Dorothy Allison’s autobiographical narrative Two or Three Things I Know for Sure examines how a lower-class upbringing has affected the identities of the women in her family. Beauty, inadvertently, becomes one of the most valued things among her family members, a perceived lack of which shapes Allison as a person. Through a lens of intersectional feminism, a story of male entitlement, the way Allison combats it, and female solidarity is woven into her lyrical prose.
The women of Allison’s family were taught that beauty did not exist for them, “[they] are the ones in all those photos taken at mining disasters, floods, fires. [They] are the ones in the background with [their] mouths open, in print dresses or drawstring pants and collarless smocks, ugly and old and exhausted. Solid, stolid, wide-hipped baby machines” (33). The men of her family constantly degrade the women, subscribing to an outdated mindset that says women are inferior and that their only purpose in the world is to be mothers. From birth, men are socialized to believe the world owes them something and that they deserve everything. Patriarchal society teaches women to minimize themselves—“Don’t eat too much, don’t talk too loudly, don’t take up too much space, don’t take from the world” (Chernik 602)—while simultaneously lifting men and allowing them to take up as much space as they could possibly desire. Men believe they own the world and the women in it; they benefit from a complex system which allows them to “…have the power to decide whether to commit themselves to more equitable distributions of power” (McIntosh 7) without consequence either way. Allison’s story of her rape at the hands of her stepfather is a narrative which assists in understanding how this system and the rape culture it has built allows and even encourages men to act heinously and without social repercussions. This is something that does not change across race or class.
Allison’s lower class status in early life deepens the impact of this dangerous sense of male entitlement. Lack of monetary wealth in childhood restricted Allison from believing she had any economic mobility; a perceived lack of beauty—something of currency-like value to the men in her family—barred her from feeling worthy of love. Allison talks about high school and how “the pretty girls in [her] high school…wore virgin pins on the right side or knew enough not to wear such tacky things at all. [She and her cousins] were never virgins, even when [they] were” (36). As the poor, “ugly” girls in high school, Allison and her cousins were disposable to boys; they were the “easy” girls, Allison suggests. Combined with their lower class status, the question is posed, “’[s]hit, who could love a girl like her?’” (36).
Identity in any family is tied to multiple factors: ancestry, cultural history, geography, socioeconomic status, contemporary culture, society, and politics, and so on and so forth. In Allison’s family, it is obscured by a reluctance to speak about long dead family members. However, she believes her own personal identity derives from her nameless, faceless female relatives. Her fascination with the “ongoing tragedies, great novels, secrets and mysteries and longings no one would ever know” (17)—mostly in regard to the women in her family—speaks to the weight Allison put on history in her identity. The value she places in women she never knew is a product of the natural support system women often build around each other: not a system of privilege, but a system of love and strength that is only found among kindred women who understand what they have suffered at the hands of men and the patriarchy at large.
But, this understanding of the necessity of women supporting women is not an easy one to come by. The simplest way to understand this journey is to examine, once again, the role of beauty in Allison’s life. The conflict between society commodifying beauty and Allison’s family delegitimizing its value served as a source of tension between Allison and her sister, Anne:
“We didn’t like each other much,” Anne said.
“We didn’t know each other.”
“Yeah? Well, Mama always thought you peed rose water.’”
“But you were beautiful. Hell, you didn’t even have to pee, you were so pretty.
People probably offered to pee for you.” (77)
The latent jealousy in Allison is a product of a lack of body autonomy: her body is not hers, she and her body are not “beautiful”—according to the men in her life—resulting in a desire for the normative ideal of beauty. This is not to discredit simple sibling jealousy, but there are clear patriarchal undertones. Societal norms of beauty are shaped by men and their ideas of what makes a woman “beautiful.” This is “the connection between a nation of starving, self-obsessed women and the continued success of the patriarchy” (Chernik 601). In her article “The Body Politic,” Abra Fortune Chernik explains that self-obsession and vanity is, largely, due to the patriarchy forcing women into physical submissiveness by diminishing their bodies and personalities into wisps of nothing in the eternal strive to be beautiful in the eyes of society. This toxic mindset is what causes women, even women like Dorothy Allison, to believe that beauty is one of the only things of value in the world and that she must compete against other women.
However, twisted ideas of beauty are not the only products of male entitlement. As a child, Allison was raped by her stepfather, and the psychological and social impacts of this bleed into her adult life. Rape is, essentially, a physical manifestation of men believing they own women and their bodies, and it is surrounded by a violent, taboo culture. Rape is a power trip for weak men.
The implications of Allison’s lower class and its relation to rape culture must be considered. A lack of economic stability is often equated to powerlessness, especially in women. Poorness enables a portion of oppression to come forth. While oppression is most often associated with race and gender, it is, truly, an intersection of race, gender, and class. “The experience of oppressed people is that the living of one’s life is confined and shaped by forces and barriers which are not accidental or occasional and hence avoidable” (Frye). Allison is born as a poor, white woman: a southerner who has no shame or doubt about where she came from. But, all are factors in her disempowerment. Her poorness and femaleness, both, minimize her value in society’s eyes. Her race affords her certain privileges in white supremacist America but, combined with her class and gender, her standing in society is, ultimately, in a place of nigh worthlessness. Her perceived lack of worth in society leads to an internalization of misogynistic and classist behaviors that influence how Allison acts in both public and private settings. An idea is cultivated which tells her young self that she is at fault for her own rape and most of her negative sexual experiences afterwards. It is the aforementioned system of female solidarity which, eventually, allows Allison to overcome her trauma and begin to erase it from her identity. She takes back her own body, her own self, and “at sixteen, [she] jumped free and turned to face him. ‘You can’t break me,’ [she] told him. ‘And you’re never going to touch me again’” (68). Allison’s realization of her intrinsic body autonomy is a turning point and begins her journey of recovery.
In the end, all women have is each other. No matter how “decent” a man is, there is something unspeakably powerful in women of all races, classes, and genders supporting each other in their male dominated societies. The day a woman understands that beauty is a social construct made by greedy corporations—usually run by men—to drain them of their self-worth and money, both, is the day a woman begins to understand the significance of feminism in everyone’s lives. The day Allison realizes this and takes back ownership of her body is the day she comes into herself as a woman and a feminist. Her progressive success in conceptualizing her identity—and her ongoing effort toward this—is a critical factor in her growth as a person and no-tolerance policy for the entitled actions of men. Without each other, women are left to fend for themselves in a world that fights against their success at every turn. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure is, then, Allison’s story of her journey toward body autonomy, understanding familial and personal identity, and the endless importance of female solidarity.
Allison, Dorothy. Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. New York: Dutton, 1995. Print.
Chernik, Abra Fortune. “The Body Politic.” N.p., 1995. Print.
Frye, Marilyn. “Oppression.” The Politics of Reality. Trumansburg, NY: The Cross Press. 1983. Web.
McIntosh, Peggy. White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women. 1988. Print.