The Reflex of Deference

The inside of inequality, the cellular scrapings of being considered lesser than, lies in the reflex of deference.

Deference is the wee tiny rock that women carry in their pockets, the signal to tell them to get out of the way, sit down and be quiet, to become small and unremarkable in the presence of men.

Men didn’t put the tiny rocks in women’s pockets. They didn’t have to. Women put the tiny rocks there themselves.

Deference is the last crumbs of inequality that remain after civil rights acts and equal rights amendments, court cases and marches down the street. Deference is what keeps the pilot light of inequality burning long after equal opportunity has been installed in education, government, and business. Deference is the evidence that women believe what they’ve been told. No, not even what they’ve been told. What they absorbed from the world. No, not even that. What was packaged up as part of their whole being. Is deference part of a young girl’s genetic code?

I watch women and girls and I wonder could this be true?

My eight year-old granddaughter abruptly changes course when she sees a boy heading for the monkey bars where she was going to show me her latest trick. She didn’t explain, just made a sharp left and headed to the swings.

I caught up with her. “You can use the monkey bars first. The boy could have waited his turn.”

“Oh, it’s not that,” she answered, unwilling to show me the little rock in her pocket.

How could she have learned that, I wondered. Have I given her a message of deference? Were there expectations coming from her father or grandfather that I couldn’t see or sense? Was she seeing the instruction to defer to a boy in something they said, a nod of their heads, a look?

Who put the rock in her pocket? And what does this mean for her future? If she backs away from the monkey bars now, will she stay silent in class? Will she acquiesce when a boy decides they should do things she doesn’t want to do? Will how she feels about herself be a synonym for how a boy feels about her?

Will it take years for her to realize she has the rock in her pocket?

I am frustrated by this because I have spent so many years struggling with my own tendency to defer to men. Raised in the fifties and sixties, men were more competent and successful, largely because they had all the opportunity. My mother’s success was limited to her sewing table and her remarkable ability to endure difficult times. So as a young woman during the blooming of feminism in the seventies, I began to realize I had a lot of rocks in my pocket and I started throwing them at everything.

My consciousness-raising involved, to a very large degree, a reckoning with how much I had accepted a label of inferiority. This fact made me as angry as the oppression itself. It is the ultimate, I thought then, when the oppressed believe the lies of institutional racism or sexism, when they absorb those lies, wear them like a second skin. That’s the real victory of oppression, having the oppressed just eat it every day and think it’s nutritious.

So I watch my granddaughter, see her getting out of the way, and I wonder where is my power to change this. How do I explain to her that she is entitled to be on the monkey bars first if she doesn’t believe that in her heart, if it is already her reflex to defer.

I want to turn her pockets inside out. I will. I just don’t know how.

Thank you to The Daily Post for telling us it’s Blog Action Day on the topic of inequality.

12 Comments on “The Reflex of Deference

  1. Your granddaughter is so lucky to have you as an example. I feel like actions (and experiential examples) are more powerful than any mere words can be. Take her with you to one of those meetings where you hold court. Let her see you in action. Let her see you taking names. She will always, always remember that. And be changed by it. Also, thank you for being that example for all of us younger professional women too. You have no idea how influential you are. We all need to remember the same thing about ourselves, too. We can be influential for other women, too. Woman-by-strong-woman, we can and will change the societal norms. And every woman rising up makes it easier for the next ones to come.

  2. Beautifully written, thought provoking post, Jan. I wish I had a reply that would fit into a sentence, but I can’t even manage it in a paragraph. “Deference,” “oppression” — whatever you want to call it — is the fault and responsibility of us all. It is so insidious that it reaches into all aspects of our culture and daily lives — from our laws and customs, to what we choose to read or watch on TV, to the way we interact with our family, friends and neighbors. It begins early in life and marches along beside us to the very end. We can’t eliminate it, only chip away — and I find that a depressing thought. It depresses me even more to see how vigorously it is reinforced by the very people who should stand up against it (yes, women, I’m talking about us) every time someone hauls the monster out by one of its many ears and says, “Look at the damage this does. It’s not right.” Nevertheless, I believe we owe it to our future to stay vigilant. Oh, and one more thing: becoming like men (more “male” in our demeanor), is not the answer — it’s selling out. There is no shame in being a woman.

    • All true, Susan. It’s hard to know where to start. And, yes, absolutely, I really agree with your last observation.

  3. I wonder if it is time to ask why men make women afraid to move to the front of the line. Men have big stones in their pockets and use them. We can ask why men only step aside when opening doors for women and for women wanting to move ahead in the work force. We can ask why men are so threatened by women who make more money. I have thought about this a lot because I have always been tall and felt funny dating men who were shorter. I wanted someone tall to be able to protect me. As I have gotten older I am thinking it is left-over genetic predisposition from an age when women needed to be protected (especially during child-bearing age) but that probably doesn’t fit in our current society. I have always found it strange that men feel they need to protect women – but usually only from other men. It sure would be nice if men started strengthening their emotional intelligence as much as they strengthened their muscles. It sure would be nice if men prized relationships as much as they prized power.

  4. I wonder how much hormonal signals play a part. Could it be your granddaughter’s age that made her turn toward the swings? Maybe she was shy or embarrassed rather than deferential. You didn’t say how old the boy was, but eight, for a girl, doesn’t it start about then? The initial cootie boy stage? And I hate to say it but in this shitty world. later on we would teach her to leave if a boy or man approached her in a park. It’s screwed up any way you look at I guess. And I don’t agree that we put the rocks in our pockets (though I love the way you say it). Society does that. Men did that and still do. It’s inherent, I think.

  5. Pingback: (Lack of) Equality | It's Mayur Remember?

  6. My boys go to a school for the gifted. I work like hell to keep them there and pay full tuition. The bright side, other than the spectacular environment, is the girls:). Alpha dogs. Give these boys a run for their money. No giggling and hair flipping here. These girls mean business. And I love to see the back and forth.

  7. Loved the concept of little stones in our pockets. It is so true. We all need to clear out our pockets every now and then as I think some stones jump in when we aren’t looking.

  8. You really nailed this post. I love the way you describe our instinct to defer to men and when we are younger boys as little rocks in our pockets. We are guilty of putting them there ourselves. It’s such a subconscious thing though, as if we aren’t even aware we’ve picked the rock up and slipped it into our pocket, like a kleptomaniac coming home from a dinner party and finding a collection of little trinkets in her pocket.

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