Why does anyone ever use the phrase, “in her own right”? It means, actually, in keeping with what is right or just, conforming to some principle or that which is due. But it never seems to me that users mean exactly that.
Elinor Burkett, author of Golda, writes, “Golda Meir acted like a man [she peed standing up?] and wanted to be treated like a man. There is no question that she was a very strong, intelligent leader in her own right.” I did not know Golda Meir personally, so I don’t know if she was transgender, but I’d be willing to bet she wanted to be treated as equal to men. And I am pretty sure that qualities of strength and intelligent leadership aren’t limited to men. So how does Burkett mean “in her own right” in this case?
When Barbara Bush died, writer Karen Belz posted a small article online about the former first lady in which she writes, “And while most people know Barbara Bush for her first lady status, many don’t know that she was considered a strong, determined, and witty woman in her own right.” This line suggests, first, that her husband had these qualities, and I am not sure everyone would agree with that, though it isn’t friendly to speak ill of the dead. But why wouldn’t a first lady have these qualities? Why not assume she does until it is proven otherwise? I won’t even say anything about Melania Trump’s intellect or wit, because she is determined that the American public will not know her. So we can certainly say she’s determined, if nothing else.
The BBC, reporting on the militancy of Winnie Mandela’s activism, posted an article that argued, “Mrs [sic] Madikizela-Mandela was a politician in her own right, and opposed her husband’s [Nelson Mandela’s] move to negotiate an end to apartheid, claiming it would lead to a ‘sell-out’ of black people.” Because her husband was a politician, Winnie can’t be one, too, she is one in her own right. To use a term coined by my husband, this is the height of “ensmallening.” One must be able to describe what a woman does without comparing it to the roles of the men around her. To add “in her own right” forces a comparison where none is necessary.
In each of these examples, of course, it is proper or just and in accordance with principles of equality that the women are who they are claimed to be; they do indeed have those qualities, so it could be argued that the phrase is used correctly. But is that what the writers are implying?
Perhaps an example from the life of an average Jo(sephine) would be useful. Many years ago, when I was young and cute and newly engaged, I met some of my husband’s future colleagues at the university where he was teaching. It was a small social group that met for coffee and some talk in the morning. During this first meeting, I was referred to several times as a sort of prize he had won. I was nervous and probably more sensitive than usual. No harm was meant; they were all older than he and happy for him. He wasn’t lonely anymore, and here was this pretty young thing coming to the small town where nothing ever happened. They were trying to be nice, in their older, sexist, unthinking way. The worst culprit was the woman in the group, but her motivation is the subject of some other essay.
My now-husband of close to twenty years was sensitive to what was happening, bless him. Yes, he thought I was a babe, but he also thought I was interesting, funny, articulate, curious about the world—you know, all those qualities that make a person a tolerable spouse. He wanted to stand up for me. “You know,” he said, “Claudia is a writer in her own right.” So then I answered a few questions about writing and whether I was published. I held back until he and I were alone, and then I told him what I thought of the expression he’d used.
First, I pointed out how rarely we hear “in his own right.” If we’re using the phrase properly, there is no reason not to say it with regard to men as well as women. The example I found of its use to describe a man is guilty of the same crime I’ve already described. About his own son, the great musician and poet Leonard Cohen said, “Adam [Cohen] is a great singer-songwriter in his own right.” The comparison implied in the effort to (supposedly) avoid comparison is demeaning. It reduces the subject to something less than adult, and has the effect on its audience of, “aww, isn’t he/she cute? Trying to be just like _________.”
I was reminded of this the other day when my kid was accusing someone of microaggressions. He was wrong; the person was actually guilty of passive-aggressive actions, but it got me thinking about microaggressions and what they are, exactly. However subtle or even unintentional they are, they show discrimination against some already marginalized group, which is why I’d already learned about them with regard to race and ethnicity. I hadn’t yet given thought to the ways in which microaggressions are built right into our language. There are plenty of languages that have sexist constructions, which is why we now have words such as Latinx to address such inequalities. But in English, where we don’t have masculine and feminine nouns, we’ve had to figure other ways to make women not just “other” but less. Every time someone wants to attach “-ette” or “-ess” to the end of a word, women are infantilized. At my kids’ school, the mascot is a dolphin. The girls’ teams? The “Lady Dolphins,” who wear pink jerseys, even though the school colors are blue and white. In 2019.
Even the word “lady,” in certain contexts, places demands on women that don’t fit with the lives most of us live and suggests demure behavior never asked of men. How can “lady” dolphins possibly play volleyball? They’ll ruin their manicures. Growing up, I read books with characters who were ladies’ maids and ladies-in-waiting. Employment for the politely poor. When I was a child, my father always admonished me to act like a young lady; given his upbringing (in England, by people from Poland), that meant that I needed to be quiet, not boisterous; gentle, not rough; polite and never rude—always please, thank you, excuse me and so on—no elbows on the table or reaching across for something, always tip your bowl away from you (except on Passover), no slurping, or any eating sounds, mouth closed while chewing. Hair tidy and out of the face, dresses are always best for family events of any kind. I am grateful for my good manners every time I eat with a slob, but these are manners that men ought to have, too. My brothers got the same table manners lessons, by the way. And women should never be taught these “rules” as the keys to their happiness, or worse yet, the only way to be female.
Female, I understand. But I’m not sure what it means to be a girl or a woman. These days, we understand that it goes beyond whatever equipment our bodies have. Having a vagina doesn’t guarantee that I will feel like a girl or identify as one. When I was quite young, perhaps a tween, I told my mother that I thought my chromosomes weren’t quite right. Instead of the XX girl formula, I was sure mine looked like this: Xx/y. Why did I think so? Because when I was little, I liked Matchbox cars and GI Joe dolls. I didn’t like wearing dresses (maybe because I was made to), I was hairy, I liked playing rough with my brothers. I have three older brothers, no sisters, and a mother who had no interest in teaching me girly stuff. As little and shy and anxious as I was, I also pushed myself to be what I imagined was a kind of a daredevil on the playground. I was crazily proud of my accomplishments on the swing set. I never doubted that I was a girl; I suppose I felt that I was not a traditional or “girly” girl. And I never have been.
I love pretty things. I like to put on some makeup, and I like to get dressed up for special occasions. But when I am all dolled up, I don’t feel like me, and I don’t feel comfortable; I spend the time thinking about how great it will feel to go home and slip into some sweatpants.
My older child, declared a girl at birth (and before), says he doesn’t feel like a girl, and has therefore determined he’s a boy. To me, this doesn’t quite make sense, or perhaps I don’t understand it because I can’t imagine how that feels. I wonder what he thinks it means to be a girl. He doesn’t seem able to articulate it. I’m not able to, either. And what does it mean to be a boy? How could he possibly know what that feels like? And why this binary? I don’t feel like a girl; therefore, I am a boy. To me, this is not a logical argument coming out of a generation that has done such an amazing job of teaching us that gender and sexuality exist on a spectrum. But humans are full of contradiction, all of us. And my kid, who always picked out the shiny clothes, the flowy stuff, the hats and shirts that said things like “Girls Rule!”, this kid teaches me every day.
Maybe, like me, he noticed that things he accomplished might get dressed in pink, might have an “-ess” stuck on the end. Maybe he noticed that the world is still not a safe place for women and resented it as much as I do. Maybe I made womanhood look undesirable.
What I do understand is this.
Just as long hair and makeup don’t define women any more than does a vagina, supposed feminine word endings and pink shirts don’t do much to say who we are, either. And even if a person belongs to a community that sees men and women as equal but playing different roles, there is still no reason to use language that makes women less than they are—fully human.