Everything changes except our fear of changing women

Women like Winnie are still not accepted in their full, flawed humanity

08 April 2018 - 00:00 By SUE DE GROOT

No one knows who first said "It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind". There is speculation that this phrase has its origin in breach-of-promise law, some form of which has existed on every continent for centuries.
Under this rule, men who broke a promise of marriage could be sued for damages. Women were treated more leniently, partly because they didn't own anything that could be attached by a court, and partly because they were considered to be irresponsible flibbertigibbets who couldn't be trusted to know their own minds. You can't punish a creature for its inherently capricious nature, after all.
Wherever it comes from, the axiom that allows women to return their purchases is neither a compliment nor an assertion of equality, because a "prerogative" is not a universal right; it is a special favour granted to a chosen few.
The amusement with which a million writers of songs, books and T-shirt slogans have regarded mercurial women is seldom challenged. It is part of the soundtrack to our lives. Oscar Wilde got in more than a few jibes: "Women are meant to be loved, not to be understood" was one.
This and all the other expressions about the variable nature of women may sound innocuous or even affectionate, but in reality are as patronising as Virgil's opinion that "a woman is an ever fickle and changeable thing".That's the Roman poet Virgil, born in 70BC, not Virgil Abloh the Ghanaian-American engineer, architect, DJ and consultant to Kanye West who has just become the first person of African descent to be made menswear director at the world's elitist fashion house.
New Virgil is proof that the world can change. Old Virgil is proof that some things never change, because women are still being trash-talked for their perceived volatility.
In The Aeneid, old Virgil's flawed heroine is Dido, who encapsulates all the contradictions for which women still draw fire.
Dido is a refugee in North Africa who manages to collect enough friends and stones to build an impressive city with great service delivery. She calls this place Carthage and is elected its supreme leader by an overwhelming majority. She rules her people fairly, makes sure they all have food, houses, jobs and decent sanitation, and never steals any money from the treasury.
So far so feminist. Dido is a thoroughly admirable woman, in every way the equal of men.Then she meets Aeneas, who is on his way to found the city of Rome. Aeneas thinks Dido is marvellous. He listens to her every word and writes down all her advice about running a successful empire.
Then comes the glitch. The female gods, who are a bit jealous of Dido, make her fall in love with Aeneas - and love, while it might inspire poetry, does not sit well with committee meetings or construction projects.
Dido neglects her duties; her city falls into disrepair and her people fall to their knees as they lament the change that has come over their queen.
In the end Dido goes crazy and kills herself with Aeneas's sword.
Many have read Virgil's poem as an indictment of women destroyed by their passions, but it says a lot more than that. It implies that a woman's character may not contain opposite forces. She must be one-dimensional and easy to understand. In other words, she cannot possibly be human.
Virgil died 2037 years ago, but those who wish Dido had remained unchanging are still with us.In Woman's Constancy, written in the 1590s, English poet John Donne called his capricious lover a "vain lunatic" for her inability to remain faithful. More recently, Bob Geldof called Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi a "pig" for not living up to the values that won her a Nobel peace prize.
If there is evidence that Suu Kyi is to blame for not preventing the massacre of thousands of Rohingya people and the displacement of many thousands more, Geldof was being quite polite and restrained in his description of her - but at the same time there seems to be an intensified, compounded type of loathing reserved for women who do not abide by the ideals set for them by themselves or others.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was vilified for not being a saint. Come to that, even the canonised Mother Teresa was pilloried for inconstancy. Writer Christopher Hitchens called her "Hell's angel" and many others mocked the disconnection between her good works and her refusal to condone contraception.
Even women deride their sisters for not being always comfortingly predictable. Australian author Kathy Lette said "Whim is the plural of women", although she might not have meant it as an insult. And for every woman brave enough to name a perpetrator of past abuse, there will be another woman who chimes the refrain: "If she didn't have the guts to speak out when it happened, she should just shut up."What they are really saying is that a woman must be always strong or always weak. What she may never be is mutable.
Fear of change is entirely normal, but the scorn poured on women unfixed in their habits or opinions seems excessive, which suggests that they arouse a particular terror.
Not every irrational fear can be traced back to childhood, but it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that children rely on the constancy of their mothers and fear the reverse. If Mom is allowed to break her routine, her mirror or her promises, she might one day decide to eat her kids.
All women are burdened with the archetype of the perfect, unchanging mother, but women are not perfect. Their deeds (and misdeeds) should be judged with moral rigour, but perhaps we should think about tempering the fearful, frenzied fury with which we attack women who break the flawless mould imposed on them.
Permission to change one's mind, or change oneself, is not a prerogative that requires special dispensation. It is an inalienable human right. And women, believe it or not, are only human.

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