Talk to her (or him): moving beyond our impasse on gender

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.

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Comments

  1. I would submit that while fairness is a value of the Restored Gospel, equality is not.

    Equality is a cheap stopgap measure for a corrupt society that cannot come up with anything better at the moment.

  2. That’s a good point, Seth. “Equality” is a bit undefined, but then “fairness” is to, since each leave open the question of what we want and mean by it. I’d be interested in what fairness means to you and others, since I think attaching specifics to our desires would go a long way towards listening to each other about gender and work.

  3. “fairness is, too” (whoops – always so many typso!)

  4. Mark Brown says:

    Natalie,

    I was first going to suggest that another solution is to just ignore other peoples’ opinions and for each couple to arrange their affairs in the way that seems best to them. Many people already do this. But then I realized that sometimes even couples have different expectations and lack the skills to talk about them. So the suggestions you make are important, even if it is only between a husband and wife.

    And you’re right, the frustration that almost always results is all the evidence we need that we lack this skill.

  5. Natalie,
    I think you nailed this “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. ”

    but then you go on to describe husbands as threatened, insulted, or confused by this, which kinda fails me since in my experience women such as the above are married to men who also view work as equality, as part of her identity, and as a major relief of the pressure he felt to provide. I’ve never met a man who didn’t want his wife in the workforce except for men who are in fact married to women who don’t want it either.

  6. Naismith says:

    Maybe we’re an exception, but I don’t think my husband ever saw his job as merely a way to provide for the family. I would ask him, but he is away at work:) He loves his career–it’s a big part of who he is. It was a big sacrifice when he was called as bishop and agreed not to travel any more than was absolutely necessary.

    He has no idea how much money he makes. We went to a retirement seminar last year, and our calculations were off because he mis-estimated his current income by $20,000.

    And as long as we are being hurt and angry, I resent like hell when people use the word “work” to refer only to paid employment. There’s a word for that: employed. Why not say employed in a sentence like
    “When a married women feels the need to work in order to gain independence or to pursue a form of self-realization…”

    Why not acknowledge that all mothers work, and stop pandering to the editors of “Working Mother” magazine, who have an agenda to denigrate those who don’t follow their career path?

    I worked hard as a mother at home. Toughest job I ever did. And I’ve been in the Army and to grad school. Fortunately my spouse appreciated my contributions. He never referred to me as “not working.”

  7. I’ve never met a man who didn’t want his wife in the workforce except for men who are in fact married to women who don’t want it either.

    It’s an interesting statement.

    I see more angst on the side of women who want to work and believe everyone should agree with them, than on the side of women who DON’T want to work and don’t care what others think of them …

    There are, of course, plenty of women who don’t want to sit at home, but don’t want to work either, and who encounter plenty of resistance from other woman who insist that they must work. (I.e., women who make the statement that volunteering at a child’s school is a waste of talents better spent earning money.) Perhaps some of this reconciliation dialogue must occur within genders…

    I do think that there is more inter-gender dialogue occurring that perhaps people give credit for. Most couples who are in sync with each other’s position have already done this. I actually think it’s pretty rare within the Church to have a couple who be at odds with the “should women work” question. Either they agree that she must, that she should, or that she won’t, that she can if she wants, or any of the gradations in between…

    At any rate, in the Church that I know and live, and the areas of the Church where I have lived (outside the BYU bubble), the question over woman working doesn’t exist. People do it, or don’t do it. If I see conflict, it’s not between the couple itself, it’s between other people who have to interact with the couple and are inconvenienced by the choice (i.e., a SAHM whose VTs only want to come by at night because they work, or the SAHM VTs who only want to visit the working mom during the day).

    Where I grew up and where I live now are about as diverse, Church-wise, as I can imagine, and it wasn’t an issue where I grew up, 20-30 years ago, and it just isn’t an issue now…

    I’m sure it happens, but I don’t personally know any man who would stand in the way of his wife working if she really wanted to. That’s an incredibly generic statement, but I’ll stand by it. I just don’t know any men like that, in the Church or not.

  8. Mark Brown says:

    Naismith, in fairness, maybe we should say that the phrase “working mother” is also used by the Ensign and even general authorities. I realize that it may be irksome for you, but unless you also fire off an angry letter to church headquarters every time GAs or church magazines use the phrase, maybe you ought to consider the possibility you have overreacted here. I am certain Natalie meant no offense.

  9. (I’d never advocate this to any youth, particularly my own daughter, but I remember our current SP’s wife making a statement about 15 years ago when we were talking about college and studies. She commented that she dropped out of school to support her husband’s final year of school so that they could graduate without debt, and when they started having children, she opted to stay at home, and – the key point she tried to make to others – that she approached both as business decisions.

    In her mind, her sacrificing her degree to help him graduate, and then her staying at home to allow him to work, was the best way to maximize their earning potential *and* have a family. She considered herself an active partner in his career and her decisions would help maximize that. Looking at their current financial state (extremely well-off), it would appear that her calculation paid off, although it’s hard to say that she couldn’t have had her own career if she’d wanted to. But in the end, she opted to follow the path she wanted.

    I still think it’s a very dangerous message to teach our daughters, but I’ll credit her with making a strategic decision for which many feminists would tar her …)

  10. The Right Trousers says:

    You can’t define “fairness” objectively. It always requires that you assume some person or group deserves something in equal or proportionate measure to another person or group. Turns out this is largely a subjective judgment.

    When you try to define it in terms of substitution you get the same problem. Since no two people are equivalent, you have to deal in abstractions and generalizations. This puts you squarely back into subjective-land.

  11. Naismith says:

    ““Naismith, in fairness, maybe we should say that the phrase “working mother” is also used by the Ensign and even general authorities.”

    Are you sure about that? Using the “search” function at lds.org, I note that “working mother” has been used in General Conference once, in 1982, by Sister Smith (then RS-president).

    It has been used in church magazines only a dozen times, none after 2000.

    Now it could be that the search function isn’t quite working. But it seems to come up with all the hundreds of hits for “aaronic priesthood” that one might expect.

    So I don’t have a problem with what the General Authorities say.

  12. Eveningsun says:

    I think that when discussing things like “fairness” and “equality” in the context of “how we can talk about gender more productively,” it would be good to keep in mind that this is a church in which ultimately most men are able to speak with an authority not accorded to any woman. One could certainly challenge this very basic inequality (or, as some have, simply leave the Church over it), but even if one accepts it, it seems to me that the added authority to speak entails an added responsibility to more carefully and more charitably listen–a responsibility that IMHO has been very very often shirked. The paradigmatic text here is the instruction to Emma Smith in D&C 132:54.

  13. cchrissyy said: I’ve never met a man who didn’t want his wife in the workforce except for men who are in fact married to women who don’t want it either.

    queuno said: I actually think it’s pretty rare within the Church to have a couple who be at odds with the “should women work” question.

    Perhaps these statements are true of today’s young couples, but as a newlywed in the 70s, this was definitely not the case. I, and many other young wives of that time, struggled mightily with our husbands over the issue of whether or not we would earn an income. The only compromise for many LDS husbands was to allow their wives to work from home, as long as it didn’t require hiring childcare or interfere with housework.
    I agree that we need better ways to discuss gender, not just more talk. I understand better now just where my husband was coming from thirty years ago, and we have made our peace and will celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary this week. I only wish that I could have had more support as a young wife and mother. It seemed at the time that no one was listening.

  14. #13 “Perhaps these statements are true of today’s young couples, but as a newlywed in the 70s, this was definitely not the case. I, and many other young wives of that time, struggled mightily with our husbands over the issue of whether or not we would earn an income.”

    A couple of years ago, my FIL (bishop at the time) told my MIL that he had decided she had to quit her job (she was having health issues so his intention was good, but still). She basically just ignored him, but it was amazing to me that he thought he had the right to put out an order like that and expect her to obey. My husband said that is how it had always been; he decided if she needed to earn extra money on the side and decided what jobs she would get and when she could quit. At this point, though, all of the kids were gone and she was able to find a job that was something she had always wanted to do, so she was not willing to give it up. My husband supported her as best he could and the tension eventually resolved, but it was awful for her. But yeah, I’ve seen this several in the previous generation and even a few times in my own generation.

  15. I really do think a lot of these issues are generational (13 and 14). And on the flip side, I have seen a handful of women who married in the 70’s and early 80’s who feel entitled to stay home in spite of the fact that they really should be working for the financial health of their family. The children are all raised, but these women still stay home.

    As a woman, I find their attitude just as sexist as the men described in the comments above. And much more disturbing.

    But I believe these kinds of gender-war decisions are personal, so I try to let it go.

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