From 1970 to 1976, I taught in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea where I witnessed firsthand the concept of bride price-a system wherein girls are purchased as brides and paid for by groups of people amassing and distributing considerable amounts of wealth usually in the form of live pigs, cowrie shells, net bags, stone adzes, bush knives, and various implements of war. With each new bride purchased, inflation hits the marriage market, but a girl's failure to carry out her duties to the satisfaction of her husband is often motive for murder. Shortly after I arrived, one man told me he had cut up his wife with an ax because she neglected to adequately care for the pigs. While the Western world at large looks askance at such practice, I observed that the more wives a man had, the more women found him personally attractive and valued the social and economic advantages of "belonging" to such a man.
In 1976, I returned to the United States and, having secured a teaching position, it didn't take me long to realize that the young women sitting in my school's English classes placed a "bride price" on their own heads. Many saw themselves as objects to be possessed. While the New Guinea girls and my American literature students were as geographically polarized as possible, I sensed they had both been taught that relationships were more important than selfhood or intensity. Too much of either made them unattractive. Their lives, after all, would ultimately be judged on how well they had served and cared for their households.
I looked at the faces of the young women who sat before me-faces that were often blank, unconfident, questioning. I listened to the silence that bespoke the idea that whatever it was they had to say did not matter and would not be appreciated. I observed how they even failed to support one another in the classroom -- and then, I looked at the boys. They were more physical, more verbal, more supportive of one another, and I knew that as a teacher, I could either passively accept these differences, or I could subtly but actively work to empower the young women in my classes to be less passive and obedient, and more self-respecting and autonomous. Yes, I wanted them to be risk-takers,
I recall one bright and lovely young woman who spent most of her junior and senior year crying. Her boyfriend of longstanding was a mediocre student who could not understand her diligence to study and berated her for her continued scholarship. She was as Adrienne Rich states, "Jeered by the minor demons . . . " but "by evening ... back in love again" (Rich 240) and while she may not have been, as was her New Guinea counterpart, slain with an ax, she seemed incapable of breaking the bond that imprisoned her. Ultimately, she graduated valedictorian of her class, and after the ceremony as she and I talked in the corridor, she confided that she had been accepted to study for a year in Spain. It was an affirmation of herself as a person of worth and decision. There was much rejoicing around the New Guinea firepit that night!
Adrienne Rich states that "in teaching women, we have two choices: to lend our weight to the forces that indoctrinate women to passivity; or to consider what we have to work against ... in ourselves, in our students, in the content of the curriculum, in the structure of the institution, in society at large ... and believe in the value and significance of women's experiences, traditions, perceptions" (Ashton-Jones 330-31). There is a price in being fully liberated yet fully feminine, but it is certainly a price worth paying.
Ashton-Jones, Evelyn and Gary A. Olson. The Gender Reader. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1991.
Rich, Adrienne. "Living in Sin." Women in Literature. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Prentice Hall, 1988.