The Limiting Veil of Patriarchy
A LEGACY OF GENIUS AND POWER
BY JILL SORENSEN
I was raised in Sweden by a mother who was controlled by my father, not because he was bad, but because that’s what society expected men to do back then, even in a liberal forward-thinking country like Sweden. The result was a mother who had lost her voice, who silently succumbed to becoming a second-class citizen, whose main role was cleaning, cooking and to make the life of my dad flow splendidly and effortlessly. If she wanted money, or anything else, she had to ask him. It was a world where he was in charge, and she went along. And yet my father was abused as a child, didn’t believe in therapy, instead, indulged his mercurial moods by verbally ruling his wife and kids. That’s what his family had taught him and that’s what society had deemed acceptable.
Thankfully things started to shift.
As I was growing up, gender equality became one of the cornerstones of Swedish society ensuring that everyone enjoyed the same opportunities, obligations and rights in all areas of their lives. In the workplace, women were accepted, and in government, women gained cabinet positions at a faster pace than any other country in the world. In Sweden, my generation of women were raised as complete equals to men. We were taught to be strong and independent, have a career, play sports and be self-reliant. We were offered the same possibilities as men and encouraged to pursue our dreams. Dreams for a Swedish girl did not include finding a man to marry so he would take care of her. We were expected to take care of ourselves. Women in Sweden paid for their own dinners. Men didn’t need to act chivalrous, and open doors. We opened them for ourselves.
As these cultural changes took root, my mother gained the courage to change her life. She decided to get an education, become a teacher, and earn her own money. Sensing the change in my mother threatened my father in a fundamental way as he realized he was losing control of her. This brought out the worst in him. The marriage fell apart, and
soon, I found myself sitting on the back of a pick-up truck filled with a few pieces of furniture, my pet rabbits and my little brother – riding to a new house I would live in with my mother, after the divorce.
That moment changed my life forever. Years later, I came to believe that perhaps it even saved my life.
Although the new home we lived in was free of the marital tension, I witnessed my mother’s struggle to make a life for herself – alone. She was shunned by her married friends and by women in the neighborhood who felt threatened by a divorced woman in 1978. I remember her as a woman wracked with guilt for daring to demand her freedom. It was years of barely any money as she was fighting hard for her independence. But as the years went by she became a strong, self-supported, successful teacher. She became the person my friends would come to for advice, and the woman who still serves as my strength and inspiration.
Her life taught me that women don’t need to accept a patriarchal society. The limiting veil of patriarchy had already started to crack – and this gave women like my mother, who dared to dream, a chance.
Seeing my mother’s plight made me want to have my own career, make a lot of money and never pander to a man. I moved to New York and worked as a successful fashion model in the 80-90’s. While it gave me financial independence, it was an industry inundated with sexual harassment and objectification. Your options in those days were to choose to ignore it, pretend you didn’t hear it, or deflect it with humor. If you didn’t have a strong level head or a good role model, at such a young age you would surely be compromised, because deep down whether we are smart or strong, we all somehow fear we are not good enough.
Living in the US I found it surprising that so many women I met had a childhood dream of finding a husband who would rescue her, or validate her with his love and money. Where I was brought up, no one could rescue you, only you could rescue yourself. It’s ironic that just when you think you have conquered your life’s lessons, your childhood wounds still subconsciously steer you. Instead of moving to LA to continue my career, I married a businessman in DC, who had an abusive childhood and who thought his dreams and goals were more important than mine. Despite knowing that my mother had sublimated her life to an unconscious, and hurtful man, I followed a similar pattern in my own marriage. His father had abused his mother, until the day my husband was strong enough to threaten him away from harming her. While my husband was not physically violent, being the boss is what he had learned from his family, and it was also what society in DC deemed acceptable.
Just like countless women who arrive in Washington DC as a political “appendage”, I was expected to support my husband’s corporate career and let my goals and dreams be secondary. At YPO (Young Presidents’ Organization) functions they confirmed that sentiment. While he was invited to business lectures, I was invited to flower arranging and tea.
At that time, two very close friends of mine shared harrowing stories. My old roommate, who was engaged to a guy in Maine, had been locked in a closet for a day, hit with a chair, and alienated from her close friends whom he called her enemies. My other friend with a high-powered career told me her husband, an emergency room doctor, broke his arm on her back from hitting her so hard, then spit on her face before throwing her out of a speeding car. That was my first introduction to the reality of physical Domestic Violence.
The repulsive invitations to flower arranging and tea were thrown in the trash. Over time I started my own business, a charity and got a divorce. Together with a friend, I started Knock Out Abuse Against Women, a charity that would raise awareness and funds for victims of domestic violence. We wrote handwritten letters to everyone from Barbara Bush (who sent a personal $100 check as one of our first supporters) to every TV reporter. We gave speeches in restaurants and even raised money from people in a bar. We created an event for women only, with male hosts to escort the women, and lined up NFL players to speak out that real men don’t hit women. If DC wanted sexism, we would give them reversed sexism. Larry King narrated our video with footage of the white OJ bronco fleeing down the highway to Aretha Franklin’s R-E-S-P-E-C-T while horrifying statistics on domestic violence flashed across the screen, cementing our Knock Out Abuse event forever. We literally had to force women to go home at 2 am.
The Domestic Violence Statistics in the US are devastating:
Half of all the women murdered in the US are murdered by an intimate partner or husband
- The # 1 killer of pregnant women is murder, by the father of the baby
- 1 in 3 women will be abused in her lifetime
- 1/3 of all emergency room visits by women is due to domestic violence
- 1 in 4 will experience severe physical violence in her lifetime
- 50% of the children in Domestic Violence households are also abused
- 1 in 10 high school girls report being abused, slapped or kicked by a boyfriend
This year, Knock out Abuse is celebrating its 25th anniversary and has become somewhat of a Washington institution for women. With the help of a huge sisterhood, we have raised over $10 million and helped 25,000 women and children rebuild their lives. We have recently launched Knock Out Abuse West in Los Angeles, with a great group of women and are looking to expand our area of influence.
Over the years of working with Knock Out Abuse, I have listened to women share their stories of pain, and how they have escaped with their lives barely intact. I’ve watched 800 women cry in a room in solidarity with their stories and learned that women together are incredibly powerful.
The Degree of the Violence commonly Perpetrated is Worse than you Think:
The woman who was raped in front of her 5-year-old son every day so her boyfriend could show him who was the boss, only for him one day to cut her son with a knife – leaving her too afraid to go to the police in fear they would take away her son.
Another haunting story: Brave Yvette Cade, who had a Maryland judge laugh at her when she pleaded for a restraining order, only to have – the next day – her estranged husband show up at her work, douse her in gasoline and burn 80% of her body.
The pregnant mom who was kicked in the belly, then thrown naked down a staircase. The mother who was almost drowned in a bathtub while bathing her kids. The politician’s wife who was beaten so badly that she crawled – bleeding and bludgeoned – to the neighbor. This degree of violence happens to 1/4 of all the women in the US today.
Then there are the Laws that still Do Not Protect Women:
Although federal law prohibits the purchase of a firearm after a domestic violence conviction, federal law does not require domestic abusers to turn in their firearm once they are convicted of a domestic violence crime or after a restraining order. Therefore, the abuser continues to commit crimes with a gun that they are not allowed to use– leaving the victim at five times higher risk of being killed.
It’s obvious that as a society, we have to have laws that protect women. We have to let all women know at an early age that any type of violence toward them is not an expression of love, but the opposite– hatred, control, abuse.
But we also have to ask ourselves, where does it come from? What makes some men so violent? Why do they degrade, humiliate and severely harm the very people they profess to love – with violence? At what point, and where does it go wrong?
We gave birth to them after all and we raise them.
Violence breeds violence, we know that. Boys are told to be strong, suck it up. At an early age, they have to resolve hurt feelings on their own and learn to distance themselves from the things that upset them. Or as I read somewhere “on the outside they wear a mask, and on the inside, they lose touch with their emotions, and then grow to fit the mask they wear”.
Perhaps it’s time we redefine masculinity. In the time of #metoo #timesup we have to realize it’s all interconnected.
Two years ago, I was complaining to my 14-year-old son about yet another obligatory stripper scene in a movie where two men are solving the world’s problems over a drink, while naked women gyrate on a stripper pole behind them. (Imagine roles reversed: Judy Dench and friend downing shots while two young naked men wriggle about in the background – ludicrous!) My son said to me, “Mom, come on, don’t be so sensitive; you have to understand that’s reality, that’s the way things are. Deal with it.”
As long as we raise our kids in a patriarchal culture, this will prevail no matter how we raise our sons. And as long as we as women keep our blinders on and accept “this is just the way things are”, it won’t go away.
The intrusive internet porn that you can barely save your child from, the constant need of self exploitation among young girls on social media, the platforms the media give women who have sex tapes; the violence in video games, the pay inequality, women supporting and voting for powerful men who are sexual harassers and child molesters; where does it end? When will we wake up?
Are we still battling the leftovers that started hundreds of years ago when during the Holy inquisition, 3 to 5 million women who had power and intuition were killed off? A time when women’s status was reduced to child bearers and men’s status was property? Did it become so ingrained in our DNA that we walk around as unwitting victims to our own limiting beliefs?
In the new Blade Runner sequel set in 2049, all young women are doe-eyed hookers, sexual fantasy objects or they live in a cage with dialogue only surrounding their relationship with the man. The sole mature woman is a whisky-swilling dominatrix pining for the young man. Perhaps that’s the future we will get if we continue to allow 89% of all movies to be directed by men.
The day of change is here, or as Oprah said “a new dawn is on the horizon”. We can’t be complacent. We have to step out of our comfort zone, step through our fears, and find our power. The limiting veil of patriarchy has cracked and it’s now time to fully remove our blinders and finish it off.
Visit www.knockoutabusewest.org for more information.