Gender memory

That’ right ladies, it’s our month. Now that the black folks got their 28 days, we get to celebrate our place through out human history for a whopping 31 days. Wowee zowee! Okay, maybe I’m being a little cynical about the whole Women’s History Month thing, but it does feel a little antiquated and shallow. Black people and women deserve to be written into the history books every damn day of the year, and then some (as do so many other invisibilized groups of people).

Rather than throw out a couple of forgotten names and biographies of sheroes we should all already be aware of (go to Shelby for that), I’d like to pose a question about culture and history. Carl Jung, the much-celebrated psychologist, coined a term called “racial memory,” connected to the concept of genetic memory. He claimed: “racial memories are posited memories, feelings and ideas inherited from our ancestors as part of a collective consciousness.” In other words, we’re sort of born into the world loaded up with a legacy of culturally-constructed ideas and emotions about race.

This got me thinking about gender. I’ve been on a ten year journey learning about the lives of my paternal and maternal grandmothers (who both died in 2002) and along the way I’ve been deeply struck by the sense that I already “knew” some of what I discovered. Maryanne Smith, my dad’s mom (pictured here), for example, wanted to be a writer more than anything, but because of economic constraints and cultural mores, she never got to live her dream. Here I am, writing my way through the world. It’s hard to believe that’s not, on some level, a coincidence, not some kind of unspoken legacy that I sensed from the time I was a little girl (I barely knew Maryanne).

So is there such a thing as “gender memory”? And if there is, how is it transmitted? As I said, I barely knew Maryanne, so it wasn’t as if she handed me a copy of Virgina Woolf’s “Room of One’s Own” and told me–“Go forth and write my dear.” Was it transmitted through the body? The women in my paternal line have suffered from debilitating migraines and a lot of mental illness–from my great great grandmother on down. I, too, get migraines, though I am lucky enough to have avoided most of the mental health issues. Is that some kind of inherited physical, but also metaphysical legacy? There is actually a budding interest in a field called “embodied memory” that focuses on the ways in which “the body can also be seen as a container, or carrier of memory.”

This might feel woo-woo for some of you. It feels a little woo-woo for me, but it also feels undeniably real. I believe that we carry our grandmothers and our mothers lives with us. We live, not just for ourselves, but in agreement and disagreement with these figures from our past, these women who survived our sexist culture to make lives the best way they knew how. Sometimes we live their unlived dreams. Sometimes we speak their unspoken words. Sometimes we don’t even know that we’re doing it.

Join the Conversation

  • VZ

    Courtney’s opening lines in ”Gender Memory” are offensive, whether intended to be or not. ”Right, ladies…it’s our turn” separates women from ”black folks” as though there are no women among blacks?! It took a long time for the Feminist Movement to stretch beyond fighting for the right to vote for upper class women. It took a long time for us to realize that women came in all colors, shapes, nationalities and social classes. It feels pretty regressive to see a prominent blog on a feminist site ignoring or forgetting that.

    • Charlie Rose

      This is the first thing that stood out to me as well. The “black people and women” bit was really troubling to read on a feminist website. Really interesting post, but bogged down by the problematic language. Maybe a quick edit is in order?

  • Laura Bongiovanni

    This is an interesting topic but so far I don’t see how this isn’t more than just wishful thinking. It is a coincidence that your grandmother was passionate about writing and you became a writer. That it is a coincidence doesn’t imply that there is such a thing as gender memory. A couple possible explanations:
    1. Writing is a very common passion, hobby, and career.
    2. The things your grandmother found important she would have taught to her children who may have therefore also found them important enough to pass on to their children. It’s just due to heritage. There’s no need to imply anything mystical about it and it isn’t necessarily connected to gender. You could probably find many coincidences between yourself and any relative in your family’s past. I love animals; my uncle loved animals.
    If gender is a social construct then there is nothing inherent to our “souls” that is necessarily genderized. It is taught to us. A large part of our social upbringing and sense of identity comes from our families and if we identify with one gender we may follow the life choices our immediate influences did even if we can’t see this process in action.

    • gothicguera

      I agree with you. Our culture stresses that our mother’s influence with their daughter and father’s influence with sons. We rarely hear about the daughter talking about the father influence or the mother’s influence on the son that not considered “creepy ”. While I am closer to my mother’s side of the family. My father has greatly a influence in me but rarely is he given credit.

  • Matt

    “Here I am, writing my way through the world. It’s hard to believe that’s not, on some level, a coincidence, not some kind of unspoken legacy that I sensed from the time I was a little girl (I barely knew Maryanne).”

    Post hoc analysis is sort of tricky, because in my experience people tend to pay more attention to similarities with related people than with differences. What sort of characteristics would care whether you had something in common about? How likely would it be to have each of those things in common by chance? How many came true? Is the result statistically significant, or might we have set the bar the bar too low for finding commonalities (not so unlike how a follower of astrology may look at vague descriptions or advice and be pleased that it fits them)?

    “Gender memory” may sort of falls under the umbrella of “genetic memory,” but I’m not entirely what this “racial memory” means — if it is to designate certain tendencies to act/feel/respond in particular ways that come from genetics (which race is tied to). We don’t inherit behaviors directly, but we receive genetics that tend to cause those behaviors (which is essentially what “gender memory” means).

    You and your grandmother share a significant amount of DNA, so you likely inherited some tendencies from her (which may have been enhanced or weakened by the genetics of your other grandparents). If it seems that “writing” skipped your father, there are some explanations. There is at least anecdotal evidence that some traits “skip a generation.” It is possible that sex/gender may act as a trigger for certain tendencies in certain situations (although it probably can cut both ways). Of course, there are various social factors and experiences (personal or broad) that may have caused you, your dad, your grandmother, not to mention your mom and your other three grandparents to exhibit different interests. And to some extent, genetics (and the expression of genetics) is a matter of chance.

    • Matt

      [Premature post, so I'll just tack on...]

      However, I don’t see one’s gender having a particular overreaching effect here. There are perhaps some ways that gender could contribute to the shared interest, but gender would probably be playing at most an indirect role (with society and family culture acting to bring out this interest). You are essentially relying on a sample size of 1 *after the fact* to support a premise without controlling for social factors and family interactions, and if this shared interest seemed to come from just your grandfather instead, you would probably find a way to explain that one, too.

      Sometimes don’t happen for a reason — or if they do, the true reason or reasons often/typically elude us. It is one thing to consider alternative explanations, but one should be wary of lending them too much credibility. You don’t want to fill your head with a bunch of wrongs ideas that could end up hurting someone else (you don’t want to emphasize the idea of girls getting things from their mothers/grandmothers when a girl is on the verge of developing the athletic ability she “inherited” from her father).

  • Courtney

    “Ladies” was intended to be tongue and cheek, as I was making fun of the whole idea of giving these demographics (which, indeed, intersect) a discrete month each.

  • L

    RE VZ’s post: Courtney – you also refer to “Black people and Women” in the fourth line of this post, and not just in your “tounge and cheek” attempt. I have to second VZ’s comments. Also….even if the first comment was meant to be “tounge and cheek” I think their are some “tounge and cheek” comments that may not be useful/appropriate, and may be offensive if some people make them as oppose to others (i.e. different if someone who identifies as a certain race, gender, religion, makes a “tounge and cheek” comment refering to their race, gender, religion then if someone who doesnt identify makes the same remark).

    • honeybee

      Aren’t we just getting bogged down in semantics though? It was pretty clear that she didn’t intend it the way some of you are saying. Obvious actually. If even feminists can’t make the odd tongue in cheek comment, how can we have any dialogue that isn’t filled with a million disclaimers and run-offs to ensure no one is offended. Kinda takes away from the whole point of the post no?

      • Bee12

        @Honeybee, Sadly, “aren’t we just getting bogged down in semantics” is so similar to “aren’t you just being a little too sensitive” that it stings.

        Had the first mention in the opening sentence been qualified I might get it, but Courtney’s qualification in the 4th line “black folks AND women”, just further reinforces the invisibilizing of black women.
        If the whole thing was meant to be done as tongue in cheek it was not done successfully.
        This invisibilization was the first thing that rang out to me as well so thank you @VZ and @L for sharing your thoughts. I felt them and I echo them!

  • gothicguera

    I don’t carry my grandmother’s lives or my mother’s life. To claim I do, to me seems to deny how privileged I am. My mother had to fight to be respect as a civil engineer and work through college. Both of my grandmothers were very poor. I never experienced hunger or lack of goods. My maternal grandmother had to deal with abuse and raising her half sisters. To claim I do, seems to imply I “ get” how she suffered. I don’t. I feel grateful that my mother did not go through that and more grateful for what my life has given me. I have more respect for my grandmother and I understand why she is the way she is. But I don’t carry her life. She is her own person and carried her life long before I came along. We are two very different people and connected by blood but our identities were formed due to culture, our roles as women, and our racial backgrounds.

  • scarlett

    You scared me abit there Courtney. :) My maternal grandmother who I never got to meet, fought hard against her family to study medicine in the 1940ies (Germany). But she later never got to practice medicine because she married and had six children. Lately i can’t shake the feeling: I am studying for a B.A. in Sociolgy and Gender Studies, but if there was ever anything else I would like to study it would be medicine! I don’t know if this is the result of genetic/gender memory, but I feel strongly connected to my grandmother. Simply because she fought so hard to go to university but never could live her dream fully.

  • Vicki

    Hi Courtney, the way I understand it, in both cultural and embodied memory, is that these are constructed and implicit in the cultures we are born into- that means that they are not really genetic. In a sense then, you are actually breaking a set of “gender specific cultural/embodied memories” to write in spite of what happened in your gran’s case, where she could not write because of various cultural norms which prevented her. I think that using racial memory in this case becomes problematic because of its ties to normalizing the fear of “others” and making that culturally acceptable, and implies that we inherit certain cultural norms “genetically” which is a slippery slope. We do inherit, but not through flesh, but culture. And many cultures have a pendant to oppression clothed in genetic “evidence”.