Friday, July 17, 2009

What's a fish need with a bicycle?

While in a waiting room yesterday, I read from a book called Jane Sexes It Up, a really interesting collection of essays on feminist theory and pop culture. (Incidentally, for someone without health insurance trying to clean out her body, I have the coolest women's health care in the world. If you're in the Chicago area, and looking for affordable gynecology, counseling, acupuncture, or just women-friendly community, I absolutely recommend it.) I read from an essay called "The Feminist Wife?: Notes from a Political Engagement." There were so many things that the writer discussed, among them her ardent desire to keep her last name when she got married, having to cope with her fear that she would go unloved due to her academic ambition, and her gnawing insecurity when she discovered that she was ready to get married and her boyfriend (now husband) needed more time. (oh, so familiar)

As a girl, I don't remember ever thinking that marriage was something that was inherently anti-feminist. I suppose the institution historically reeks of female subjugation--a woman being passed, via name and right, from father to husband, a dowry of goods in exchange for taking her off my hands, marriages to align tribes of people, countries and governments, sometimes, "Woman, get in that kitchen and make me some pie!", blah blah. I mean, sure, in some ancient cultures, and some modern ones, too, the institution of marriage does look pretty freakin' offensive.

And maybe its no accident that when I gave my brain the fill-in the blank, "institution of...", what came back were "marriage" and "slavery".

I do remember being in the clutches of a wicked panic a few years ago. Not the typical quarterlife women's fear that I'd never get married. I was terrified that marriage was all these awful things: that it was about serving men and swallowing my opinion and remaining silent so my husband can be the priest of the household, and deferring any and all of my mental, emotional, professional and sexual desires and expressions to him first so he can judge me for them and tell me that I should change, and then do whatever the hell he wanted in the first place. This was right around the time when women I knew were getting married. Some of them married men who were thoughtful and sensitive and secure, and not threatened by the dynamism and vitality and strength of a woman at all. And some of them promised to follow their man where he would lead (no doubt bearing all their worldly possessions on her back) and to submit herself to him in all things. I wasn't afraid I'd never get married (it can't be that hard to settle for any poor fool looking for a wife). I was afraid that I wouldn't ever find a man who would marry me, the woman that I am: loud, opinionated, passionate, ambitious, headstrong and impatient. It's taken me a long time to realize that all these things that I often view as flaws are also graces, and that God put these graces in me because I am fearfully and wonderfully made, a marvelous work (although under quite a bit of construction). It seemed impossible to me that He'd also created a man who would love all those things about me. I feared that marriage was just a racket to squelch the beauty and largess of women like myself; that we could marry, but in exchange we'd be forced to alienate the truest parts of ourselves. I couldn't live with an institution like that. I wanted a friend, a lover and a companion, a fellow maker of things, to walk with me through life. I wanted a life partner; I was scared I couldn't have the life partner that I wanted, because that's not what marriage is.

This existential crisis seemed like my feminism and my faith locking horns. I didn't think that God had created an institution that wouldn't serve me; I thought we humans had just made a cock-up of it.

But aren't cultural institutions relative? There are some practices I think are absolutely abhorrent in other parts of the world, that are just all in a day's work, and no amount of my self-righteous outrage is going to change how a culture runs, eh? There are women in marriages who stand proudly, silent as dirt, behind their husbands, who are happy to do so; their needs as wives and a woman are totally met. That's one kind of marriage, but I get to have something different, right? Marriage could be offensive and belittling someplace else, but I'm not there; I'm here. Don't I, don't we, have the freedom and the ability to make marriage what we want it to be?

My parents, for all their difference, have a pretty amazing marriage. They are incredibly different people, and I sometimes wonder how it is that they got together at all, much less how they stayed together for almost thirty-two years. There are absolutely things I want to do different, patterns of behavior that I am doing my best to break. But for all the things I've noticed about my parents, I've never once thought they had a marriage of inequality. My mother took her husband's name, kept her career, struggled, succeeded, sometimes failed, and managed to raise a daughter pretty well. My father worked hard, gave back to his community, had the tough conversations and was not afraid to be sensitive, tender and forgiving, things that men aren't usually heralded for, and also raised a daughter. They traded the labels of leader and caregiver, of father and mother, like they were tools, able to be used by both, specified for neither. No pink-handled pot-holders and blue-handled rakes; they both did what they had to do to raise their family, and there was never any question about woman's work versus man's work. They did these things, too, in the shadow of all the New Testament dictum and arguably misogynist language that brings my hackles up.

"A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle," I read in this book. Funny. Clever. And maybe not; I've always thought that a woman didn't need a man for anything she could do by herself. But it's okay, and doesn't make me any less of a feminist for wanting one, or wanting to spend the rest of my life with one. Whether I keep my name or give it away (really, it's not mine, it's my dad's anyway), whether I work or stay home with kids, I can love my womanhood and love my man at the same time. I suppose that as this journey continues, I'm in for the kind of self-reckoning this writer was doing, reconciling her love for dinner parties and her fierce ambitious independence. Today, I just keep reminding myself that the relationship that I'm making with my sweetheart gets to look like what we want. It doesn't have to align with institutional history or subvert it. We can make our relationship suit our needs, as feminists, as friends, as artists and lovers. It gets to be ours.

So often that feels like a new idea. I like how it feels.

p.s. don't let the loaded language of marriage as a creation of God fool you. Marriage is an institution of the state and the church, and any two people who want to knit their lives together, any two, should have the right to do so everywhere. Marriage is an act of tradition, and love is an act of revolution.


Julie K. said...

I feel pretty conflicted as a feminist but feminine wife. Some mornings, I stand at the coffee machine for long seconds after filling my mug, wondering whether I should fill a mug for my husband, too, and take it too him. Would doing so constitute waiting on him? Or sharing with him as people who love each other share? These little battles come up many times each day, and sometimes I regret the mix of feminist and gender-typical that I am. It's hard to feel secure with most decisions I make, from the little coffee thing to how to reconcile differences in my paycheck and my husband's paycheck. I'll typically bring it up to my husband, but I think that makes him think I'm typically neurotic. He'll suggest that comparing my actions to feminist standards is just another way I'm too hard on myself... But then, not questioning oneself helps bolster the status quo, and I can't live my life doing that. So I'm stuck at the coffee maker with the carafe in midair, thinking, while my own coffee gets cold.

ABG said...

Have you read Naomi Wolf's article "Radical Heterosexuality"? Pieces of this resonate with my experience of reading that article long ago. She was in dialogue with Dworkin, who infamously suggested that heterosexuality was inherently at odds with feminism, so the article is a bit dated. But she raises some of these tensions and has some liberating turns of phrase in it.

Jessica Young said...

No, I haven't, but I'll be on the lookout for it. Thanks for the heads-up.

PrincessMax said...

"really, it's not mine, it's my dad's anyway"

Kind of. It's your mom's too. And you've made it your own by publishing under it and making friends with it and signing it on checks.

It's totally fine to want to change your name or to decide that you don't care as much as he does about it but it is, in fact, your name.

Because where did your dad get it from? His mom and dad and their moms and dads. Scores of women and men contributed to the ownership of that name and passed it along to you. That makes it a pretty valuable gift if you give it away.

If you keep going back, do you get into master-slave dynamics? That might be something to think about, too. Is it redemption or acquiescence?

I love you, cutie.