One day, a man in my family who I love and admire offered the opinion that I simply had a “personal” issue with gender in the church and that I should deal with it. I’ll skip over my immediate reaction to that comment and go directly to the thoughts that followed that conversation. Why, I wondered, do both men and women have such a difficult time speaking about gender and the expectations that we associate with it, especially amongst the people we care about most? Why do almost all attempts to discuss gender in blog posts disintegrate into traffic-garnering exchanges of unproductive emotion (anger, hurt, etc.) and even accusation? This post is my attempt to offer one explanation and to open a debate not on gender, but on how we can talk about gender more productively.
Most conversations that produce controversies about gender never question the premise that men and women are of equal worth. As a Mormon culture (though not necessarily in our doctrine), we have absorbed the principle of equality, although we dispute bitterly what enforcing equality means. In my experience, the most bitter conversations about gender center around our desires and expectations for how to balance families and work.
Part of the difficulty in having conversations about this issue perhaps stems from the somewhat different notions that, in my experience, men and women are raised with in respect to what work means. I am certain that the men in my life see work primarily as a way of fulfilling their responsibility to provide for a family. Indeed, I have seen their constant anxiety and stress as they feel the weight of a burden that, I confess, I am glad that I have not been raised to feel as deeply — and yet very much appreciate in them.
Women, of course, are also taught that they must work to support themselves, but although many women are the sole providers for their families, women do not carry around the stigmas that men do if they are for some reason not working or failing to provide. Let’s face it: we often expect women to stop working. Instead, I believe that many women of my age and class status view work as something that they need to do so as to achieve equality with men, to have an identity, and to not feel the anxieties that come with being financially dependent. To make a very sweeping generalization that has numerous exceptions, while privileged men see work as a means of primarily providing, women see work as a means of providing but also, and maybe more importantly, of confering self-worth and equality. Both of these perspectives are motivated by very real stresses and concerns.
In my experience, these differences in how work is perceived leads to tension amongst families and our culture as a whole. When a married women feels the need to work in order to gain independence or to pursue a form of self-realization, the husband sometimes interprets that desire as a failure on his part to provide. Often, he fails to sympathize with why it matters so much to his wife to work, when he is working hard to ensure that she doesn’t need to. On the other hand, the wife often risks assuming that the working spouse has all the privileges while failing to fully sympathize with the pressure he feels at work. Both spouses feel that they are giving something up (career dreams, identity, time, peace) for the other. These are stereotypes, but these are patterns that I have seen again and again in my own life.
Assuming that this pattern is true more generally, how can being aware of it lead us towards having more productive conversations about gender? First, both men and women need to listen to each other and try to understand the reality of the pain or stress that is involved in their decisions about work. Next, work-life discussions cannot simply be about women; we need to understand how men are impacted by them as well. So long as men feel accused or on the spot in conversations about gender, many of them will be unreceptive to hearing why the system needs to change. Feminists need to bring men into the conversation and point out how they stand to gain from helping women meet their needs. None of us can afford to make gender a “personal” issue, because then nobody gains. Finally, we need to recognize that everyone has made painful comprises when it comes to their families, because when we decide to marry, we stop thinking about what is best for ourselves individually and think about what is best for us as a couple.
As we attempt to talk through and inch towards solutions for the difficulties that we have all faced, we need to acknowledge that everyone has made compromises and that everyone is in the process of experimenting with solutions. Rather than accusing or perceiving that we have been accused because our experiment with compromise is different from someone else’s, we need to engage in a discussion that acknowledges the reality of our difficulties but that supports, learns from, but is wary of privileging different solutions. We need to remember the uncertainties and pain that we felt when we made tough decisions so that we can standby and aid others who are making them now.
The anger and pain that follows every blog post on gender is overwhelming evidence that both men and women need to discuss what gender, family, and work means in 2009 and beyond. But this discussion can’t happen unless we leave our anger behind and start listening to everyone.