note, conversations tend to dry up quickly as soon as the subject becomes more political or feminist. Calls for diversity and equality make people uncomfortable, and controversial questions like why the indispensable shift away from the traditional gender stereotypes has still not happened are not addressed. The talk of the town remains stuck in the vicious circle of gossip, small talk, and the latest football results that it seems to have been in ever since. This incapacity of self-criticism cannot entirely be attributed to the individual. After all, it conforms to the patriarchal, heteronormative system that community members have been spoon-fed since birth. It requires courage to smash the system that provides comfort for those in positions of power. Experience shows that going against the grain is often condemned in local circles and of course no one can be expected to take action without the support of fellow fighters for equality. Unfortunately, this inspiring support system is still only in the fledgling stage, but recently there have been the first attempts at establishing an alternative community free from the prevalent patriarchal modus vivendi, which I will explore in the next part of this series.