Cinderella’s Stepsisters

When I was in university I had to analyse a piece of writing. I was looking for something that had meaning to me, and I connected with emotionally. Most of those years I was tired. I was a single mom of three small kids, living on a student loan, and alone in a city I’d never lived in before. My family lived too far away to help–as far away as Japan, and the kid’s dad lived on the other side of the world.
I was lonely, scared, dog-tired, and poor. I would go to school all day, pick up the kids, play with them, make them supper, bath them, put them to bed, and then start my homework. It was hard.
But this one time, this one assignment, I had to analyse some one’s writing. I found this. A speech by the Nobel Prize winning American author, Toni Morrison, to a graduating class at Barnard College (an all-female university). I cried as I read it. I want to share it with you:
Cinderella’s Stepsisters

Let me begin by taking you back a little. Back before the days at college. To nursery school, probably, to a once-upon-a-time when you first heard, or read, or, I suspect, even saw “Cinderella.” Because it is Cinderella that I want to talk about; because it is Cinderella who causes me a feeling of urgency. What is unsettling about that fairy tale is that it is essentially the story of a household–a world, if you please–of women gathered together and held together in order to abuse another woman. There is, of course, a rather vague absent father and a nick-of-time prince with a foot fetish. But neither has much personality. And there are the surrogate “mothers,” of course (god- and step-), who contribute both to Cinderella’s grief and to her release and happiness. But it is the stepsisters who interest me. How crippling it must have been for those young girls to grow up with a mother, to watch and imitate that mother, enslaving another girl.

I am curious about their fortunes after the story ends. For contrary to recent adaptations, the stepsisters were not ugly, clumsy, stupid girls with outsize feet. The Grimm collection describes them as “beautiful and fair in appearance.” When we are introduced to them they are beautiful, elegant women of status, and clearly women of power. Having watched and participated in the violent dominion of another woman, will they be any less cruel when it comes their turn to enslave other children, or even when they are required to take care of their own mother?

It is not a wholly medieval problem. It is quite a contemporary one: feminine power when directed at other women has historically been wielded in what has been described as a “masculine” manner. Soon you will be in a position to do the very same thing. Whatever your background–rich or poor–whatever the history of education in your family–five generations or one–you have taken advantage of what has been available to you at Barnard and you will therefore have both the economic and social status of the stepsisters and you will have their power.

I want not to ask you but to tell you not to participate in the oppression of your sisters. Mothers who abuse their children are women, and another woman, not an agency, has to be willing to stay their hands. Mothers who set fire to school buses are women, and another woman, not an agency, has to tell them to stay their hands. Women who stop the promotion of other women in careers are women, and another woman must come to the victim’s aid. Social and welfare workers who humiliate their clients may be women, and other women colleagues have to deflect their anger.

I am alarmed by the violence that women do to each other: professional violence, competitive violence, emotional violence. I am alarmed by the willingness of women to enslave other women. I am alarmed by a growing absence of decency on the killing floor of professional women’s worlds. You are the women who will take your place in the world where you can decide who shall flourish and who shall wither; you will make distinctions between the deserving poor and the undeserving poor; where you can yourself determine which life is expendable and which is indispensable. Since you will have the power to do it, you may also be persuaded that you have the right to do it. As educated women the distinction between the two is first-order business.

I am suggesting that we pay as much attention to our nurturing sensibilities as to our ambition. You are moving in the direction of freedom and the function of freedom is to free somebody else. You are moving toward self-fulfillment, and the consequences of that fulfillment should be to discover that there is something just as important as you are and that just-as-important thing may be Cinderella–or your stepsister.

In your rainbow journey toward the realization of personal goals, don’t make choices based only on your security and your safety. Nothing is safe. That is not to say that anything ever was, or that anything worth achieving ever should be. Things of value seldom are. It is not safe to have a child. It is not safe to challenge the status quo. It is not safe to choose work that has not been done before. Or to do old work in a new way. There will always be someone there to stop you. But in pursuing you highest ambitions, don’t let your personal safety diminish the safety of your step-sister. In wielding the power that is deservedly yours, don’t permit it to enslave your stepsisters. Let your might and your power emanate from that place in you that is nurturing and caring.

Women’s rights is not only an abstraction, a cause; it is also a personal affair. It is not only about “us”; it is also about me and you. Just the two of us.
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