I watch the Supreme Court hearings and puzzle the contradiction of an accomplished female judge who embraces “the handmaid” identity bestowed upon her by her father, husband, and father-in-law. She believes, her printed religious sect materials say, that she shall subjugate herself to her men. He, her master, sits behind her in the hearings while she articulates and argues.
We know that she has seven children, that Kavanaugh has two daughters, and that Ginsburg was top of her law school class while also a mother of two. The children are the sidekicks displayed to show the nominees’ empathy, their multi-tasking capability even while they pass judgement. We object that we did not know Roberts’ children, that Alito’s weren’t paraded, we suspect that the harsh glare of publicity and Senate questions are no place for a child, even more so in the time of a global Pandemic.
Children are developmentally and legally subjected to authority by guardians. Women are not.
And yet, part of me wants to subsume myself to my man, be his sidekick, even though the fierce 70’s girl-woman at my core objects strenuously. The fatigued and battered side of me wants to disappear inside his cocoon. My husband of the impressive credentials and career, of voracious intellect and accomplishment. If I am the handmaiden, he will be responsible for my moral self. If I am his subject, he will master my moves and decisions. If I believe, he will lead. And if I am broken, he will heal.
A while ago, he gave us Ballroom Dance lessons for Valentine’s Day. The idea, of course, is that the man leads the woman, he provides the unbending frame for her. He is in charge of the count, the next step, the clear route around the crowded dance floor. I only had to follow.
Paired with our two main instructors over several years–first Boris and then Debbie–I was all trust. My body understood their subtle direction, a little muscle pressure, a leading turn, a lifted hand urging I turn and turn again. Dancing was an embrace, an unequal partnership.
But my ferocious ambivalence about my autonomy within the marriage roared into my muscles when my husband and I paired. I could not for the life of me become the pretty thing twirled by the man. I still haven’t figured out if I was responding to his intransigence, his tough determination to make the right moves, or if his muscles were overreacting to my defensiveness. I’m exhausted being back in the memory; I dream of the wrestling match and wake up tense across my back, shoulders, arms.
What would it have been to give in? To allow him to dictate our course? Would he have found his own confidence if I had been a willing partner?
Guiding my children through to adulthood, I found a confidence and sureness in the authority over another human being, the first faltering responses became experienced and certain. But the job of parent has always been about growing independence, about trusting the burgeoning autonomy, and finally being fully separate adults. We are each responsible for our own morality, decisions, outcome.
I puzzle over a full-grown adult who subjugates herself in her very core to another human being, as our newest Supreme Court nominee does. She has given over the determination of her soul to another, she does not accept the ultimate responsibility of adulthood. And so naturally I wonder, how can she be our most supreme judge, our arbiter and keeper of our Constitution, if it is not she–handmaiden to men—who ultimately decides?
Subjugation—that what we all long for in our most weary moments, perhaps what some of us seek as solution for these frightening times— is a perpetual childhood, an unending desire for authority and parent.
I’m extraordinarily lucky to have a forty-plus year equal partnership and a husband who supports my choice and my angst, who embraces my fierce independence. And who understands that my occasional desire to be taken care of does not give him one iota of authority over me. We, two full-grown adults.
2 thoughts on “Handmaid to No One”
Brilliant, Gail! I always enjoy reading your material. Keep them coming. Hopefully your book will be available soon?
Thank you Susan!