When Mother Doesn’t Know Best: Challenging Our Foremothers on Gender and Respectability

by Jenn M. Jackson

The common fallacy about misogyny is that it is reserved for men. Many people believe that one can’t be a woman and still possess misogynistic biases. Sadly, this opinion is unfounded especially in the case of Black women. Far too often, our foremothers suffer from internalized misogynoir and respectability even though they themselves have overcome the obstacles of being Black women in predominantly White spaces. In times like these, when popular culture not only condones but excuses sexual abuse of women, we have to work to counter these narratives while seeking community with our foremothers.

As Black women, many of us have faced questions and comments like, “You going to wear that skirt outside?” or “Be careful in that outfit.” No doubt they came from mothers, grandmothers, and church mothers concerned about how we were managing our public identities as Black women with perceptions that we were “fast” or “loose.” Centering the idea that Black women have to be respectable in order to be respected, they perpetuate the notion that Black women are somehow mutually responsible when violence is inflicted upon us. Instead of finding culpability in men, they deflect accountability onto the very bodies who suffer because of their warped ideology.

These were the same women who were barred from social clubs and pools because of the color of their skin. These were the same women whose seventies afros were excluded from the Marilyn Monroe-esque standard of beauty which dominated the mainstream for much of the 20th century (and some would argue still do). These were the very same women who championed Pam Grier’s “Foxy Brown” with her endless curves, bodacious attitude, and unapologetic sexuality. These were the women I looked up to, who set the example for my peers and I. They led our church choirs. They ran our Sunday schools. They were the anchors in our communities. Yet, they were and are incredibly problematic.

Growing up, I remember hearing stories from these women about young girls who were “too grown for their own good.” They would talk about teenagers who were “sleeping with” married men and “carrying on.” They’d use the sexual abuse these young women faced – usually from older men – as cautionary tales for us younger girls while never acknowledging the role men play in these stories. Their disregard for the fact that these young girls were by no means adults nor able to consent to sex with adult men escaped them. Rooted in the primacy of heteropatriarchy, these comments underscored a focus on women’s bodies rather than men’s lack of self-control in issues of sexual desire, predation, and assault.

Last week, Kanye West gave an interview with The Breakfast Club where he condoned a “relationship” between rapper Tyga, 25, and model Kylie Jenner, 17, explaining that Tyga was “smart” because he “got in early.” Not only was the rapper excusing statutory rape – given that the legal age of consent in California is 18-years-old – he was also echoing an attitude among men (in this case, both are Black) that women’s utility rests in their sexual availability to men. Couple this with the idea that men have a right to women’s bodies and you have the basis for rape culture in the United States. These mentalities should be the central focus of any discussions about sexual abuse. Period.

The truth is: wearing more “respectable” clothing or behaving in more socially acceptable ways won’t keep men from raping women. That requires a concerted effort on behalf of parents to teach young boys that rape is not acceptable and that they have no rights to women’s bodies. No, that isn’t what our foremothers want to talk about. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t.

As a survivor who experienced coercive rape in high school, I spent at least a decade concerned that if my experience became public knowledge, I’d be shamed. Worried that Black women in my family and community would rebuke me for having been “too grown” or “fast,” I suffered in silence and refused to admit what had happened to me. At some point, I realized that the guilt I felt wasn’t mine to bear. I decided that instead of worrying about what my grandmother, mothers, and aunties would think, it was more important that I live my truth.

Frankly, that is all we can do to challenge our foremothers’ limiting and isolating notions about gender and respectability. Expecting them to be the gender and sex radicals we had hoped for won’t do anything but produce broken dreams. And, we don’t have time to waste trying to disabuse them of their misogynoiristic views.

While they may have overcome innumerable obstacles to bring us to where we are today, they aren’t perfect. More importantly, they can’t save us. When it comes to sexual assault and Black women, we have to save ourselves. The best way to do that is to start living authentically, no matter the perceptions of our foremothers.

Jenn M. Jackson is a regular contributor at For Harriet. For more about her, tweet her at @JennMJack or visit her website at jennmjackson.com.

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