Monday, May 15, 2006

Because Even an Atheist Lesbian Feminist Republican Can Have a Sense of Humor

Contrary to current popular belief, Mary Cheney is not the only well-scrubbed Republican lesbian ever to write her memoirs. Before it was Mary Cheney's turn, it was Florence King's.

Lest you think, "Oh, great, so there's more than ONE selfish, humorless female lackey of patriarchy who likes having sex with women, and wrote a book about it," let me reassure you: Florence King may be selfish, but she's not humorless and while writing for the National Review (as Florence King did for many years) does of course make one a lackey of patriarchy, it's somewhat mitigated by the fact that FK was a hardcore feminist. Oh, and an atheist, too.

King's memoir, Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady, is one of the funniest books I have ever read. It's one of those books you can't read while you're drinking something, because you might reach for you glass and take a sip just before you read a passage that makes you laugh so hard you spray iced coffee all over yourself through your nose.

It's a great book to teach to undergrads, especially if you want to introduce them to gender studies, because a central premise is that femininity is constructed--and that southern ladyhood is a particularly wretched and debilitating form of femininity:
One of the joys of growing up Southern is listening to women argue about whether nervous breakdowns are more feminine than female troubles, or vice versa. They never put it quite that bluntly, but it is precisely what they are arguing about. These two afflictions are the sine qua non of female identity and the Southern woman is not happy unless her family history manifests one or the other. Her preference is dictated by her own personality and physical type. Well-upholstered energetic club women usually opt for female trouble, while languid fine-drawn aristocrats choose nervous breakdowns.

This argument comes, moreover, from the perspective of someone born in 1936 who isn't so much a man-hating separatist as a misanthrope in general: King calls children "watery moles" and readily announces her scorn for the adult versions of both sexes equally.

King herself becomes a feminist without realizing it in high school, when she associates with other intellectually ambitious girls:
If any of us had heard the word "feminist" we would have thought it meant a girl who wore too much makeup, but we were, without knowing it, feminists ourselves, bound together by the freemasonry that exists among intelligent women who know they are intelligent. It is the only kind of female bonding that works, which is why most men do not like intelligent women. They don't mind one female brain if they can enjoy it privately; it's the idea of two or more on the loose that upsets them.

The book has far more to do with gender than with conservative politics, though certainly that aspect appears at times, as when she writes:
A passion for social change was not part of my rebelliousness; I was content to let the world stay exactly as it was, provided I could have special privileges. I wanted to be a token. I saw the situation in individual terms, and I was the individual who mattered.

And yeah, that sentiment is fairly reprehensible, but I find it refreshing to read such a bald, honest admission of what conservative values really are.

King's memoir is also joyously bawdy, full of both hetero and lesbian sex. In college King dates plenty of guys, the first of whom she fails to properly restrain, mostly because she's really horny. Apparently in the 1950s there was a whole set of rules for what could be done on what date, which King fails to follow:
Leaving a party to go neck in a car was permissible on the fourth date, but if matters got out of hand it was called "the girl's fault." Matters got completely out of hand, and it was my fault.

I failed to "draw the line," i.e., I let him touch me "up top." Covered tit was for the fifth date and bare tit was for the sixth date, so when I let him unhook my bra, I was two tits too early.

As for when she falls in love with a woman in graduate school, neither she nor her girlfriend suffers any "coming out trauma":
Our reactions were not unusual. Southern women tend to go to pieces after a homosexual experience and have to be "put away," or else we take it eerily in stride. The middle ground, as in so many other Southern reactions, simply does not exist. In both extremes the joker in the deck is the South's worship of femininity. Viewed through this lens, Lesbianism can emerge as conventional behavior. I doubt there is any other place in the world where eating pussy makes a woman feel like just plain folks.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, I strongly recommend this book. Read it yourself if you haven't already, and if you possibly can, add it to the reading list of a course you teach.


Blogger Simon said...

I like the way religion taught you about being a dominatrix. It's my theory god wears nipple clamps.

2:46 AM  
Blogger spike said...

King writes: It is the only kind of female bonding that works, which is why most men do not like intelligent women. They don't mind one female brain if they can enjoy it privately; it's the idea of two or more on the loose that upsets them.

This is a terrific observation. People tend to accept the collection of intelligent minds to defend power and privilege as natural and normal but a collection of minds that upsets the apparently natural order -- by being "on the loose" -- that's upsetting. This sounds like a great book.

7:02 AM  

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