dark haired light skinned woman in blue shirt and yellow beret against plain light blue backgrounds looks likes she hatching a plan

Rule #2 for the Win – A Femme’s Tale of a 1980s Workplace

Karin Kallmaker Cowboys and Kisses, LIFE + STYLE 8 Comments

Breaking the rules without looking like you’re breaking the rules. It’s something I tried to excel at as a child. Like Ways-to-Get-Ice-Cream-Even-Though-It-Will-Spoil-My-Dinner.

In my early years of loving as a lesbian and living as a femme woman in a world where nearly all rules were made by men to benefit men, I discovered ways to look like I went along with the rules even as I used the rules to resist the rules. I call that Subverting the Patriarchy. It could be good fun, and often eased the relentless pinpricks of sexism and male privilege.

For Example, Rule #2 Upends Rule #1

Way back when, I was a lowly bookkeeper in an office where all the managers were men, and all the admins were women. It was a membership organization and nearly all the clients were men. Occasionally, the clients liked to tell insidiously tasteless jokes to “the girls at the desk.”

This is Rule #1

Women must find everything men say fascinating.

1980s Workplace Corollary: “The girls at the desk” must laugh at men’s jokes or get a rep for being rude and not a team player.

So, at the second or third event where I got to be one of “the girls at the desk,” this one guy (let’s call him “Dude”) told the GATD (two women who weren’t wearing wedding rings) a joke. I don’t remember it, to tell you the truth, only how it made me feel: trapped and tired. Because it was the kind of joke that a “good” girl shouldn’t get, and yet, if called on it for being inappropriate, Dude could say “I didn’t mean it that way” and, suddenly, you’d be the one with the dirty mind.

Why trapped? Rule #1: We have to laugh. Laughing implies we understand the joke. It also means since we got the joke we’re not “good” girls, and one of the ways a woman could try to protect herself from creeps was by being a “good” girl. So, laugh at the joke and creep will keep right on creeping because you’re not a “good” girl who could mind. Complain about the joke and Dude will gaslight you into being blamed for making things awkward. (This stuff is insidious and clever, a.k.a. the patriarchy in action.)

woman hiding all but her eyes

Eyelashes Are So Useful for a Femme

What happened this time is that one of the managers (let’s call him Mr. Steve) had just wandered up, looking to schmooze with this particular Dude, who’d been in the organization a while but hadn’t attended a meeting before.

This is Rule #2

A woman must burnish a man’s ego at every opportunity.

I burnished.

After introductions, I told Mr. Steve all of Dude’s details. How large and complicated the facility the guy ran was, how long he’d been a member (Dude, I know who you are, and I know where you work), how he’d brought his wife along, and it was a good thing his new town car had a big trunk for her luggage (Dude, I know you are married, and I know you like that car more than you respect your wife or you wouldn’t have brought any of that up when you checked in). I ended with a sudden brainstorm: “Dude just told us a joke, he should tell it to you too.

And I batted my eyelashes, which, folks, I have to tell you, is one of a femme’s power moves. You know how “bless your heart” can mean anything from “you are adorable,” to “you have all my sympathy,” to “boil in a pit of feces,” or some or all of those things all at once, depending on just how southern the person saying it is? Femme eyelash maneuvers are equally subtle. I got some of my mad skills from copying drag queens, but I digress.

Of course, Dude doesn’t want to repeat the joke in front of Mr. Steve and says it was nothing much. Mr. Steve takes the thoroughly flattered Dude off to schmooze with other people. Gosh, I’m sure Dude thought I was the nicest gal. After a while, Mr. Steve wanders back and asks me what the joke was, because Dude still wouldn’t tell it to him.

I told Mr. Steve I was not going to repeat it. Mr. Steve looked at me. I looked at Mr. Steve. And I fluttered my eyelashes again, this time in that special semaphore eyelash code that said “Yes, what you are thinking is obviously correct.” And Mr. Steve said, “That’s what I thought.”

Mr. Steve, you see, prided himself on being a gentleman. He opened doors, walked between a woman and traffic, and always noticed when you’d done something with your hair. He was protective of the GATD, and, bless his heart, he was what passed as a good guy in the 1980s. Though woefully imperfect, I knew he didn’t like the Dudes of the world. I had successfully moved Dude’s petty ugliness from my world to Mr. Steve’s, who had far more power than I did to do something useful. Meanwhile, I regained some equanimity.

Thirty years before #MeToo, the Mr. Steves were all we had. Women – and everyone else who was boxed in by dignity-sucking rules they had no power to change – we all did what we had to do to get on with our lives.

I Told You that Story Because It Explains This One

Anyhoo, I had realized that ample adherence to Rule #2 can completely distract from the fact that you’re not following Rule #1, or lots of the other rules. Like, say, the Must be Heterosexual Rule which I’d been breaking for years.

KK's purple suede stilettos mean business

So that’s one small example of what I mean by “Subverting the Patriarchy” – femme style. I must say, it is particularly satisfying if Dudes don’t even know you’re doing it.

Women Help Each Other in My Stories

One of the hallmark’s of the patriarchy is keeping women from helping each other.

Then and now, Subverting the Patriarchy happens in my books every time a woman finds a way to put herself first, or helps another woman to do so. It’s especially pronounced in my latest release, the short novel Cowboys and Kisses. Both women have no economic independence. One is constrained in her dreams by familial pressure and the duties of their church. The other’s dreams run wild, but she cannot survive outside the physical cage of the bordello. They are both prisoners of isolation.

The rules of society do not allow them help each other, let alone love each other.

If you trust me as a writer, you know they find a plausible way. At least I think it’s plausible – one of my goals in the story is to leave you all feeling like these women existed.

They did what they had to do to survive. That’s one of the things that draws me to them, and I wonder what happened in the next chapter of their lives. I can guess at some of what they felt in a world where Dudes made all the rules because I’ve lived in that world too.

I hope you’ll check it out. (The Lesbian Review highly recommends it!) It’s available most everywhere. Here’s some handy links:

Thanks for reading! You make all the difference.


Copyrighted Material

Comments 8

  1. Dear Mrs. Kallmaker I write to you from Chile just to tell you that a few hours ago I finished reading “Cowboys and kisses” and I confess that I was deeply moved not only because it is a story of survival in a time when survival was difficult not only for men, but infinitely harder and difficult for women who were constrained and subdued by social norms, prejudice and the heavy hand exercised by men for convenience and for their own benefit.
    I think I am not mistaken in saying that in the use of language there is an evocative force but also a heartbreaking poetic simplicity capable of transporting the reader to the depth of the emotions and experiences lived and suffered by the protagonist with which personally I felt identified because even today women, and particularly lesbian women, continue to live and suffer many of the experiences that Darlin’ experienced at such a young age.
    Without a doubt, and beyond the romantic, the fact that it is precisely a woman who helps the protagonist to get out of her prison, being a prisoner herself, is not only pure lyricism but a true song of subversion.
    I can only thank you for making this novel available to us in whose construction we breathe art but also an infinite sensitivity.

    A sisterly hug,

    Marcia Delgado

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      Thank you so much for your lovely note, Marcia! Every time women help each other it makes us stronger. I’m so glad that the story affected you so powerfully. It has that effect on me too!

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  2. Dear Ms. Kallmaker I read Cowboys and Kisses the same week you released it and I must say I was moved to not only add two paragraphs of your story to my bulletin board, I was also moved to read them out loud to my mother. To be specific the paragraph that bruised my heart and moved me to action was the one in which you wrote, “That bundle of rags and tragedy…” I had to add the paragraph that proceeded it so as not to lose the contact.

    Thank you for doing what you do so very well and generating such strong feelings in me for the people that live in the pages of your books.

    Just so you know the company you are now in here is the list of others currently on my Bulletin Board.

    Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology “Debra” written by Michelle T Clinton, edited by Barbara Smith

    The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

    Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

    I Robot by Isaac Asimov

    Tales Of Witch World “Heir Apparent” written by Robert Bloch, edited by Andre Norton

    LVII by e.e. cummings

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  3. I think of Aunt Polly and Miss Nikki who, poor dears, kept each other company in their lonely husbandless world- going so far as to live together to share expenses. Poor dears. Aunt Polly was my great-grandmother’s sister. I met her and Miss Nikki just the once- two women in their 90s in a beautiful old home in the fancy part of St. Paul. Both very elegant. I was about 10, I think, so only have the faintest images of them. Mostly it’s the stories I hear about them. And the best spritz cookie recipe ever that Aunt Polly handed down.

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      Ah, yes, those long suffering aunties who lived with a friend to “share expenses.”

      I have decided that whenever I hear of such households I will pay them the respect of thinking of them as a couple. It’ll be up to someone else to prove me wrong.

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