Women’s Lives Under Padding

Women’s Lives Under Padding

by Merle Hoffman

learned about paddings accidentally many years ago. It was in a time before my consciousness was raised.

I was 18, incurably romantic, and had taken a bunch of red roses with me to the Grand Plaza de Toros in Madrid—in anticipation of playing out a scene from an Ernest Hemingway novel—the Young American Woman and the Matador.

That hot and sunny Sunday afternoonthere was a novellero (an apprentice matador) thrusting himself gracefully and erotically in front of black sweating death, brilliantly executing a perfect “moment of truth”—killing the bull with a single thrust to the artery in the neck. The great beast went down gently, his legs the first to move under him as his massive body melted into the sand.

A supreme triumph for this novice—his ritual reward was a slice of flesh, the ear of the bull cut off with the precision of a surgeon’s knife. He would have to be far more accomplished to receive the ultimate prize, two ears and a tail. Around and around the corrida this novellero walked, waving and throwing small kisses to the screaming crowds—I grandly threw my roses towards him over the heads of the spectators in front of me. He caught them in one hand, and standing quite still, bowed low and swept the sand with his cape. Then, in a moment of ultimate romantic fantasy, he threw me the ear of the bull as a knight would a favor to his lady.

I didn’t notice the blood that poured onto my hand as I managed to catch it.I felt only exhultation. Clutching that small, pathetic piece of skin and hair, I was a Star. He had chosen me from all the women in the corrida and given me a piece of slaughtered animal as a measure of his affections.

And I was amazed, amazed at his gift, this symbol of romance, power, sexuality and death. It all seemed to fit. After all, the bull was also a willing participant in this ancient ritual of male power and death. Here he could die amidst pagentry and honor—a preferable fate to the bloody anonymity of the slaughterhouse. It was all part of that same Hemingway script.

But then there were the horses. In my amazement, I had forgotten about the horses.

Coming in at the second act, they carried the piccadors on their backs, small heavy men with lances that speared into the necks of the bulls as they charged against the sides of the horses.

The horses would be pinned against the walls of the corrida, heads held high as they stood their ground to accept the assault.

I was told that they weren’t hurt by the sharp horns that thrust into their sides as the bulls became more and more enraged; they weren’t hurt because they were protected by their padding, the heavy quilted padding gnder the leather saddles.

It was only much later that I found out the truth. The padding was not for their own protection against the battering horns of the tormented bulls (there was in fact no possible protection against this) but acted as a screen against offending the delicate sensibilities of the crowds that demanded ignorance from the reality of the open, bleeding, gushing wounds. The padding was for us, and not for them.

Now, remembering this, I began to think about women’s lives. To think about how often they were like the sides of those horses: open, vulnerable, and many times wounded and bleeding under the padding that covered them. And I thought about that padding: a patchwork quift of belief systems and conditioned responses created by a society that sold us its institutions as being therefor our own protection, as existing to comfort, protect and provide security and engulfing safeness. I thought about how often that padding was not protection at all, but pure artifice.

In a world created not by you but for you, women have been slowly, historically, culturally, insidiously and consistently conditioned to live their lives under and through paddings.

Experientially, one could be considered “adjusted” as a woman in this society determined by the degree of comfort, integration and acceptance of this padding by women as individuals and by women collectively as a class. Much of the dissatisfaction that occurs within women personally and politically happens when there is an awareness of the difference between one’s personal reality and the culturally conditioned way of perceiving things. This process has historically been described in feminist literature as a “click of consciousness”. Once this occurs there are two roads to travel. One can either move into the personal reality as one experiences it or, denying this, move once again, with even more fervor, into the padding. On a grander scale, the general denial of the term “feminist” as an acceptable label by many American women existing simultaneously with their belief in the goals of the movement is a prime example of the power of these paddings.

I have continually heard women refuse to describe themselves as feminists because “these women are masculine and angry” etc., and in the next breath go on to say, “but of course I believe in equal pay for equal work” and that “women are just as good as men”. In this case, the reality and the padding exist side by side in consciousness, yet the padding {the drive to be a good girl, feminine and acceptable to the male establishment) prevents many women from fully accepting it.

But then the reality comes in, sometimes quietly, other times screaming.

It happens so very often that I should be used to it by now, made numb by habit, not affected—it should all go into that white noise category of neutral stimuli that gets fused into the nothingness of trace memory. But it only seems to get worse. Every time I read a newspaper or turn on the TV, it hits me, it hits me hard.

Another murder. Another woman or child abused, battered or killed, most often by a husband, father or lover. Paddings, paddings. . . .

Given the reality of many women’s lives, it becomes increasingly important to uncover those sides and hold up the wounds to the glaring light of truth.

Upon reflection, there appears to be an enormous amount of male rage in this society One could perhaps theorize a political basis for this rage, that it is fostered by a lack of community, tack of ethical purpose, separation from one’s essential humanity, feeling powerless in the personal, impotent in the professional; etc. But the bottom line is that this rage is, more often than not, directed at women—at women for perhaps having reneged on the historical, mythological expectation of her as original, continual nurturer and total support system. Rage at women collectively: against their expressions of sexuality; against their ability to give birth and their ability to decide not to; against the expressed political power of that choosing; yes, rage against the continuing and escalating feminist demands for power and participation in the society.

Rage ultimately at the struggles for a new world order that would present a radical political alternative vision.

Rage … it is not only the direct physical violence (the arm that shatters or the gun that wounds) but the written and spoken word, the images, the collective perceptions as expressed through the written and electronic media that show, without question or compromise, the high level of male frustration and rage. Far from being purely serendipitous and arbitrary, the violent expression of this rage takes many forms and serves many purposes.

Violence can, and often does, serve to reinforce and institutionalize the natural physiological dominance of men, while at the same time supporting men’s perception of their separateness from women. This particular perception eases the way for men to minimize, demean and generally act out against women in multiple ways. The mere threat of violence also often results in enforcing a passivity in the female victims that leads to individual and collective subservient “good girl” behavior patterns. The constant daily reminders of violence against women and children in every newspaper strongly reinforce this reality. Domestic violence in particular expresses this pattern by strongly upholding the patriarchal status quo and enforcing the real or perceived power of the establishment.

According to the New York Times, November 8, 1987, Dr. Ronald Chez of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey said there were six million battered women in America; other estimates range from three million to 12 million. Susan Schecter, author of Women and Male Violence, said there were 1.8 million battered married women in 1980, but that that figure did not include violence against single women or divorcees. Another statistic quotes the fact that a woman is battered in America every 15 seconds.

The padding of “forever” and “till death do us part”; the padding of social structure, of class exemption, of forgetfulness, of “it can’t happen to me”, and “it’s not my problem”.

Prudence Glass Greenblatt of The Battered Women’s Defense Committee said in the same article that there remains “a significant religious cultural and political support for wife beating”. In this instance, we see the Church and the State, separate or unified—acting not as protective structures of safety and reason, but as institutional supports for criminal activities.

An even more insidious and dangerous phenomenon is the fact that mass murders are on the rise and are considered the “new epidemic”. As reported by the New York Times, January 3,1988, James Fox, criminologist and co-author of Mass Murder, America’s Growing Menace states that “1966 was the onset of the age of mass murder”. In 75 percent of the cases studied by Fox, the victims knew their killer, who was almost always a white male.

The killers all shared some common characteristics, including that prior to the murders there was the loss of a job or separation or divorce from a spouse. Also, they were people who had few outside contacts with friends or neighbors who might help vent the growing rage.

Interestingly enough, Levin said societal trends are creating more opportunity for these conditions. “You look at the divorce rate of 50 percent and the tremendous residential and job mobility in this country. It can leave people rootless, isolated without sense of community.”

The recent case of Ronald Gene Simmons is a horrifying and graphic example of this. The Arkansas man killed 16 members of his family (there are reports that he actually had them dig their own graves up to six months before their murders by telling them he was planning a gardening project). Simmons is described as an ex-master sergeant who liked to order others around and, according to Linda Mayhew, the closest friend of Simmons wife {Daily News, January 3,1988) he, Simmons, gave orders and they (his family) didn’t dare question what he wanted. The article states that “to maintain his control Simmons would not allow his family to join any church or social group”. They could not have a telephone. One daughter, Loretta, 17, who wanted to be a model, couldn’t wear pretty clothes, date or wear makeup.

The “padding” obscured the fact that the entire family lived in what were actually concentration camp conditions and could not or would not ask for help, break out or attempt a collective action. Another distressing aspect of this story is that one of Simmons daughters was a victim of his continued sexual abuse, bore a child out of that union and both she and that child perished in the massacre. There is also a contention that what triggered Simmons murderous rage was a recent rejection from a young woman he was pursuing. She, too, was murdered in the rampage.

Although mass murderers and mass murders are still by no means an every day occurrence, they can be viewed as the apex of the little murders, the every day humiliations, the daily violent incidents that face us each morning as we scan the media reports. Violence, sex and death.

Little Lisa Steinberg, the six-year-old girl allegedly murdered by her adoptive father, had padding. The padding of parental love and middle class values. The padding of childhood and a good neighborhood school. But underneath that padding, her life was a nightmare of abuse and neglect.

Lisa’s adoptive mother, Hedda Nussbaum, had padding too. The padding of a longterm relationship, of snared adopted children with her lover Joel Steinberg, of mutual friends, of professional status. Living in a twilight zone of abuse and passivity, Hedda now stands accused of being an accomplice in her adopted daughter’s murder.

The “battered woman syndrome” cycle depends (according to the New York Times, November 8, 1987) on the usually deliberate undermining of a woman’s sense of authority, independence and self-worth by a possessive, demanding and overly critical man who feels the need to control the behavior of all those around him.

The enormous pressure on women to conform to the expectations of the padding lead to behaviors such as Hedda Nussbaum claiming that her broken nose, fractured ribs and other major physical problems resulted not from beatings by her lover but from something else; i.e. he didn’t hit me, I fell. So Hedda stands accused.

Some say and feel that no matter what the reality of that house, no matter how much her own sickness and pain, Hedda Nussbaum should have protected her daughter at all costs, should have laid down her own life first, should have gotten the child out of there—should have, should have. . ..

But was Hedda aware that there is much evidence to suggest that a woman who finally decides to leave an intolerable battering relationship still risks the even greater peril that the man often will find her and possibly kill her? Or, if she manages to escape, where can she go? Due to the Reagan Administration’s budget cuts, there are few, if any, shelters available to support her. With little or no financial assistance, a woman’s decision to leave a battering relationship may jeopardize her chance of survival even more than remaining in an unsafe house.

According to Karla Digirolamo, Executive Director of New York State’s Commission of Domestic Violence: “There develops a conditioned helplessness which is magnified by fear. Some women believe they are safer at home where they know the danger than out in an unsupportive world where they may be pursued.” According to recent studies, 20 to 40 percent of homeless people in New York City are battered women. This kind of statistic gives new life to the phrase “between a rock and a hard place”, and reinforcement to Sigmund Freud’s comment that “experience teaches us that the world is no nursery.” Asks Ms. Digirolamo: “How do you assimilate the fact that the person who loves you is beating you, or that the person you love is beating you, so that even your love is worth nothing?”

Indeed, recent child abduction cases, where mothers have defied the courts and gone to jail to protect their children from their abuser, have proved that the courts often award custody to the abusive father. Other cases exist where mothers are jailed for protecting their children from psychological or sexual abuse by hiding them from estranged husbands against court orders. So, we are left with women existing in a matrix of difficult, if not impossible, choices—a classic no-win situation.

We come to the harsh reality that there is no fair cause and effect in the universe— that, in fact, if we do the “right things”, good things do not always happen to us. A headline in a daily screams a quote from the biological mother of Lisa Steinberg, “If I wanted my daughter murdered, I would have had an abortion.”

But how much real choice did the mother, Michelle Launders, have? Pregnant, 20 years old, unmarried, alone and afraid—how much real choice did she have? Paddings again. . . .

The danger in paddings is that they are not only non-protective and often negative, but that they are ephemeral and elusive. This makes it possible to be moved in and out of them quickly and easily depending upon circumstances. Like the ever-shifting paddings of “mother”.

Women are always struggling to maintain the padding of the “good mother”, the “good girl”; the padding of social acceptability. Once a woman takes this padding off, she bares her sides to scrutiny.

Witness Nicole Smiegel, the biological mother of Hedda Nussbaum’s little adopted son, cheerleader and good Catholic girl, pregnant at 16 years of age.

Unable to face the shame of her pregnancy in front of her Long Island friends and neighbors (she doesn’t even tell the baby’s father) she gives birth in secret and hands the baby over for adoption. The window shades on her block were drawn against her and the knowledge of her secret. Once she broke her silence to come forward and rescue little “Travis Christian” (adopted son of Hedda Nussbaum) she became not an unwed mother but an angel of mercy, a romantic figure of sublime mother love.

Her neighbors now open their hearts, windows and doors to the new media star. Michelle Launders also exposes her previous shame to the floodlights of the media and, within the context of the Steinberg case, becomes the tragic mother heroine instead of another poor, young, unwed mother.

In the glare of the cameras, hidden under the padding, the reality of the pain of these women’s lives is overlooked. The flush of publicity covers the anguished hours of decision-making and torment after finding out the impossible, finding out that the pregnancy test was positive.

The issue here is not whether children are a priori good or bad—the padding would have us believe they are always positive— the reality is that they are positive only at certain times with certain people in certain circumstances. To paraphrase Shakespeare: “Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

The padding of good girl and good mother worked heavily for both Launders and Smiegel who gave up their babies for adoption rather than abort or keep them. Both Launders and Smiegel made what they considered to be survival decisions. Often couched in terms of what would be best for the child, there is an underlying reality of individual self-interest on the part of these women. Their choice was in fact one of survival. Underneath the padding it often is.

In the case of women’s sexuality, the padding has resulted in its expression being directed in one of two ways—either towards reproduction as in mother or wife, or as sexual receptacle as in whore. One of the reasons that abortion is so passionately opposed by the conservative establishment is that it is women’s reality exposed—in abortion, the decision and the act, the padding is ripped off. According to the created definitions, mothers and wives don’t “kill their babies” and whores are damned to hell anyway so they really aren’t important.

The difficulty many women experience with their own abortion decisions often occurs when they have too much of a conflict between what they experience as necessary and right (i.e. terminating their pregnancy) and the guilt they feel because they are not conforming to the expectations of their padding—”good girls are mothers and don’t kill their babies”. An interesting example of this phenomenon can be found in a group of women known as WEBA— Women Exploited by Abortion. This group contends that they were misinformed by the providers of abortion services and as a result made their choice on the basis of inaccurate and misleading information. Consequently, they blame the clinics and the providers for having chosen to have an abortion, rather than accepting personal responsibility for their choice. These WEBA women must at all costs incorporate the padding that states that real women are not active moral agents, real women never make hard choices, real women don’t make difficult survival decisions. Real women are victims. Victims of circumstance, misinformation, husbands, lovers, society, etc., etc.

But paddings are not only external. They can be and often are created by women themselves. Common women-created paddings are those that women tell themselves to rationalize the incongruence between what they experience internally as real and what they know is necessary for social survival in the world; i.e. “I wasn’t hit, I fell”. The consistent insidious attempts to incorporate the padding into our souls, to try to be thin enough, pretty enough, successful enough, accepted enough, brilliant enough, politically correct enough, right enough. All working to create an endemic sense of inadequacy and depression so that personal and political passivity are natural results. The constant attempts to recreate ourselves, restructure and reorganize our personalities and presentation of self to fit into and assimilate the paddings leads us into states of alienation and depression and ultimately, dependency.

Here in my den with the “ear of the bull” mounted, framed and hanging on my wall, I am aware that every Sunday that ancient ritual goes on. The bulls, the horses, the young men, and death. The crowds still scream and seemingly remain unaware of the wounds and pain they so dramatically and ardently applaud.

I sometimes wonder whether it is at all possible for woman to exist beyond the perceptions of her biology and sexuality— a possibility of woman expressed through characteristics that are non-sexually aligned. Is Hedda Nussbaum responsible for her actions? If she herself is in fact a victim of continued abuse and battering, then, according to the definitions of the “battered woman’s syndrome”, she is not responsible for her actions.

While the battered woman’s syndrome could be used to describe the situation that Hedda Nussbaum and the family of mass murderer Ronald Gene Simmons lived in, one could also extrapolate this definition to read that the majority of women in this society live politically and socially in a condition of being battered, with the state and the patriarchal institutions playing the role of the oppressive husband or lover writ large.

A common question always asked when discussing the issue of battered women is, why do they stay? There are, of course, a barrage of psychological and sociological explanations for this behavior, but in all of the questions and the answers there is an underlying attitude on the part of the general public that something is not right—that individuals should not exist in a situation that allows them to be abused and battered.

If we enlarge this analogy we may well ask how the general population of women in this country continues to allow the abuses of the system to endure—economic disparity, homelessness, feminization of poverty, violence against women and children, dire threats to our reproductive freedom, continued destruction of the environment, escalation of rape, and the pornography industry, etc., etc., etc.

How far can we go in expecting women to take responsibility for their lives? Women are either active moral agents, or they are not. They are either children or adults. They are either to be held accountable and responsible for their actions or viewed as continued victims of oppression.

Women must take ultimate responsibility for their lives . . . must take responsibility that demands that they not only see the paddings that cover them, but slowly and carefully begin to remove, replace and redefine them.

Sex, Death, Choice, Peace, Love, Power, Ambition, Success, Feminism.

What is the reality? How much is illusion? And how much is padding?

Women must begin to forge links to the community and to the consensual reality that are beyond and greater than the definitions and expressions of their biological and created sexuality—beyond their pregnancies—beyond their definitions of mother. They must struggle to find definitions for themselves that may or may not include the sexual. Even the purest of forces, love and erotic energy, have been perverted into paddings—love into self-righteousness and didactic theories of goodness and the erotic into mechanistic sexuality and consumerism.

Ultimately, the reality of women’s lives should not be under any padding at all. The protection it offers is for the consumption of a society That does not address our issues but has turned pain, insecurity, rage and healthy political radicalism into just another topic on the Phil Donahue Show.

The realpolitik of women’s lives should exist a priori—out in the world—clearly, loudly, passionately and truthfully—needing no screens from delicate sensibilities.

The reality of women’s lives and needs, plus the reality of the violence against them, requires, demands, light—light and truth. The realpolitik of women’s lives has to reinforce the reality that underneath the padding there is not only pain and insecurity, but courage, power and innocence of vision.

This truth must lead to a different kind of politics. One that says that real mental health for women is the ultimate radicalism. One that rejects victimization and depression as “givens” and natural results of living under padding; one that demands joy; one that ultimately understands that you cannot find truth, yourself or a new political vision under cover.

Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.