“This is what Happens When Little Girls are Bad:” A Feminist Analysis of an Act of Domestic Violence From Multiple Perspectives

Some events sear themselves into one’s psyche. Like a burn, these events linger, leaving a smoldering imprint in the mind. It is true that memories of events dull as time distances the mind from the event, but not these memories. These memories remain distinct. Events of domestic violence have this effect. Nietzsche asserts absolute truth does not exist, all that exists is a multiplicity of perspectives. To take such an event and analyze it from a multiplicity of perspectives is to conceive of the oppression of women through a concrete event. It is to bring feminism as theorized to life. I argue that a specific event of domestic violence is an exemplar of concepts developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mary Wollstonecraft, bell hooks, and Mary Daly.

I begin with an event of domestic violence from my life. I then take the event a part, piece by piece, in order to demonstrate how each piece is representative of these thinkers’ specific concepts. The first piece is Rousseau’s concept of the obedient wife submitting to the abuse of the husband with restraint. The second piece is Rousseau’s concept of the infantilization of women as critiqued by Wollstonecraft. The third piece is hooks’ concept of the working class man who violently perpetuates sexism despite receiving no material or social benefit for doing such. The fourth piece is Daly’s concept of the “three false deities:” “God of explanation,” “God of otherworldliness,” and “God of sin.” Ultimately, I demonstrate how one family’s experiences of domestic violence are indicative of an internalization of sexist ideology.

The concrete event, the memory, begins in a small bedroom my older sister and I shared for a short time when we were very young. A voice called me. At first it was muffled by the delirious space in my mind between being awake and asleep, but it gradually grew clearer. It was my father’s voice, calmly yet insistently, calling my sister and me to my parent’s bedroom. My sister and I pulled ourselves through the thick darkness, pushing our small bodies through the heavy stillness and the silence, to meet at the closed bedroom door. She opened the door and we walked side by side down the dark hallway, following the sound of our father’s voice. We stopped in the doorway of our parents’ bedroom, tentatively pushing the half opened door all the way open. Two figures appeared merged into one, sitting on the edge of the bed. A pale light allowed me to disentangle the figures. My father sat shirtless, in his underwear, on the edge of the bed. My mother laid naked, bent over his knees. My father’s voice, detached from its own reverberations, insisted my sister and I come closer. My mother remained still and silent, she herself perhaps disengaged. We slowly moved forward in the darkness toward the two figures displayed in an awkward position in front of us. My father looked at my sister and me, raised his hand and without the slightest inflection in his voice said to us, “look girls, this is what happens when little girls are bad.”

My sister and I watched for some time as our father repeatedly struck our mother. His lashes met with the lower part of her back down to the middle of the back of her thighs. He raised his hand and brought it down onto her flesh, over and over, all the while telling us in a toneless voice not to look away, to watch, that this was a lesson. As good little girls should, my mother remained still and silent and we remained still and silent. All of us minding as we were told. After some time, our father himself became still and silent. He looked at us one last time, looked at our mother bent over his knees and then pushed her off him. She laid silent and still on the floor as our father abruptly stood up, pulled the covers back and put himself to bed. Our mother moved inch by inch into a standing position and then silently walked past us through the door into the darkness of the hallway. My sister followed into the darkness leaving me standing alone, staring numbly at the spot where a few moments prior the two figures were displayed before me.

After a few short moments, my legs carried me into the living room and onto the couch next to my sister and a box of bandages. My sister pulled the layers of wrapping apart, exposing the plastic strips and handing them to my mother. In the dim light I could see the discolorations across my mother’s body. My father had beaten her so severely that among and on top of her many bruises, blood blisters had formed and then burst. I sat disconnected, silent and still watching my mother put bandages on her bleeding bruises. She only spoke to ask my sister to help her put them on the areas she could not reach.

This was the first memory of numerous violent acts; many involving my mother, but some involving my sister and some involving me. After my parents were divorced, my father remarried and I lived with him and my stepmother for a while. My father’s most violent act against me was when I was twelve. He furiously threw me against a wall several times. I remember how my body had gone limp after the first time I hit the wall. Each time he would throw me into the wall my body just seemed to bounce back into his hands, just to be thrown again. Recounting the incident several years later, my stepmother stared at me with wide eyes and told me slowly in a low voice how at the time she had “thought that he was going to kill” me. The common rhetorical use of this phrase did not mask the seriousness of her remark. After my head had cleared when my stepmother had told me how she thought that he was going to kill me, I remember thinking the same thing that I had thought once my head had cleared after I was repeatedly bounced off a wall. Both times the first thought that emerged from a disengaged mental fog was, “this is what happens when little girls are bad.”

For Rousseau, the disengaged restraint and obedience displayed by my mother, my sister and I are essential to our constitution as women. In Émile, Rousseau asserts woman needs to be what is “befitting of the constitution of her species and of her sex, in order to fill her place in the physical and moral world” (Rousseau, 259). Woman’s essential nature “is especially constituted to please man” (ibid, 260). Men and women reach perfection by being exemplars of their inherent attributes (ibid, 260). One essential difference between men and women, asserts Rousseau, is that “[o]ne must be active and strong, the other passive and weak” (ibid, 260). Man is to have “power and will,” while woman is to “have little power of resistance” (ibid). To submit to the will and power of man, without the power of resistance is simply natural. It is what a woman is naturally meant to do. Nature is the ultimate guide. Rousseau states “[a]lways follow the indications of Nature,” “[a]ll that characterizes sex ought to be respected or established by her” (ibid, 261). Women by nature are constituted to please man. As passive and weak, they do not have the power of resisting the will and power of man. This is how woman ought to be. It is woman’s proper role and virtue to be so (ibid, 262). For Rousseau my mother, my sister and I were virtuously fulfilling our role given to us by nature.

Rousseau would commend our restraint as being a display of our virtuousness. My sister and I stood still and silent, obediently watching as my mother laid still and silent, obediently being beaten. Rousseau asserts women must learn restraint because women are passive beings who must be the essential compliment to active men; who must submit themselves to the wills of others (ibid, 268). Women’s essential nature is to please man. Her passive and weak nature must submit itself to man’s active and strong nature. Therefore, she must learn restraint. Restraint may need to be taught but it is still derived from the essential nature of women because “dependence being a state natural to women, girls feel that they are made to obey” (ibid, 269).

The lesson our father was teaching our mother, and us, was this exactly. He was teaching us that she, our mother, had displeased him. She had stepped outside of the role as defined for her by nature, that of being pleasing to him. He was teaching us passive restraint. He was teaching us to submit ourselves to his active, violent, will. And, we all obeyed, out of dependence. Perhaps not a dependence essential to our being as Rousseau claims, but dependence nonetheless. To our father, he himself was fulfilling his own Rousseauian nature. Rousseau justifies domestic violence as follows:

There results from this habitual restraint a docility which women need during their whole life, since they never cease to be subject either to a man or the judgments of men, and they are never allowed to place themselves above these judgments. The first and most important quality of a woman is gentleness. Made to obey a being as imperfect as man, often so full of vices, and always so full of faults, she ought early to learn to suffer even injustice, and to endure the wrongs of a husband without complaint; and it is not for him, but for herself that she ought be gentle. The harshness and obstinacy of women serve only to increase the wrong and the bad conduct of husbands; they feel that it is not with these arms that their wives should conquer them. (ibid, 270)

My mother exemplified this docility as the subject of our father’s judgments about her. She did not place herself above this judgment, she submitted to the punishment for committing whatever act displeased him. My sister and I learned early that we were to suffer the injustice and endure the wrongs of our husbands as our mother did, without complaint. We learned we are passive and weak, therefore, to challenge a man who is powerful and strong, is to demean his authoritative will. Thus, to challenge a man is to deserve whatever punishment he deems appropriate to enact upon us. This is a lesson I learned well when, later on, I internalized the blame for my father bouncing me off a wall like a rubber ball.

It was my mother’s perceived passivity, weakness, and dependence as a woman-child that justified her punishment. Subsumed in Rousseau’s concepts, as critically examined by Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is the concept of the infantilization of woman. My father’s voice echoes, “this is what happens when little girls are bad.” Such a statement and the mentality behind it are examined in Wollstonecraft’s criticisms of Rousseau and other thinkers like him who keep women “in a state of perpetual childhood, unable to stand alone” (Wollstonecraft, 8). She urges women to “acquire strength of both mind and body” because to fulfill the passive roles propagated by thinkers such as Rousseau is to be weak (ibid). The passive, weak and submissive beings, the “beings who are only the objects of pity […] will soon become objects of contempt” (ibid). It is a position of inferiority to be a child, unable to think and care for oneself, to be dependent upon another for your existence. It is an objectified position where one does not think or will autonomously. It is a position the superior looks down upon with contempt. The inferiority of the position of the child is exemplified by my father’s contempt when he looked down at the woman across his legs and the two children looking up at him.

Wollstonecraft asserts, despite the amiable grandeur of the qualities of gentleness, restraint, and “long-suffering,” such qualities take on “a different aspect […] when it is the submissive demeanour of dependence, the support of weakness that loves, because it wants protection; and is forbearing, because it must silently endure injuries; smiling under the lash at which it dare not snarl” (ibid, 32). For thinkers like Rousseau, this is “the portrait of an accomplished woman,” “the received opinion of female excellence,” woman’s supreme virtue (ibid). There are good reasons why gentleness ought to be cultivated, “but when forbearance confounds right and wrong, it ceases to be a virtue; and, however convenient it may be found in a companion – the companion will ever be considered as an inferior, and only inspire a vapid tenderness, which easily degenerates into contempt” (ibid, 33).

Wollstonecraft asserts the image that defines the virtuous woman as an obedient and docile figure of restraint, smiling at the lashes of her husband, is the image of contempt not virtue. My mother sublimated herself to the image of the virtuous woman, an obedient and docile figure of restraint, not smiling, but certainly accepting the lashes. Wollstonecraft states to reduce women to beings who are weak, passive and dependent upon men for protection, is to reduce women to objects of contempt. My mother was an object of contempt for my father. She was a “little girl,” weak, passive and dependent upon him to instruct her of her proper place and violently correct her when she stepped out of it. As Wollstonecraft points out, the qualities of gentleness, restraint, and “long-suffering” are amiable for human relationships, but only human relationships built upon equality. Equality cannot exist in a relationship typified by interactions that end in bruises that burst open and bleed. Restraint has confounded right and wrong in such a relationship.

My father sought power over my mother. A warped sensuality was imbued in their nakedness, thus, my mother’s oppression took on a sexual aspect. My father sought not just power over my mother, but her complete blind obedience as both a tool and a sexual object. His reduction of her to a woman-child served to reinforce her dependence, keeping her blind to her ability to strengthen her mind and body so that she could demand equality. Wollstonecraft states, “as blind obedience is ever sought for by power, tyrants and sensualists are in the right when they endeavour to keep women in the dark, because the former only want slaves, and the latter a play-thing” (ibid, 24). She was reduced to an objectified “slave” and “play-thing,” blindly obedient to the man she was psychologically dependent on.

My father violently imposed his will on us in order to exert power over us. Yet, he himself is a human being who is subject to power imposed upon him. In Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, hooks points out how working class men are in positions of powerlessness along with women and how a dichotomy that pits men against women preserves the struggle to end women’s oppression. The feminist movement as created and maintained by white, middle-class, bourgeois women (such as Wollstonecraft) argued men “were all-powerful, misogynist, oppressor – the enemy” and “[w]omen were the oppressed – the victims” (hooks, 68). The problem with this dichotomy is that “[s]uch rhetoric reinforced sexist ideology by positing in an inverted form the notion of a basic conflict between the sexes, the implication being that the empowerment of women would necessarily be at the expense of men” (ibid). Yes, hooks asserts, “[a]ll men support and perpetuate sexism and sexist oppression in one form or another” (ibid, 73). But, it is crucially important to recognize that “[l]ike women, men have been socialized to passively accept sexist ideology” (ibid). Thus, even though men do not face the extreme physical and psychological effects of sexist exploitation and oppression, they do suffer “painful consequences” from the socialization of sexist ideology (ibid).

Recognizing it is both true that “men do oppress women” and that men “are hurt by rigid sex-role patterns” does not lessen the grievousness of the acts committed against women nor does it lessen the fact that men need to take responsibility for their actions (ibid, 74). It recognizes that my father committed violent acts against women because he was socialized to do so. Yes, my father contributed violently to the oppression of women. Yes, he needs to take responsibility for that. But through socialization, he internalized into his identity a sexist ideology that was not his making. This sexist ideology hurt him by telling him he should have power and privileges because he is a man, but in reality the only power he had was over his wife and children.

My father could not reconcile the power and privilege society told him he should have as a man with the lack of power and privilege he actually had. hooks explains this as a “contradiction between the notion of masculinity he was taught and his inability to live up to that notion” (ibid, 75). My father exemplified the “hurt” working class men feel when they do not have the power and privilege in society that they are socialized to believe “real men” ought to have (ibid). The dejected hurt my father felt, a hurt permeated with feeling a lack of control over his life, precipitated his violence toward us. hooks states:

Alienated, frustrated, pissed off, he may attack, abuse, and oppress an individual woman or women, but he is not reaping positive rewards; he may feel satisfied in exercising the only form of domination allowed him. The ruling-class male power structure that promotes his sexist abuse of women reaps the real material benefits and privileges from his actions. As long as he is attacking women and not sexism or capitalism, he helps to maintain a system that allows him few, if any, benefits or privileges. He is an oppressor. He is an enemy to women. He is also an enemy to himself. He is also oppressed. (ibid)

As hooks explains, my father’s violence toward us, may have made him feel powerful and privileged, thereby giving him some sense of being a “real man,” but it was a superficial substitute for the material benefits and privileges he was told by society he ought to have had but was denied.

A sexist hierarchal system where men and woman are socialized to conform to “sex-role patterns” utilizes abstract definitions of a “real man” and a “real woman.” Such a sexist ideology asserts the abstract template of man is superior to the abstract template of woman, thus man has power over woman. Such abstract templates can be traced back to what Daly describes, in Beyond God the Father, as human beings’ “projections” of God “in their own image” (Daly, 29). Traditionally, religious doctrine teaches the superiority of man because man is made in the image of God and woman is made from man. Daly asserts that feminism needs to embark on a “process of creativity” which involves “iconoclasm – the breaking of idols” (ibid). She states, “[t]he basic idol-breaking will be done on the level of internalized images of male superiority, on the plane of exorcising them from consciousness and from the cultural institutions that breed them” (ibid). Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and hooks all describe cultural institutions that propagate a sexist ideology that claims man has superiority over woman (e.g. education and capitalism). This ideology is internalized by men and women which commands the acquiescence of both sexes to the ideology. Daly asserts that the “dethronement of false Gods” propagated by another cultural institution, religion, is necessary for a feminist movement (ibid).

Daly offers “three false deities” “to be dethroned” (ibid, 30). First, is the “God of explanation” which is used as a “stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge” (ibid). We fill in our knowledge of “why” with this God by claiming the suffering of the world is God’s will. God’s will excuses “socially prevailing inequalities of power and privilege,” it is a “justifying process which easily encourages masochistic attitudes” (ibid). Daly asserts “this deity does not encourage commitment to the task of analyzing and eradicating the social, economic, and psychological roots of suffering” (ibid).  The God of explanation justifies the suffering caused by inequalities of power and privilege as being God’s will. Under this God, if suffering and inequality are God’s will, then we need not correct such things.  This God tells me that it was God’s will that my family be working class, that my mother, my sister and I be born women, that man be superior to woman and that wealth equals power. It tells me that it was God’s will that we face the hurt associated with these inequalities, namely the lack of control my father felt over his life and the violence he in turn enacted toward us. Belief in this God justifies sexist ideology by encouraging complacent acquiescence to inequality and the resulting harm.

A second false deity is the “God of otherworldliness,” “the Judge whose chief activity consists in rewarding and punishing after death” (ibid). Daly states, “One consequence is an attitude of patient resignation regarding institutional structures” (ibid, 31). To add to Daly, if inequalities of power and privilege extend from the institutional (e.g. education, capitalism and religion) to the family unit, then the family unit is an extension of the institutional. The family unit is a mini-institution, reflective of the larger institution. In this sense, my mother not only internalized the violent acts of my father as being God’s will, but also patiently resigned to the violence. Perhaps she was waiting for the rewards given to virtuous wives after death. She patiently resigned to the institutional structures that justified her abuse.

The third false deity is “the God who is the Judge of ‘sin,’ who confirms the rightness of the rules and roles of the reigning system, maintaining false consciences and self-destructive guilt-feelings” (ibid). It is this God who tells women “that they should be subordinate to their husbands” (ibid). It is this God who told my mother that her obedience and restraint toward my father were virtuous, thus, that her opposition would be sinful. It is this God that kept her obedient and restrained through a self-destructive guilt. It is this God that not only allowed me to be self-destructively obedient and restrained, per the rules and roles of the system, but instilled in me a guilt through which I perceived my mother’s abuse and my own abuse as being what we deserved. It instilled in me a propensity for a self-destructive self-hate. This God tells me there is a reason we were abused and it was because we deserved it, because there is something wrong with us.

There is another way to look at Daly’s false deities. Oppressive ideologies claim there is a hierarchy of power. In secular social and political institutions this hierarchy places man above woman. In religious institutions this hierarchy places God above man, and man above woman. Man is directly of God, woman is of man. Such an ideology justifies the power God has over man, and in turn justifies the power man has over woman. In this sense, my father took on a role similar to God. As a man within this hierarchal system, he was a projection of God-like power to my mother, my sister and I. It was my father’s God-like will that we suffer, so we did and we did not question it. As a projection of God and Judge, we all waited with patient resignation for my father’s punishments. As a projection of God as the Judge of sin, we were subordinate to my father. He determined what was sinful and punished our sins with violence. We obeyed out of guilt. We internalized his God-like lesson of what happens when little girls are bad.

Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, hooks, and Daly all provide different perspectives on how to examine an act of domestic violence. Rousseau’s perspective demonstrates how violent oppression is justified by an essentialism that conceptualizes woman’s role of subjection as being virtuous. Wollstonecraft’s perspective turns this conceptualization around by asserting to submit to the role of subjection out of dependence is to submit to being an object of contempt. hooks’ perspective demonstrates how the working class man transfers his own oppression onto women in a superficial attempt to gain some power he is told he ought to have under sexism but is denied under capitalism. Daly’s perspective demonstrates how internalized notions of God justify oppression, for both the institution and the family. My father, my mother, my sister and I were not aware of feminism, nonetheless Rousseau, Wollstonecraft, hooks and Daly’s perspectives. We were not deeply religious. Yet, these perspectives are so apt to our lives. Through one family’s experiences with domestic violence, these perspectives demonstrate how sexist ideology has become internalized at the level of family, which allows for oppression to be reproduced unquestioningly.