Saturday, June 4, 2016

Your Resident Single Friend: You're not the cat's pajamas

Today is both Hug Your Cat Day and Old Maid's Day. I'll let that sink in for a moment.

Old Maid. Spinster. Cat Lady. To say that these phrases make me rage-ful would be an understatement. I've never been fond of the idea that the only way to value women is by their marriageability or fertility; this is not a new story just another day in the life of being female.

I've been called a spinster before. Not by anyone I knew personally but by the government of Hong Kong. Yes, the government of Hong Kong. A few years ago I traveled to Hong Kong to conduct training for a school district in the city. Based on the length on my stay and the work I was doing, the school recommended that I apply for a work visa. The application included a field for marital status. I most places, the options are usually "single/unmarried", "married', "divorced", and maybe "widowed." Not Hong Kong.

This is from my actual visa application.

They couldn't just use "unmarried" or "single" which would cover both of the options included in the box I had to check. I was told that it has to do with British forms still being used but I don't know that I actually believe this explanation. I'm pretty sure there's something else here. At the time I opted to make fun of it on the Island and move on because I was going to Hong Kong and that was pretty cool. It was the first and only time I've ever had to use that word to describe myself and it will be the last.

I've been reading Rebecca Traister's book All the Single Ladies. The book takes a look at the political and social power of single women. While Traister focuses on current events and 21st century women to tell their stories, she also presents a historical look at the evolution of single women and social change in the US. It's a great read; I recommend it to everyone, not just the single ladies out there. In one section early on, Traister mentions the historical meaning of the word spinster. In its original use, from roughly the 16th-18th centuries, it was used to describe women who were employed as spinners. These were women who spun fabric and thread for home and commercial use. Many were unmarried but their status was not as important as their profession. During the 18th century, the definition shifted, mostly focusing on women who remained unmarried and were beyond the socially acceptable age for marriage (their early 20s). And of course, from there, it becomes a terrible way to describe an unmarried woman. "Old Maid" is a sister term, coming about in the Victorian era and is also the name of a card game where players are supposed to get as many paired cards as possible. Unpopped popcorn kernels are also referred to as old maids. Traister discusses the more successful spinsters in one chapter, women like Mary Cassatt, Emily Bronte, and even Elizabeth I.

What I appreciate about Traister's book is her look at how women have bucked against these limiting terms, creating single lives and married or partnered lives, on their own terms. It's satisfying to read of the experiences of other women my age (or younger or older), famous and not, who feel the same as I do: that marriage and family is not the goal; it's one of may possible options that exist out there in the world. In my post last week, I mentioned how it bothered me that Muriel only thought she was worth something and successful if she got married. What Muriel failed to realize is that she was amazing regardless of her martial status. We need to be okay with this idea and teach this girls and young women (and boys and young men too).

I was thinking about all of these things as I returned to my apartment after a fire alarm forced us all out into the night. I was getting ready to go to bed when the fire alarm went off. Not knowing if it was a false alarm or an actual emergency, I quickly threw on shoes, packed Pumpkin into her carrier, and walked down seven flights of stairs to the front of the building with everyone else. As you can imagine, Pumpkin was not amused. It turned out to be a false alarm; someone hit the alarm on accident. Once we got the okay, we all made our way back into the building. That was when Pumpkin began meowing like she was being tortured (or singing the song of her people as I like to describe it). People were staring and making comments about there being a cat. Why wouldn't someone have a cat? Other people brought their dogs with them; it's the natural thing to do in the face of a possible emergency. One of my neighbors even asked me why I brought her downstairs with me. Those of you who know me well can probably picture the face I made at this guy. I politely responded that I wouldn't leave a living being to suffer in a fire or some other emergency. I heard him say "cat lady" under his breath as we walked our separate ways. Admittedly, I was shocked by that; no one has ever called me a cat lady in a vicious way before either. Had I not had Pumpkin in her carrier and was actually wearing real clothes (I too was in my pajamas), I would have followed him to ask this: What the fuck is your problem and why don't you like cats?

This experience made me realize several things:
  1. I have now seen a fair number of my neighbors in their pajamas. I can never, ever unsee this. 
  2. This is the reason most people who live in large apartment buildings don't know their neighbors. 
  3. The words "spinster", "old maid", and "cat lady" need to be struck from our vocabulary just as "#(insert any word here)goals" and "bandwidth" need to be struck from our vocabulary.
This would be Pumpkin & my neighbor
I want to believe my neighbor is living the best life he can live and is a truly awesome human being. I want to believe that he was mad at the situation and the fact that he had to evacuate the building in his pajamas (again, can't unsee that) so he took it out on me. But I don't. I don't even think he was trying to be funny. By the time I got upstairs I was as mad as the time a guy standing outside the National Museum of Women in the Arts tried to grab my ass as I walked past. Outside of a women's art museum!

Yes, being called a "cat lady" is not the worst thing he could have done but that absolutely 100% does not excuse the behavior. I wish I had done something at the time to tell him that wasn't okay but I didn't. I forgot Ms. Norbury's words to us in Means Girls: You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores. Never forget Mrs. Norbury's advice.

Up next on the Island: I'm taking next weekend off to celebrate my entry into my 37th year (my birthday is next Saturday). I'll be back the following week with a new UT Recipe and later this month I'll be sharing my adventures in yoga. You read that right - yoga. There might even be a new chapter from my novel to share. June is going to be one busy month!

Awkward Hug
Hug Your Cat Day
Old Maid's Day

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