The old, male idea of honor…. “Our Land Free, Our Men Honest, Our Women Fruitful”—a popular colonial toast in America.
Male honor also having something to do with killing: I could not love thee, Dear, so much/Lov’d I not Honour more (“To Lucasta, On Going to the Wars”). Women’s honor, something altogether else: virginity, chastity, fidelity to a husband. Honesty in women has not been considered important. We have been depicted as generally whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating. And we have been rewarded for lying.
Men have been expected to tell the truth about facts, not about feelings. They have not been expected to talk about feelings at all.
An honourable human relationship—that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”—is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-involvement and isolation. It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.
I come back to the questions of women’s honor. Truthfulness has not been considered important for women, as long as we have remained physically faithful to a man, or chaste.
We have been expected to lie with our bodies: to bleach, redden, unkink or curl our hair, pluck eyebrows, shave armpits, wear padding in various places or lace ourselves, take little steps, glaze finger and toe nails, wear clothes that emphasized our helplessness.
We have been required to tell lies at different times, depending on what the men of the time needed to hear. The Victorian wife or the white southern lady, who were expected to have no sensuality, to “lie still”; the twentieth-century “free” woman who is expected to fake orgasms.
We have had the truth of our bodies withheld from us or distorted; we have been kept in ignorance of our most intimate places. Our instincts have been punished: clitoridectomies for “lustful” nuns or for “difficult” wives. It has been difficult, too, to know the lies of our own complicity from the lies we believed.
The lie of the “happy marriage,” of domesticity—we have been complicit, we have acted out the fiction of a well-lived life, until the day we testify in court of rapes, beatings, psychic cruelties, public and private humiliations.
Patriarchal lying has manipulated women both through falsehood and through silence. Facts we needed have been withheld from us. False witness has been borne against us.
In the struggle for survival we tell lies. To bosses, to prison guards, the police, men who have power over us, who legally own us and our children, lovers who need us as proof of their manhood.
And so we must take seriously the question of truthfulness between women, truthfulness among women. As we cease to lie with our bodies, as we cease to take on faith what men have said about us, is a truly womanly idea of honor in the making?
There is a danger run by all powerless people: that we forget we are lying, or that lying becomes a weapon we carry over into relationships with people who do not have power over us.
Women have been driven mad, “gaslighted,” for centuries by the refutation of our experiences and our instincts in a culture which validates only male experience. The truth of our bodies and our minds has been mystified to us. We therefore have a primary obligation to each other: not to undermine each others’ sense of reality for the sake of expediency; not to gaslight each other.
When relationships are determined by manipulation, by the need for control, they may possess a dreary, bickering kind of drama, but they cease to be interesting. They are repetitious; the shock of human possibilities has ceased to reverberate through them.
It isn’t that to have an honorable relationship with you, I have to understand everything, or tell you everything at once, or that I can know, beforehand, everything I need to tell you. It means that most of the time I am eager, longing for the possibility of telling you. That these possibilities may seem frightening, but not destructive, to me. That I feel strong enough to hear your tentative and groping words. That we both know we are trying, all the time, to expend the possibilities of truth between us.
The possibility of life between us.