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A friend of mine – I’ll call her Kathy – recently attended a conference for women researchers in our field. She enjoyed speaking with the older researchers at the conference, who she felt were incredible role models and had important stories to share about being a woman in this field. She enjoyed presenting her research and learning about the research of others. However, there was a strong component of the conference that made her feel unwelcome and out of place: the way that feminists at the conference, who seemed to be a majority of the participants, expressed their views toward non-feminist lifestyles.

A woman serves dinner to a man and two children in an image of a conservative 1950's household.

This image makes me horribly uncomfortable, but that response is not universal.

In particular, Kathy experienced a great deal of judgment about her chosen path in life. She is a member of a socially-conservative religious congregation. Getting married is of central importance to her, as is raising a family, and while she hopes to have meaningful work as she does so, she considers her primary obligations as being to her future children and husband. Kathy desires a home in which her future husband is the head of the household – she wants him to respect her, and she wants to have an active part in making decisions that impact their life together, but she also wants him to be the main seat of authority.

At the conference, Kathy told me, she felt like her choice to live by these values was under attack. She did not mind discussion about how these values can impact women’s lives. However, she felt alienated by the seemingly unanimous, agreed-upon attitude that her way of lifestyle was oppressive and harmful to women, that no woman would ever choose this lifestyle if she had a true choice or an awareness of the alternatives, and that women who choose this lifestyle are not living up to their full potential.

I am willing to bet that many of you delightful disruptors agree with at least one of the components I just mentioned, even if you can’t admit it out loud.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, that’s not fair!  I totally support women working in the home if that’s what they want.  It’s their choice.”  But when most of you folks think about supporting a woman’s choice to work inside the home, I bet that you envision and support that setup only if both partners are exactly that: full partners, with equal decision-making power, simply pursuing different occupations.  Be honest: I bet you squirm, just a little, to think of supporting a woman’s choice to make a home in which a man, by virtue of nothing other than being a man, calls the shots.

Or at least, I know I have trouble with that.  While I grew up in a conservative-religious background, I will never willingly choose to be a part of a home with firm, binary gender roles, in which men automatically rule.  However, there are still several issues I have with a common feminist approach of judging those who voluntarily choose a conservative family lifestyle, especially the components that Kathy encountered at the conference:

1. A conservative family lifestyle is inherently oppressive toward women, in 100% of cases.
2. A woman who chooses this lifestyle must have been brainwashed or forced into it.
3. Women who choose this lifestyle are not fulfilling their potential.

First, I agree that a conservative family lifestyle is a big problem if your main goal for a relationship is equality. But what if your main goal for a relationship is happiness? And what if a woman personally enjoys having someone else make the decisions for her and take the lead in family affairs? Consider: if we feminists support people who feel satisfaction with a submissive role in a kink setting, why are we quick to judge a patriarchal household if (and only if, mind you) the woman desires and feels satisfaction with a submissive role in her family life?

We could answer that the power differential in a conservative family structure, however voluntary, is an unhealthy way to have a relationship that leaves one partner vulnerable to abuse.  However, then we must address why we believe that this argument can be applied to the power differential in conservative households without being applied to the power differential in households where partners have BDSM relationship(s).  I’m not saying that a distinction can’t be made, and I encourage you all to share your views and any statistics you may know about in the comments.  I simply mean to point out that citing the power differential can be a double-edged sword if we value people’s rights to choose BDSM-oriented relationships.

Second, it is painfully true that there is enormous pressure in conservative religious and non-religious communities for women to take a subservient role to men. That being said, I think we need to carefully examine the claim that any woman who chooses a subservient role in her household is brainwashed, doesn’t truly understand the ramifications of her choice, or else was under too much pressure to make a true choice. Although we do need to acknowledge powerful social pressure, this approach is awfully condescending toward women in conservative societies.

The reality is that there are women who, like Kathy, choose this lifestyle and are fully aware of the ramifications of their choices. Like all the other researchers at that conference, Kathy is an adult. She is well-educated and clearly able to think for herself.  She is financially independent and does not require a husband to provide for her, though she prefers that model of a relationship. Kathy uses the internet and has classmates from different walks of life; she is clearly aware of other options.

As for whether Kathy has been pressured to adopt this lifestyle, her perception is that this is her choice, that she has considered and decided for herself. Arguing that women only feel that this is their choice, and that they really choose a conservative family life because of brainwashing or external pressure, treats adult women as though they lack the ability to make adult choices for themselves. It portrays women from conservative societies as weak pushovers, incapable of having their own opinions about what is best for them. And, if the women at this conference were any indication, we enlightened feminists know the right ways for women from conservative societies to shape their lives: needless to say, it’s not how they themselves have chosen to do it. Colonialist much?

As for the third issue, that women pursuing a more conservative home structure are not fulfilling their potential, I’m not really going to go into it.  The “can women have it all / should they try?” conversation has been going on for a while. I think most of us already agree that the conversation about women’s appropriate roles boils down to “whatever the heck a woman wants to be her role is her appropriate role.”  Although, the conference participants seem to have missed this point.

Instead, I’m going to ask you to consider what it might have felt like for Kathy, an accomplished researcher and graduate student, to attend a conference in which her chosen role was routinely bashed in front of her. A conference whose members appear to have assumed that only women who have chosen liberal lifestyles would be in attendance. A conference whose stated mission was to support and build connections among women in our field, yet made Kathy feel alienated and looked down upon by her women colleagues because her chosen way of life does not match their expectations.

Am I still opposed to patriarchal households?  For myself, absofreakinglutely.  And yes, I want equal partnerships for all the people I care about.  But I think Kathy’s experience raises some important questions for us to consider. Does feminism have room for values in addition to equality — can happiness and personal preference also play a role? Can we build feminist communities in which we maintain our beliefs about what kind of lifestyle is right for us, and at the same time, support others who make different choices?  Perhaps the more important question, as part of a movement striving toward meaningful and lasting social change: should we?