“There Was a Little Girl”

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Longfellow & Daughter

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his daughter, Edith, ca. 1868 / G. P. A. (George Peter Alexander) Healy, photographer

 

Much quality ink has been spilled in multiple academic fields concerning gender studies.

Research in the areas of world history, anthropology, literature, ecology, human sexuality, business leadership, religious studies, neurological sciences, and so many more have explored the millennia-long phenomenon of the oppression of the feminine and the suppression of women’s experience.

There are always the notable exceptions of examples of women’s empowerment in certain minority cultures or within societal moments in time. In the same way, there is always the revealed truth that women are frequently enculturated participants in enabling the patriarchal torture and abuse of their own daughters and sisters.

Additionally, there are those men in various places and times who are faithful allies in the struggle for women’s equality, who somehow – in spite of being subjected to the forces of patriarchal formation inflicted upon them –believe that women are people and that “man” is not the default for societal preferment or even the best moniker for the human species.

The most recent cultural manifestation of our continuing gender dialog has emerged in the conceptual language of “toxic masculinity” and “fragile masculinity.”  The former refers to unhealthy male empowerment that manifest as violence, including violence towards women (or patriarchal conceptions of the feminine), while the latter refers to unhealthy emotional responses to societal challenges to and critique of toxic masculinity.

The newest television advertisement for Gillette products depicted a series of instances in which men are seen intervening in the sexual abuse, bullying, or marginalization of others. [The ad can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koPmuEyP3a0%5D  Newly released during the recent Super Bowl, the ad campaign caused men informed by toxic masculinity to enter into the arena of social media commentary as though they were contestants in a communication version of WrestleMania.

Myriad comment strings foamed profusely with written hyper masculine spittle and smack. Their emotionally violent response – bullying, alienating, sexualizing Gillette’s ad and message – proved the point that Gillette was making. As the commercial stated, for men to be their best, men need to do more to be better people. A close facial shave is insufficient.

I would add that it’s vital to society and to men’s wellbeing that men need to be emotionally healthier in general.  Sadly, the concepts of masculinity and femininity within traditional patriarchal expectations of men and women don’t make it easy for anyone living within patriarchal culture (the current dominant culture) to become personally and socially healthy.  It’s an uphill, cold, muddy slog for all of us.

Various cutting edge corporate models and psychological profiles of leadership categorize me as an alpha female with a shared leadership style and commitment to empowering every voice, encouraging the contribution of diverse experience and perspectives. Evaluations conclude that I am a leader with multiple and broad leadership strengths that include competence, confidence, resilience, and grit. None of those qualities are associated with the feminine within patriarchal societal gender expectations. All of those qualities are required for leading organizations through the current global and national changes our world is currently experiencing.

The very premise of how we understand the role of what has constituted our social institutions for multiple generations is undergoing radical and rapid change. The tectonic plates of former international alliances, former tenets of religious belief, and former economic structures are all heaving under the socio-cultural pressures to shift from a global patriarchal worldview to one in which all playing fields are made level.

Throughout this global shift, the world that is passing away will recognize its demise in the rising influence of what it is not: of what is not traditionally masculine, what is not male, what is not white, what is not heterosexual, and in what is not resource wealthy.  The dying patriarchal culture will respond with what it has always relied upon to keep both men and women of all types in thrall – violence. That violence must not be tolerated, and it must not be met with the same.

Every society has the key within it to ending its own violence. In the case of a democratic society, that key is the vote. However, the key can only be turned by harnessing the anger (unrealized hope) of its citizens. Right now in the United States, influencers both within and outside of our borders are trying to direct and influence our anger by bending it towards one another, shifting our focus away from our national government –  a leadership that embodies traditional patriarchal tenets at every possible level.

Psychological warfare is an old game, but with the rise of social media it has become easier to influence large portions of the population within short amounts of time. Toxic masculinity is at the global controls of this mind game, and we all must be “woke” to its influence and impact, as well as its goal of self preservation.

I had a recent experience in my professional life that reminded me anew that I am an alpha female leader helping to shift the global tectonic plates within the patriarchal institution in which I work. Once again, I had the experience of the reality that women in leadership are not rewarded for the same attributes that are rewarded in men, which is an ongoing frustration for me.

Since the most recent reminder, I have been struggling with my feelings of anger (unrealized hope) as well as the subsequent guilt of how my anger has slipped out sideways to cause harm in my personal relationships and work over the past few days. For a man, this is simply considered to be career stress. For a woman, it is a personal failing. An angry woman plays into the pejorative judgment of patriarchy, even though anger in men is considered normative when their expectations, needs or hopes are not met.

Yesterday, I remembered a couplet from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), “When she was good, She was very, very good, And when she was bad she was horrid.”

You see, within the gender norms of patriarchal culture, women and girls are not permitted to be angry and are expected to sublimate their anger (sit on it), which can cause as many problems as when men are permitted to be as angry as they feel by expressing that feeling through violent action. Neither extreme is personally or socially healthy.

Longfellow’s poem is entitled, “There Was a Little Girl. Longfellow’s son, Earnest, recalled that his father composed and sang the poem while pacing back and forth with Edith [his daughter], then a baby, in his arms. Here is the full version of the poem:

There was a little girl,
And she had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good
She was very, very good,
And when she was bad she was horrid.

One day she went upstairs,
When her parents, unawares,
In the kitchen were occupied with meals,
And she stood upon her head
In her little trundle-bed,
And then began hooraying with her heels.

Her mother heard the noise,
And she thought it was the boys
A-playing at a combat in the attic;
But when she climbed the stair,
And found Jemima* there,
She took and she did spank her most emphatic.

Yes, that’s right. The little girl is punished by her mother for expressing her frustration at her needs being ignored, while her brothers are expected to play war. That’s patriarchal culture in a nutshell.

The fact that the poem is composed during a moment in which Longfellow is apparently engaged in a nurturing act towards his daughter is rather akin to the gas lighting indicative of patriarchal behavior towards women – indoctrinating girls from an early age to perceive and receive oppressive and abusive messaging as loving action from a male. And gosh-golly, who could ever dare to judge Longfellow harshly – he was and is known as a great man and artist. Therein lies the trouble of the past and current age.

Men and women of every culture, nation, and generation are not passive products of their time and circumstance. Longfellow doesn’t get a pass in 1853 when Edith was born and neither does the President of the United States in 2019 when I’m an American citizen. People make choices in every generation. Resistance and persistence are not newly invented cries against the injustice and illness of patriarchy. These words of psychological and social wellness have been rediscovered and unearthed for our time. They should be uttered like a charm against disease, as a mantra of societal healing and global transformation.

My own promise is that I will continue to make noise no matter what the punishment, to work to change structures, and to give voice to my experiences so that they do not live harmfully within me or arise to cause harm in the very relationships that are dearest to me. I can be better, and sharing all this in a constructive way helps me achieve the health that I want for myself and to encourage for all.

To be better as a society and within a dramatically shifting world is something we can only achieve through healthy communication and commitment to being in relationship with one another, within our nation, and within our international alliances. At this epoch in the life of the world, it’s not about a having a close shave. It’s about whether we live or die. We cannot allow anyone to keep us from one another (domestic or foreign) in order to achieve greater mutual human understanding.

We are all people. We must not neglect one another’s needs. We must not allow violence to go without intervention. We must be awake to the changing world around us and find courage in one another so that in our day we can realize the hope that has been longed for by many peoples throughout many cultures, disciplines, and centuries – to be the best we can be – together.

 

*[Note: The pseudonym reference of “Jemima” in Longfellow’s poem refers to one of the daughters of the biblical patriarch, Job; Jemima was valued for her beauty].

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One thought on ““There Was a Little Girl”

  1. Oh, so good, Rachel! Longfellow’s poem was recited to me by both my grandmother and my mother, many times during my childhood, and I doubt they gave much thought to the message it contained. It is not until many years later I realize how pervasive patriarchal societal gender training remains in my own life. Far too often I choose to be “good”, rather than risk being viewed as “horrid.” We must stand together to bring a healthier future into being.

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