Feminine Wiles

A male acquaintance suggested I try “feminine wiles” to persuade my husband to take a trip with me to London.

“I think I’m a little beyond feminine wiles.”

“How old are you?”

I laughed.

Yes, I’ve belonged to the “girls’ club of life” for a long time, but I’ve never been one for wiles.  Life is wonderful if you’re not a wily woman.  And wiles don’t matter one way or another when someone doesn’t want to get on a plane.

In a strange way, I feel that I belong not only to the “wileless” girls’ club but to the “wily” boys’ club, too.

It has something to do with defying gender expectations.  Women are expected to have children.   If you don’t become a mother, all your friends who are mothers, even/especially those who are bad at it, try to persuade you to become one (presumably equally bad).  They’re dropping with boredom and letting their kids watch Sesame Street twice a day, but they feel you, too, should drop with boredom and let your kids watch Sesame Street twice a day.  They send you greeting cards with a picture of a woman with a briefcase and the slogan “Oh my God, I forgot to have children.”

“I didn’t forget, I planned,” I say.

Then, in my late thirties, I finally got pregnant, bled, got pregnant, and bled, and after I charted my cycle, the doctor said I needed to take fertility drugs.

If I couldn’t have a baby naturally, I wasn’t interested.  I certainly wasn’t going to take hormones.

And then the lecture.  Apparently if I did not take fertility drugs, I was somehow betraying middle-class women everywhere.  My education would be wasted if I didn’t have a baby!

I don’t think a classics degree is necessarily the best qualification for motherhood.

The doctor was a woman, and women can be really hard on women who don’t conform.  In the ’70s sisterhood was powerful, but standards for sisterhood have narrowed over the years.  She saw no reason why a healthy woman shouldn’t spend months taking hormones that no doubt cause cancer in women and babies.

She was like a Stepford doctor.  She had to be in control.

Here’s the thing about men.  They may be hard on their girlfriends or wives and expect conformity, but they honestly don’t care much what a non-related woman does.  At work they seldom bore you with pictures of their children, and they simply run in the other direction if you show them a picture of your latest bicycle trip.  Many workplace women’s conversations revolve around motherhood.   At book group some poor harassed mother will always show up wild-haired with a crying baby in a carrier, and if she does manage to leave the baby with her husband, she will assume you all want to see the latest pictures on her phone anyway.

Women bosses behave more like men in these situations:  when they’re trying to manipulate you, they use strange sports metaphors like,  “If you want to play with the Big Boys, you’ve gotta play ball!”

That doesn’t quite make sense, so I’m sure I’ve misremembered the phrase, but she simply believed I would want to work overtime after she said this about the Big Boys.

Heavens, if I wanted to play with the big boys, I doubt I would have been working for her.

The great advantage to working for men?  They leave you alone.  They don’t talk to you about the Big Boys, they don’t make you do overtime, they’re just so glad that anything at all gets done without their help.  They’re always in a meeting, so you only see them once a week.   And they’re so reasonable it only takes you about one week out of a month to get all your work done.  The rest of the time you do whatever you want.

So does that mean I prefer to be in the boys’ club?  Huh.

On my last day in London, when I was supposed to go to the Tate Modern, but just did laundry and went to bookstores instead, I finally went to the Ultimate Women’s Club.  This would prove to be the test of my  sympathies.

Having been given  perfect directions, I could not mistake the Persephone bookstore, tiny though it was.  In a minuscule room of gray-covered books and giggling young women, I felt I had wandered into the wrong club.  Some places you’re at home (Skoob), some places not.   I saw the Dorothy Whipples and the Mollie Panter-Downes, but didn’t see anything I really wanted.   I wasn’t in the mood to do a pity buy, so I fled back to Skoob and bought Penguin crime classics.

So I either passed some glorious test (like I may be too old for most Persephones!) or flunked one (my glorious American dollars might have saved the store!)

No, I passed the most important one.  DO WHAT YOU WANT!

9 thoughts on “Feminine Wiles

  1. Women do have a club for the one thing they’re praised for: giving birth! (I never did that either, as you know.)

    Sorry you didn’t like Perseph!


  2. I was in London late last year. The afternoon I went to Persephone I got caught in a downpour so that by the time I walked in I didn’t want to get near the books for fear I would drip all over them. Also, in spite of being almost obsessively interested in under-read women novelists my taste doesn’t align particularly well with what Persephone publishes, a fact I tend to forget because I really want to love them. However this was difficult to explain, while standing and streaming in the tiny store, to my husband who had done the work of finding the place and seemed to need me to buy something for his efforts. I quickly chose one and audaciously handed the very nice woman helping me a scrawled note with suggestions for two books I think they should consider publishing: Amber Reeves’ A Lady and Her Husband, and Uncle Hilary by Olivia Shakespear. Those I would absolutely buy and who knows? Maybe sometime they will.

    Regarding bosses, there are of course too many male bosses who will in fact not leave female employees alone. Having endured the anxiety of this personally I can say that on balance I prefer the moms who overshare about the trials of potty training.


  3. Jen, I didn’t want to do a “pity buy” at Persephone, which I sometimes do in a small space. I had to leave…

    Ginny, I can just imagine dripping on those pretty books. Somehow the space wasn’t what I expected. I’d thought maybe a nice luxurious storefront with that pretty wallpaper from the endpapers. Rachel Ferguson’s Alas, Poor Lady is my favorite Persephone, but I have read few that are quite forgettable, and some even quite terrible. It was the end of the day and I was tired of the buying-and-shipping,and went back to Skoob, which had so much I like.

    I will look for the Amber Reeves and Olivia Shakespeare!

    Yes, I forget that there are male bosses who bother women. I really was fortunate in that ours were always out of the office or so absent-minded and intellectual that none of that went on. The best female boss I ever had was a nun. She was no-nonsense, organized, and believed in rewarding hard work. She and the absent-minded intellectual man were my favorite bosses! They had high standards.


  4. Thank you for writing this post. I too went through the cycle of getting pregnant, bleeding, getting pregnant, bleeding.
    I too refused to go down the fertility aid path. Fortunately I have been so vocal about being happy with my choice that few women go: awwww I’m sorry!
    About “women’s clubs” even though I want so badly to make new friends (I’ve lost quite a few to motherhood) I can’t bring myself to join one. Right now the “Women in Tech” discourse is frankly tiresome. Sometimes I feel like younger women WANT to be angry all the time…
    About work teams, I prefer men as coworkers too.


  5. I never got flak for neither wanting children or keeping my name. Could that be a midwestern vs NYC thing?

    I find that I’m really enjoying most of the Persephones. I just saw a current photo of Trafalger Square filled with tourists and children. It gave me second thoughts. My brother and I are thinking of going to GB in the fall to visit relatives and hit the museums.


  6. I work in a 99% female environment but fortunately most of us are old and sensible enough not to want to flash our children’s photos around. Although I have 3 of my own, I don’t particularly care for anyone else’s and I respect any woman’s decision not to procreate – that’s part of women’s independence which we’ve been fighting for, surely? As for Persephone – like every publisher, I’m not going to like all their books (I don’t like all Viragos). But I do like their shop – it was full of many non-giggly older women (and a man) a couple of weekends ago and some of us bought and some of us didn’t (I got bookmarks). Maybe it’s the size of the place – smallness can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’re on your own (I’ve felt that in small shops before)!


  7. Luisa, yes, it’s hard when all your friends become mothers! Now people expect me to show them pictures of my grandchildren, I swear. It’s a bonding thing for people. Yes, isn’t it horrid of us to prefer men as co-workers? One of my favorite female co-workers wanted to be with me every minute–I loved her dearly, but I couldn’t bear to be with anyone all the time like that. And so I had to turn down invitations, and her feelings were very hurt. I didn’t know how to handle it, not quite having been the popular girl in high school, and that’s what it seemed like a bit. I had to go shopping on my lunch hour with the gals, but I don’t like shopping for clothes. And so I found the company of the men more restful, because they had zero expectations of social life from me!

    Cynthia, I’m sure it’s Midwest vs. New York! People leave each other a lot of space in the Midwest, but “family” is supposed to be the most important thing. (And I’m not saying it’s not.) Yes, the tourists ARE all over Trafalgar Square: the second time I went in the morning and then it is much calmer. I wish I were going back in the fall. My husband seems to think he’ll go with me if I wait a while.

    Oh, Karen, we’re so fond of you, and know you are never obnoxious about these things. (I just felt like writing an obnoxious post; maybe once a week at least?.) I went to Persephone RIGHT before I went home, so was a little burned-out. It’s so small that it doesn’t take much to be crowded. I think it was the “lunch rush.”


  8. My first job interview right out of graduate school was being interviewed by three women for an Italian cataloging position at the University of Chicago and a position I thought I would’ve really liked. I was asked about my marital history by one of them (as if it was any of her business) and if I had any children. I replied that I was twice divorced and really never really wanted the responsibility of parenthood. She then had the audacity to ask a follow up question which I’ve always hated: “What’s the matter, don’t you like kids?”
    “No, that’s not the reason,” I replied. I then told them that I’ve always regarded the fact that I never sired any children to be my contribution to world peace, not to mention my peace of mind. Needless to say I didn’t get the job.


  9. Good God, Joel, I don’t think they’re even allowed to ask questions like that! It is none of their business. We’re also helping with zero population growth. Chicago would have been closer to Iowa City, but I can’t help but think you got the much better job. Working for those three might have been unbearable.


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