Unfinished Women

The rigors of frontier life may have left Texas women a little rough around the edges, but time is the best finishing school.

May 1977By Comments

Unfinished Women

It is hard to find, or even to imagine, an approach to take with women that might be safe nowadays. Like rattlesnakes in September, they are poised to strike at any movement and are sensitive to any intrusion into their domain. Pity the man who presumes to offer them any more definitions of themselves; indeed, what seems to gall them most is that, in social areas at least, they had for so long accepted and tried to conform to definitions of womanhood formulated—in most cases offhandedly—by men.

For my money, one of the happiest aspects of the current unrest is that the vehemence and outrage of sisterhood has managed to jar Texas women out of their immemorial silence. At last—at long last—they have begun to find their tongues; and they are using them not merely to tell men what for, but to tell one another—and such men as will listen—what they feel.

This is real change. The country and small-town women I grew up knowing in the forties and fifties were for the most part mute as stones. Their muteness, moreover, was like the muteness of an empty skillet, without resonance and without depth. It was not equivocal, doelike, expectant, sug­gestive, or mysterious. Neither was it a trick—a way of arousing the curiosity or stirring the imaginations of men. It was instead a mulish, resigned silence, the last defense of women who had long since given up on the curiosity and the imagination of men. On the whole it was less evocative than the permanent waves that went with it. Were one to try to invent a sentence to go in a cartoon balloon above all those uncommunicative heads, the sentence would be: “What good would it do to talk about it?”

I sometimes think that I became a novelist only because I couldn’t resist trying to imagine what Texas women would say if they talked. The men’s speech one could pick up any­where, in the barbershop, the feedstore, anywhere. But the women’s talk had to be imagined, which meant attempting to compensate for the self-reductions that were so evident in life. The women had to be made more interesting than they appeared to be, or seemed to want to be. I remember being almost shocked by the fit I made Ruth Popper—the coach’s nervous, regretful, yearning wife—throw at the end of The Last Picture Show. Of course she was throwing it at a boy, rather than at her husband, who would have probably just shot her on the spot as being the equivalent of a mad dog; but even so I was doubtful about that fit. I knew, of course, that she ought to throw a fit, to burst out in a tirade, but did women really do that? Or did they just keep putting it off? What good, after all, would it do to talk about it?

By the time I wrote my second book I knew that to create memorable Texas women I would have to go well beyond what could be seen or sensed. The definition of themselves that Texas women had agreed to live with was simply no good. At the time I didn’t understand how much of them­selves women gave up by letting men tell them what they were, or what they should be. Though many Texas women taught Sunday school, and many more went to church, and some may even have pored over the Bible, virtually none of them had taken any hints from Genesis. Temptation is stimu­lating, and the capacity to tempt is a form of control; a form which tight definition destroys. Eve got past Adam by never letting him know quite what to make of her. Indeed, the very phrase “what to make of” suggests the problem. Men too frequently feel it’s up to them to do the making of, in one sense or another, when faced with a woman. The woman holds out the apple of indefinability—not offering it, exactly, just displaying it—and the man, considering that in some sense his mettle is involved, bites in, only to conclude in good time that the fruit he must then digest is not really the fruit he saw and smelled. Something more than disillu­sion sets in, and the something more is anxiety. Most men are uncomfortable with the indefinite, however much they may be tempted by it. Problems of focus disturb them; they don’t like blurs or snow or wavy lines on the screens of their lives. Given a choice, they would prefer a woman to mean, not be.

Astutely, most women’s souls decline this proposition, as they decline all firm definition; and by declining they re­main more than the sum of all statements about them: more than their roles, their children, their couture, orgasms, or consciousness; and more, especially, than their own ideas of themselves. Men may define them poorly and unsubtly, but when women cross their own instincts sufficiently to attempt self-definition the results are usually just atrocious. (For some recent evidence of this I recommend the latest books by Ingrid Bengis, Gael Greene, Erica Jong, and Francine du Plessix Gray.)

The reader might fairly ask at this point what this gen­eralist blather has to do with the splendors and miseries of womanhood in Texas. I would say that it bears upon my own conviction that, at least until recently, womanhood in Texas involved a great deal more mis­ery than splendor, and held such a quantity of misery largely because Tex­as women accepted—and in the mass still accept—about as narrowing a defi­nition of womanhood as the men of the Western world have been able to saddle women with.

Feminist historiography has now fleshed out the annals of oppression sufficiently to allow us to say that Texas was only one of thousands of places where women have been made miserable, but fortunately Texas is the only one we need concern ourselves with here. My point is that in Texas prior to about 1960 women allowed themselves not merely to be defined by men but to be pegged so firmly into a masculine system that they were barely able to keep any circulation in their appendages—particularly those appendages that were cultural and spiritual, though the pegging pinched physically, too.

How this came about is obvious enough. The majority of women on the frontier were—like their men—com­moners filtered through the border states; they had never had much of a chance to play lady anywhere, but with them came some ladies from the draw­ing rooms of Boston, New York, Phila­delphia, Washington, Charleston, Cin­cinnati, Richmond, Savannah, and other modest havens of culture. These women moved from a culture that of­fered them at least some little position to a frontier that offered them none. In Texas they stopped being ladies, except in name and perhaps in mem­ory. They became pioneer women, re­duced to biologic and domestic func­tions; and most crucially, to a virtually total dependence upon their men. The great book—whether novel or study—about the pioneer woman has yet to be written, but the one thing that be­comes clear from what evidence does exist is that the land was frequently just too much for them. (Often, of course, it was also too much for their men.) They hung on, dug in, and often died and left their tasks to their daugh­ters. Some of the more tenacious of these daughters survived into the 1940s and 50s, either not hailed at all or hailed only in the most trite and most inadequate ways for what they had done to make Texas what it is today.

I knew quite a number of these frontier women and numbered some of them among my forebears, and it seems to me now that about all most of them were able to do to make Texas what it is today was to produce more chil­dren to take the place of those who died. They certainly didn’t civilize it, because the generation that remembered civilization was dead long before there was the time or the means or the energy to spare for such concerns. Their daughters didn’t civilize it, either; most of them grew up in a world entirely shaped by frontiersmen; most of them had poor educations and only vague and shallow concepts of culture to work with. Of course there were exceptions: grandmothers who clung like leeches to scraps of Shakespeare and Browning, to fashion and parlor drama, and to anything above the level of sewing bees and tent revivals they could get; but there were few enough who could count on any sympathy from their menfolk, where questions of refinement were involved. Those who tried to go it alone didn’t get far or last long.

On the whole, the frontier just couldn’t afford ladies: only women, and women, at that, who had sur­rendered every last scrap of je ne sais quoi. The women who survived to be admired by their descendants were ad­mired for their strength. Ladies, after all, were beyond ready and practical definition. Questions of grace, not strength, applied to them, and those were not questions that many men on the Texas frontier were prepared (or disposed) to handle. The country eventually got settled up, but in the process two or three generations of women were ground away. The land broke their bodies, killed their children, and hardened their menfolk into surfaces as resistant as any rock or hard pan.

This settling effort continued with­out too drastic a break on through the Depression, only to be followed so rapidly by a shift into prosperity and urbanization that it left most Texans a little giddy. The frontier suddenly dropped almost out of sight back down the road, though the old folks who had lived it could often be seen sun­ning themselves outside rest homes or congregated in spit-and-whittle sessions on courthouse squares. If they were men they were called oldtimers; if women, they tended not to be called at all.

Aspects of the frontier style sur­vived, of course; one aspect that sur­vives to this day is the mandatory raunchiness of young and not-so-young males. But the times and the mores did change, and a modest element in the change was that men began to civilize Texas. Since they were the ones sent off to get educations, the civilizing tasks naturally fell to them; quite a number of them responded by going East and marrying ladies. Homegrown women were caught badly off guard or out of step, forced suddenly to re­gard themselves as unrefined drudges, unprepared for affluence, for mobility, or for any of the potentialities of style—not merely in fashion and decor but in sex, marriage, and child-rearing—of which they were abruptly expected to take advantage.

Women who had been brought up to consider that what was chiefly expected of them was loyalty, duty, self-sacri­fice, endurance, and domestic and maternal efficiency, quickly found themselves in a world where, to keep up, they would have to become almost sophisticated. From being merely wom­en and mothers, they were expected to become ladies, and even to take on that aura of slightly sexualized mystery, which the sharp definitions of frontier culture had so brutally sheared away.

It cannot have been easy for Texas women to acquire the kind of self­-focus that is appropriate to an affluent, educated, urban society. Even in the sort of small town in which I grew up their deep confusion was apparent. Their feet were embedded in a society that had just turned to quicksand. What were they supposed to be now? In The Mothers, his still unrivaled study of matriarchy, Robert Briffault remarks upon the natural tension be­tween sexual and maternal functions, with the womenfolk ultimately band­ing together with their young to resist the monotonous appetites of the male. This was certainly evident in small Texas towns throughout the 1940s and 50s; the women seemed split off from the men and clearly derived more of their sense of themselves from maternal rather than sexual goals.

But what a desperate, precarious sense it must have been, dependent as it was upon their offspring turning out right: the girls ladylike, the boys man­ly. The thrust of their hopes and ef­forts seemed to be not that their mar­riages would thrive, but that their chil­dren would turn out right. The men—who knows what they thought of the men?—were in any case banded to­gether themselves, in a way that in­sured their dominance. They dismissed women by idealizing them, and even did that through the shallowest of romantic conventions, excluding them not only from their talk but even from their sexual mythology, such as it was. The mythologized women were re­duced to one function: all-responsive sexuality of a sort that exists only in adolescent fantasy. There was some­thing grotesque, sad, and hopeless in the exaggerations of male fantasy in those times, since in all too many cases even orgasm was beyond their women’s physical grasp and conceptual reach. None of these fantasies, however, ex­cused the women from the duty of being ladies and of producing children who were solidly in line with commu­nity ideals.

What a nightmare it must have been for a woman of that time if she hap­pened to produce a deviant child: a sissy, for example, or a tomboy who refused to grow up into a young lady. What a sense of failure, particularly if the deviant were an only child, the focus of all effort. In families as large as my own the occasional lesbian or male homosexual could be sort of over­looked, obscured by the mob of normal money-grubbing or money-squandering cousins, but in smaller families if brother or sister were peculiar the whole town knew it, and the mother was left to figure out at what point in the upbringing she had failed.

If the frontier reduced ladyhood to its most ascetic aspects, the boom-culture that overwhelmed it did almost as much damage by trying to expand the concept too quickly. The daughters of the affluent were immediately shipped East (or at least to Hockaday), preferably to Sweet Briar or Randolph-Macon, places capable of imparting just the degree of polish that was be­ginning to be required. This sort of education may have been selected as a discreet suppressant: something to keep the lid on those terrifying female ener­gies once the energies were no longer being sapped by the brute struggle with the land.

If so, it didn’t work, and in the 1950s and 60s the tone of the problem changed, though the real problem re­mained the same. The real problem was that Texas women were still firmly captive of a very limited and narrow masculine concept of womanhood, not to mention manhood. Mythically and actually, the Texas male has never been celebrated for his qualities of mind, or the ability to communicate, or the capacity to feel and to express feeling. His preeminence has been as a doer: one who, above all, can get things done. And that he can. These males have settled a harsh land, sprin­kled it with well-managed cities, and even seen generously to the endow­ment of cultural institutions and cen­ters of learning. Their ability to do has been and remains substantial, but un­fortunately for their women this ability has always been set well above any ability to feel and communicate. As the women well know, you can’t have everything, and when the capacity to achieve is constantly given priority over the ability to feel, that which is put second might as well be scratched entirely.

I doubt that most fathers of my generation of children ever mentioned feelings to their sons. What they were anxious about was that their sons grow up knowing how to do things. That was the necessity; it was assumed that Na­ture, or the Good Lord, would provide whatever counsel one needed where simple things like sexual and domestic relations were concerned. The mothers, assuming that the instruction of sons in those particulars was a paternal duty, had even less to say.

If asked, these fathers would have stoutly maintained that women were wonderful creatures, even better than horses; the acme, in fact, of God’s handiwork. Off the cuff, however, they managed to suggest that, despite their wondrousness, women were fatally tainted with silliness and a taste for the superfluous; there was even the faint suggestion that this silliness was an inevitable consequence of the instabili­ties of the menstrual cycle. It was just a part of life that had to be accepted. After all, horses weren’t perfect either. Some of them remained nervous and skittish no matter how well they were broken.

The price for the inadequacy of such counsel is being paid now, but there is no point in blaming those fathers. It is quite clear that they had no real knowledge with which to counsel us. Anything they might have said about women would have been pure speculation. The system they were committed to made many things possible, but in­timacy with their mates was not one of them. Largely, they were deprived of women, and women of them; in­deed, in the first boom generation the deprivation was probably greater than it had been on the frontier, where at least minimal communication had to be maintained, else no one would have survived at all.

If such conditions were more or less the seed, what about the crop? What’s going to happen now, with sisterhood abroad in the land and feminine con­sciousness rising like cream on milk?

My own prediction would be that Texas women are going to educate themselves right past their men, and the minute they do they’ll be gone. They are endowed, after all, with that formidable frontier strength, though so far it has been used mostly to ensure survival. Put a little sensibility and a little worldly experience with that strength, and you have quite a package—more of a package, surely, than your average hometown boy is going to want to try to deal with. Look at what tends to happen when Texas boys try to take their women to California or the New York island: they lose them in about two weeks, not so much to another male as to a more sympathetic culture. Numbers of Texas women have figured out by now that they have been conned into remaining nineteenth-century women. That old con is dead. Texas women are going to start snatching the apple right out of Bubba’s hand, and then they are going to stand there and eat it with a relish that puts him in the shade where, for all they are going to care, he can sit and sip beer until the end of his days. The ladies will then be off to the fair Bermudas, in a manner of speaking.

I have sprinkled Texas women through six novels now, and the re­sponse to them over the years has been symptomatic. Until quite recently, Texas ladies who wrote to me or spoke to me about the books identified most closely with two women: Ruth Popper of The Last Picture Show, and Emma Horton, who figures in my last three novels. Both these women could be described, succinctly, as domestic vic­tims, worn down by husbands whose sensitivity never approaches theirs. But it is middle-aged women who identify with them; young women are now rather contemptuous of them for not simply walking out.

It is significant that men almost invariably prefer Molly, of Leaving Cheyenne, to all my other women. She is clearly pretty much what they think they want: an apparent free spirit who nonetheless remains both indulgent and devoted where men are concerned, the seemingly perfect combination of beau­ty, sexuality, and fidelity. Yet Molly is easily the least legitimate of my Texas characters: I found her in the rural fiction of Thomas Hardy and George Eliot, not in Archer County. Women don’t believe in her for a minute.

The woman neither men nor women like is Patsy Carpenter, the sniffly, bright, elusive, and restless young wife in Moving On. She is selfish, snippy, and expectant, a mystery to herself and to her men; but when her men finally prove too stolid and inflexible, unable to respond when she tries to nudge their lives into larger spiritual spaces, she does walk out.

I thought I was looking back when I wrote that novel, but for all I know I may have been looking forward. I would certainly back my instincts to the extent of predicting that there will be more Patsy Carpenters in the Texas of the next few years than Emmas, Ruths, or Mollys. Education will do it, if nothing else. Women who have been imprisoned for so long, not only by physical space and distance but by arid male attitudes, are now going to seek a space of their own, and furnish it in modern colors and more capacious definitions. The men of Texas don’t have a whole lot of time. The shoe, or perhaps the boot, has already changed feet, even if some of them haven’t noticed it yet. The feminine foot is now wedged in there, tight as tight can be. What the men need now is a kind of speed-reading course in how to treat the self-civilizing woman. If the men don’t get it soon, they are not going to have a bootstrap left by which to pull themselves up. In this day and age, the sluggish can count on a lonely fate.

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