What a Woman Wants

There is an ancient Arthurian myth which seeks to answer the question in the title of this post -- what does a woman want. (To read the full text of the story, click here.)

The summary of the myth is that in order to save his life, a knight must within a year's time give a wisewoman the answer to the question, what does a woman want? The knight searches far and wide and asks everyone he meets for the answer. Ultimately, the answer he comes up with for the wisewoman is that what a woman wants above all is Sovereignty. In the myth, this answer is correct, the knight's life is spared and the wisewoman turns into a beautiful young woman whom he marries.

It's worth noting that this legend dates back to at least the 13th century. Even during an era when women were essentially property with no rights at all, the popular culture of storytelling acknowledged that sovereignty was a primary need in a woman's life.

Since myth is generally seen as roadmap into our personal consciousness, the general consensus is that the sovereignty in the story refers not to institutional or governmental power, but to personal sovereignty. That what a woman wants most of all is the right to make her own decisions, feel her own feelings and create her own life out of her own heart's desire. This is Virginia Woolf's Room of Her Own, dated 500 years earlier.

But what if part of a woman's heart's desire is to submit to another? What if she wants the sovereignty of the story, but also wants the comfort, security and feminine experience of submission?

As I've struggled over the past few months with the problems my partner and I are having incorporating domestic discipline (DD) into our relationship, I have thought often about this particular myth and what it means in my own life. My primary need for sovereignty is a big stumbling block for me in making DD work, as it clearly is for many, if not most, modern women drawn to the DD lifestyle.

I've written at length in prior posts about how many in our culture are still children functioning as adults, and I wonder if the issue of sovereignty vs. submission goes right to the heart of this cultural problem.

We live in a culture which, too often, encourages us to think in terms of having it all -- of being entitled to it all (whatever "it" is) without pointing out that there's a price to pay for everything we get. Corporations and Madison Avenue tell us we "deserve" a new car, we've "earned" an iPhone, we're "entitled" to premium cable service. They don't tell us that the price for these things is environmental devastation, war, exploitation of third world countries and, closer to home, stress, overwork, estrangement from our families and credit card debt.

The corporate culture, with its profit-at-all-costs imperative, promotes this attitude of have-in-all entitlement, of course, to sell product -- and in the true spirit of corporate America, they do it without regard to the societal chaos it causes.

As a result, we don't seem willing to accept that we can't have it all. We expect that we can have the super-charged career, raise a family and still have time for personal development and recreation. We expect that we can be parents without having to take on the responsibilities and sacrifices required to do so responsibly ("why should I have to stop going to the movies just because I have a screaming four year old"). We want the career opportunity, but resent being asked to work overtime or give above and beyond to impress those above us on the ladder ("Can you believe my boss actually asked me to work late on this project? Geesh."). And on and on it goes.

So as I struggle with my desire to have both sovereignty and submission -- or perhaps better put, my stubborn and steadfast refusal to give up any of my personal sovereignty to get something that I say I want so much -- I wonder if my insistence on having both is an example of me being a member of our entitlement culture. I wonder if I'm being the willful, immature six-year-old who doesn't understand that she can't have everything she sees at the toy store and ice cream on the way home, too.

On the other hand, if the language of myth is to be believed, sovereignty isn't so much a desire as it is a requirement for human fulfillment. And if other myths, equally old and powerful, are to be believed, a woman's desire to submit is a requirement for female fulfillment (see "Feminism: The Power of Giving Way"). Is it possible that to be a fulfilled woman requires two apparently contradictory and incompatible things -- sovereignty and submission. And that our attempts to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable conditions is what's driving women in our culture slowly into depression, dysfunction and despair?

I know it's doing that to me in spades. In my struggle to have everything I feel I need, I am caught between the proverbial irresistible force and immovable object, between two imperatives equally strong, neither of which I feel I can be a complete person without. Is it really possible to genuinely submit to another while still maintaining my right to make decisions about my own life? Do I really have to choose between being feminine and being a complete human being, and is it even possible for a woman to be one without the other?

As is often the case, however, the answer may lie in the question. Perhaps my sovereignty lies in making the choice to submit, rather than having that choice forced upon me. And perhaps losing part of my sovereignty is a necessary consequence of the choice I've made to submit in the first place. A difficult and terrible choice, but a choice nonetheless. And a choice that's been hard-won over the past few decades by those who have fought courageously for women's rights.

After all, unlike during other eras, no one is forcing me into DD. For that matter, no one is forcing me into a relationship. If I really want pure sovereignty over my life, I could choose to live alone and be accountable to no one -- a choice that women in the past didn't have when they were forced to marry, forced to stay at home, and forced to submit to their husbands and fathers.

The reaction to this forced femininity/submission in the '70s was equally un-empowered. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, '70s and '80s feminism was no better at giving women choices. It denied women sovereignty as much as the old ways did.

Modern feminism forced women by virtue of popular pressure to act like men, to work in jobs as to do, to look like men and wear their clothes, to reject traditional roles of mother, wife and lover of men, to eshew the trappings of submission and domesticity.

This forced "liberation" is no more sovereign than the original enslavement of women. We're still enslaved, we've just switched masters. I have no more sovereignity following the angry, dogmatic prescripts of contemporary "feminism" than I would have back in the '60s vaccuming in my heels and pearls in a TV sitcom. To put it another way, being a house slave or being a field slave makes little difference -- you're still a slave.

It's true, I think, that what women really want is sovereignty, and we still don't have it, we're still by and large miserable and confused about what it means to be a woman, and still struggling to make our relationships with men -- DD or not -- be what we feel intuitively they should and could be.

Is it possible that all of our struggle is because we don't realize that our power is in having gained the right to choose to surrender and the right to choose to pay the price that such surrender requires?

It's a reality that any relationship -- DD or no -- requires a certain amount of surrender and loss of sovereignty. We can't be in a relationship with someone and not give up the right to make every decision and do everything our way. That DD is a bit farther along on the spectrum than most modern relationships means that the issue of sovereignty -- the amount of surrender required -- is more extreme, and thus issue becomes more prevalent, the cost more apparent. The choice more clear.

As usual, I don't have the answers. And don't claim to. But it's something to consider -- that the right to choose to give away one's sovereignty may in and of itself be a sovereign act.

NOTE: I recently received an email asking for help with regard to the subject of rules. I've tried to answer, but the email bounced back. Please email me back with a valid email address and I'll do my best to help! -Viv