Thinking Like a Woman

Mihaela Miroiu

Illustration by Silviu D. Gherman


The Things I Knew Before I Learned to Know…

The Priest’s Wife, 1959

I have no recollection of the school where my mother used to work as a teacher. The only thing that stands out in my memory, stashed away in a language difficult to translate into words, is a hillock behind the school building. Somewhere to its left, on another hill, there was a ‘privy’ belonging to the local priest. I had a full view of this privy at all times. I can still see it, but for me it’s much more than a mere privy; it’s more like a stage set. The priest’s wife would regularly walk up to it, carefully checking whether she was being followed by watchful eyes. She’d cling on to something held really close to her chest, as if it were stolen goods pilfered from someone chasing her. It looked as if she were trying to sneak away like a thief. As soon as she’d get to the privy, she’d firmly lock the door, though not before casting another glance around. As for me, by then I already knew that people tended not to spend much time in the privy. Like me, they didn’t really like it inside. Yet the priest’s wife would spend hours and hours in there. Every so often we’d hear a thundering voice: the priest or her mother-in-law calling for her whilst looking in the direction of the only place where she could possibly be, her secret hideaway. She’d then peek out through the boards of the makeshift construction that was the privy, and if they were out of sight, she’d come out and make a detour, to make it seem that she was returning from the stable. In case they were nearby, she’d emerge with “the object” hidden under her skirt (and I could just about make out something square-shaped underneath). She’d pull a guilty face, as if she was about to get the gruel of mandatory lashes or at least a hard slap, though nobody would ever scold her while in the yard, in full view of everyone. Their entire household was aware of her sinful habit, and they were all ashamed of her. For a long time, I thought that the priest’s wife was engaging in something evil or perhaps shameful, such as “follies,” as sex used to be known back then. But she wasn’t. She was always on her own. Perhaps she was hiding something there, or was disposing of something that nobody should find. I decided to keep out of her way as much as I could, so I wouldn’t be seen hanging around nearby. Not my mother, though. It seemed to me that she tried to provide an alibi for the priest’s wife whenever possible; she’d even come up with lies to protect her. One day I mustered up my courage and asked her:

– Mum, what bad thing is the priest’s wife doing in that privy? Why is she always hiding there?

– She’s reading, my darling. Just reading. Please don’t tell anyone. She’s reading novels, poems, and history books.                                                                

I must have put on such a long face that my mother felt she needed to give me my first lesson in gender roles, especially after hearing my next question:

– Well then, why does the Father read whenever he wants to? He does that even while sitting on a chair out there by the fence.

– You’re such a child! The Father is a priest and a man, above all a man. He is allowed to read what and where he likes. For a woman living in the countryside, it is shameful to sit around doing nothing, let alone with a book in her hands. She must always be seen doing something. One only sits still when ill. In the countryside it is a widely held belief that reading makes women mad, not to mention lazy. It’s different for men, as those holding a newspaper or a book are actually respected. Yet when the priest’s wife happens to be reading, she’s seen to be wasting her time and developing vagaries of the mind. This is the way of the world.

– Yes, but why do you read in the house or in the garden then, and not in the privy?

– I’m a teacher, so they think that it makes sense for me to waste my time with books, as they might come in useful in my teaching. I can read without fear, in full view of everyone.                   

Much later, in 1986, I got to meet Filofteia, my husband’s grandmother, who was a very bright, wise, and charming woman, so charming in fact that I decided to try and turn into a ‘Filofteia’ myself once I reached old age. By the time we met, all was fine and dandy for her. She had sailed through a life of about eighty years, including motherhood, wars, great expectations, animals, plants, and grandchildren. She was so likeable and joyful that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I later got to see her clouded with deep sorrow! Yet this sense of gloom wasn’t triggered by hardship or bad experiences caused by death, suffering, betrayal, or separation, but by a longing for something she had never managed to have in her entire life.

– You know, dear, they may all let you down, some people may be taken to heaven, you may lose everything from one moment to the next, but if you’re able to read then you are always left with something on this earth, as long as your eyesight makes it possible. My father didn’t let me go to school; they didn’t even allow me to learn the alphabet. Such were the times back then. People used to say that girls able to read and write would do things in secret, and anything a woman does in secret can only ever be evil and sinful.

Filofteia took enormous delight in listening to her husband, Toader, read aloud to her in the evenings. This could be anything from newspaper articles, books, and calendars to prescriptions for medications. They’d spend their evenings in this way, in their isolation as “old-age cuckoos,” as they used to call themselves, because they found ageist discrimination really harmful. She was adamant that she wanted to leave this world and follow Grandpa Toader, as soon as the mandatory almsgiving required by Eastern Orthodox funeral rites had been conducted. And this was what she did. She let herself be taken. I don’t think this was about her passionate love for him, but rather about her inability to endure those empty nights during which no one would be reading aloud to her, seeing that the Reader, her husband, had left her deprived not only of her man but also of the latter’s mission: to ferry grandma Filofteia into the world of letters. 


Failure as a Woman

In the shadow of Corvin Castle, there are a number of houses painted in a cheerful shade of grey. Over the decades they had become so smirched by soot-spitting furnaces that their mere existence renders any anti-smoking advice completely futile. During my teenage years, every single Monday, I would visit a workshop in one of these houses with a bunch of other girls, to spend four to five hours (depending on the kind of supervision we got), pricking our fingers with a needle that was actually meant to pierce the embroidery sheet. This sheet was a piece of manufactured cloth, already punched with tiny symmetrical holes. Our job was to transform the sheet into tablecloths, napkins, and tiny cushions, which was very responsible work indeed, aimed at familiarising secondary school girls with the processes of production. The focus, obviously, was on domestic production. I have never understood why we had to do this, or only this, since in those days of fully-fledged communism we were all meant to join the workforce, girls and boys alike. By the time I became a teacher, communism was more advanced than in my own student days, and was more integrated with factory-scale production. The girls I was teaching at school had to take part in industry placements every fourth week at the Machinery and Equipment Factory, where they worked alongside boys, drilling metal, screwing on various bits and bobs, mopping the floor, or dealing with paperwork, as the foreman was bored to death with this chore.

Precision and attention to detail. We had to be meticulous. In other words, we had to stick the threaded needle into those holes hundreds of times, in the shape of St Andrew’s cross, so that this forest of tiny crosses ended up looking like hems, roses, grapes, blackbirds, etc. In any case, it had to look pretty. At the end of the year, we were meant to display our best creations as aspiring textile makers at the local arts centre, and to lay them out, labelled with our names, on stalls placed among the monumental columns of the building. Pure revolution, no less! Whenever women’s textiles, tapestry, and embroidery are displayed in major museums of the world, the captions used to describe them usually credit anonymous authors. Our doilies and tablecloths were living proof of the fact that we were following in the footsteps of our grandmothers, despite also being obliged to follow the paths of our brothers and fathers. We must absolutely keep the tradition going. Communism reinvented woman as a kind of Shiva, with many hands in which she could simultaneously or successively hold any number of the following: mills and shaves, crane levers, books, test tubes, children, hoovers, whisks, hoes, washbasins, needles, dust cloths, steering wheels, including those of tractors, and also embroidery. In addition, as I was to find out after the collapse of communism from my readings of American Marxist feminism, we also used to be far happier than most Western women, suffering as they were from the anxiety of being overeducated housewives.

Handiwork was always the area where I failed most spectacularly. My grandmother had tried to teach me to make lace, doilies in particular. I managed to produce a single one that my mother immediately stored away as a holy relic, to demonstrate to my future husband that I did indeed put in the effort, and to show me that I didn’t try hard enough. I think that my great-grandmother got the furthest with me when trying to teach me to spin and weave. All three women hoped that I would turn into a woman of whom they could be proud. Later on, when I was in secondary school, my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother’s obsession with proper women being a dab hand at needlework was embraced by the state, and integrated into the school curriculum. I managed to bypass it by attending the local art school, while other classmates did the same by going to music school. Thus, all the girls were exempt by law from sewing lessons, and all the boys, from fretwork. Yet one day, this group of “weaklings,” completely useless at handiwork, made it to high school without an exit plan. One of my classmates from the Art School had to repeat the year because he drew a caricature of a hammer and, silly him, argued back to the “maestro” running the workshop. I was lucky enough to be tolerated, together with a few other non-talents, by our “maestra” (this was the only situation where this title was used for women), as she was quite all right. She would make us sit there, glued to a chair for four hours, to produce some blackbirds or mutant roses executed in backstitch, whereby the new dot follows in the wake of the needle, a slightly easier technique than making crosses. I recall that she was so nice that, in order to make some use of my presence, she would get me to read aloud novels to entertain my gifted and talented colleagues who were busying themselves with their masterpieces. On inspection days, she would tell me to stay away, deeply ashamed of her pedagogic failure.

On one occasion I decided to try really hard, mainly to spare my mother the embarrassment of her inept daughter’s absence from the end-of-the-year exhibition. For an entire term, I was absorbed in the making of a cushion cover based on Op Art influences and psychedelic colours, which was the latest phase in the development of visual arts in the early seventies. In my view, the visual impact was fabulous, as long as one did not take a close look at the execution, which according to experts was a disaster. Comrade Maestra understood my plight. She was the mother of a classmate herself, and knew exactly how she would have felt had her son’s bow-saw masterpiece been excluded from the annual exhibition.

The women in my family and the many hours of handiwork have done their best in trying to make me a whole woman as much as possible. My father and my education, on the other hand, have tried to turn me into a proper man. Yet boys have never been even remotely encouraged to become proper women. In all honesty though, I was keeping my fingers crossed for the success of my father’s and the school’s endeavours; for girls, the pressure to shine with embroidery masterpieces was extreme, and in the absence of the latter you were classed as an outright failure as a woman.



Olá! Vamos dançar, senhora!

I came to a halt, feeling utterly embarrassed. I lowered my gaze, peeping at the ebony-skinned men playing in the improvised orchestra on the oceanfront. I don’t think I’m right in the head. What could have possibly come over me such that I just started to dance samba, in full view of everyone? In this world of theirs, a world of numerous races and segregated beaches, just like the sambadrome itself. This world that brings together Pão de Açúcar, Cristo Redentor, as well as countless favelas tangled up in stolen electricity cables. Colourful poverty and life in full swing. The merry poor, dancing on the streets and beaches of Copacabana side by side with the rich, though the latter look somewhat more troubled.

Indeed, what could have possibly come over me to start dancing like that? At the end of the day, I was a sober and mature woman (aged 57, no kidding!), hailing from a world that educated youth for decency, a youth spent within the four walls of a uniformly modest flat, not exhibiting oneself on the sand, streets, or luxury ghettos scattered on the slopes of the surrounding mountains? Why does the sound of freedom chime with South American rhythms for me? After all, I do know that its mind, as far as I’m concerned, is British, American, and Continental European.

I raised my head high and smiled wholeheartedly, waving my arms at the young people around me. Well, yes! Lambada! This is the musical rhythm of my sense of freedom. Not the Romanian national anthem, Deșteaptă-te, române (Awaken thee, Romanian!), not even the Marseillaise, so typical of “Bonjourism”, a phase of extreme Francophilia in our culture, the current stage of which is under the spell of “Helloism.” In December 1989, I went camping with my high school students. I was 34 then. We hiked through the mountains, leaving behind dark and gloomy towns, with blocks of flats looking like tarmac, clothes looking like blocks of flats, and lives looking like clothes. This ugly and greasy greyness would shroud our minds and turn us all into bubbles, the spitting image of the mud volcanoes in the puny Buzău Mountains. Back then no one would even think of sticking their nose in shop windows, not even the eponymous heroine of The Little Match Girl. What was there to see? Clothes in various shades of beige and grey, sporting the charm of overalls worn by the staff of state-owned animal farms or by tradesmen. Clothes chosen, in accordance with the Unique Plan for Economic and Social Development, for peasant women by trade inspectors, most of them short, pot-bellied, bold, and carrying poop-brown folders.

As we leave the city, we also leave behind the debris, the plastic baubles, the fireworks that wouldn’t light up, and the tinsel handed down three generations. It’s all the same though, we’ll find it all there when we get back, when we’ll bake our sponge cakes at night as the gas pressure is likely to be higher then, and when we’ll also colour in bits of paper moulded into a star shape. We shall conceal the bare bits of our Christmas tree with apples hanging on a piece of red string and with grandma’s pretzels. In case this doesn’t do the job, we can always make use of that rubbish cotton wool to transform the bald offshoots of O, Christmas Tree into snow-covered branches! We shall listen to classical music and sing carols we learned from our grandparents, but won’t switch on the TV or the radio, to ensure that this terrible and infamous voice, the utmost degradation of our nation, all too bored with just about scraping through, doesn’t bellow into our ears.

We returned to Bucharest on 26 December, exalted and scared in equal measure. We were hell-bent on catching the so-called terrorists obstructing the newly declared Revolution, and on fighting for freedom in the wake of those who had already died for it. I managed to keep my calm, most of the time anyway. It’s no mean feat to deal with seventy rebellious adolescents. You can be neither excessively optimistic, nor pessimistic, and it’s difficult to be a realist. It’s best to be cautious and encouraging, yet also able to have a calming effect on others, if need be. A sort of iron lady, or tin lady, at the very least. Times were suddenly changing at breakneck speed, as if the landscape was reshaping in the wake of a magnitude nine earthquake. Over the span of 24 hours we revolutionised the school curriculum, guarded the entrance to our block of flats to make sure terrorists couldn't get in, and handed out woollen socks and hot soup to adolescents. They spent their days and nights at the underground stations, searching everybody including elderly ladies carrying colivă, to make sure that there were no pistols under the dish of boiled wheat covered in sweets used liturgically for commemorations of the dead, or who knows, no bazookas hiding under large coats.

We were all revolutionaries, feeling moon-struck and walking about with armbands in the colours of the Romanian flag. We kept scrutinising each other, unsure whether we were actually on the same side. We’d hug each other: Libertate/Te iubim/Ori învingem/Ori murim! Fear and courage would blend into one another, and morph into gestures of sluggish revolutionary mimicry. The desire for freedom is contagious, and over those days, it blurred with a desire and drive for death. I didn’t know anyone who was right in the head. None of us were right in the head, certainly not us, the most naïve lot in the entire history of histories. Yet after 27 years, I’m lucid enough to state that even if I'd known what was to follow, I’d still be as stupid and exalted as I was back then.

At some point though, even the revolution gets a little tired, at least for a while. So, we started to gather in each other’s homes. The Free Romanian Television (almost everything included the term free or freedom in its name back then) saw it fitting to broadcast exalted discourses delivered by a motley crew wearing caps, fur hats, jumpers, and puffer jackets, accompanied by images of the tyrant and his sinister wife well and truly pierced by bullets, all this underscored by the grinding music of machine guns.

It was a Sunday around New Year’s Eve. I turned on the telly, and fell silent, gasping with my hand over my mouth. They were showing a programme about a bunch of boys and girls in very colourful and shockingly striking clothes dancing on the stage of the former Palace of Pioneers, now renamed The Palace of Children (not calling it The Palace of Free Children was a rare deviation from the norm). This was a lasciviously erotic dance, at the same time joyful and tender, sensual and powerful, whereby waves of movement would crash into the shores of the partner’s hip: Lambada. Do Brasil. Chorando se foi.

Goodness gracious! I couldn’t believe my eyes. Yet the kids carried on dancing, smiling all along, fondling one another with their gaze. It was blindingly obvious that they enjoyed the experience body and soul. How could they not, after all this was a dance of pure pleasure. Suddenly I felt overwhelmed by the music, too, catching onto its power to grab me and take me along. Before I knew it, this sensation of freedom broke off from its hitherto centre, my mind, and turned its back to the fear in my heart, shrouding me in a tight embrace and making me drunk with joy. Goodness! Life is beautiful! Beautiful to look at in the light of day. And it’s on national television, to boot. We were given special dispensation to enjoy life!

Then, and only then, this feeling gave way to a stream of tears, tears of fear, hope, shame, and loathing. I was weeping so hard that my shirt kept leaping up and down to the rhythm of Lambada. I wept, mourning the dead and grieving with their families, and hankered for the joyful bunker that was our youth. I wept because I was given the chance to experience the joy of freedom, without restrictions, observations and criticism, suspicion, indignation, official minutes, or memos. When I finished crying, I had the sensation that I was born anew, knocking at the door of a new me, and sporting a large smile on my face.

Lambada was to accompany us throughout that first year of freedom. It played the role of musical midwife assisting with the birth of the market economy in flea markets and rag fairs, amidst chainsaws, callipers, balloons, and books. It put an end to the curfew that required restaurants to close at 10:00 p.m., and reopened clubs and discos. It accompanied small traders to Hungary, Moldova, and Turkey, making the goods-money-goods exchange more bearable. And it totally beat the audience records of the folk music favoured during my youth, as well as the pop music and romantic songs so dear to my parents’ generation.

Back then, I didn’t let anyone in on the secret of the tears that I shed over my first Lambada, and I didn’t give them any clues as to my eavesdropping on this music whilst browsing in flea markets and pretending to only have eyes for books. I think I felt embarrassed even in front of my own self, having to acknowledge that even for someone obsessed with revolutions as a teacher of social science, freedom tasted of Coca-Cola, smelt of Marlboro, looked like a Turkish bazaar, and sounded and moved like Lambada. And I continued to live with this snobbish coyness to the very day when a small group of young men happened to smile at me, delighted at seeing me dance on their beach.

Olá! Vamos dançar, senhora!

translated from the Romanian by Jozefina Komporaly