“People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or prostitute.” – Dame Rebecca West
A former colleague of mine would make a big deal out of the fact that his wife, who also worked with us, would warm up his lunch for him every day. He would loudly claim that he didn’t know how to use a microwave. He seemed to be bragging about this, which confused me. Why wouldn’t a grown man be thoroughly ashamed of lacking the basic capability to feed himself? I realized that having a woman around who acted like his servant made him feel like a very important person. That is what he was really bragging about.
His wife, of course, bought into this idea. In order to prop up her husband’s ego – and her own belief that she had landed a very important man as a husband – she acted like his servant. Their arrangement would never have worked unless both husband and wife truly believed that the husband was the center of attention while a wife could only strive to achieve a supporting role, at best.
Making a meal for a partner can be a nice thing to do. A mutual decision between partners that one will take the lead in cooking meals while the other will take the lead in another part of the household is an equal sharing of responsibility. However, participating in a relationship in which the man’s status is considered what really matters while the woman’s status is dependent on his as his dutiful subject, is not.
In the Little House on the Prairie books, Laura Ingalls Wilder described how, even though her mother and father had vastly different responsibilities, each appreciated how hard the other one worked and were grateful to have a partner in building a new life and family together. Here was a couple deeply entrenched in societal gender roles and yet they did not seem to insult one another’s position – in fact, they valued each other’s contribution equally.
I remember reading these books as a little girl and marveling at how, despite recounting life in the late 1800’s, the mutual respect Ma and Pa demonstrated for one another did not feel like gender inequality at all. Frankly, I felt the roles in this old fashioned family had less of a negative impact on its members than in many of the modern families I had observed in my own life, in which women were automatically relegated to second-in-command due to their gender. (Of course, I wonder if Ma woke up one morning and decided she was tired of doing laundry in the creek and instead wanted to split logs to build the cabin, would Pa feel threatened by the change in roles? I suppose we will never know.)
Why you do the housework or the cooking or the laundry is what matters – not the fact that you do it. If you cook because you love to cook, then cook with pride. If you love a clean house (and who doesn’t?) then clean the house. However, don’t do any of these things because you assume they are your lot in life as a woman. They aren’t.
How much of the housework or the cooking or the laundry you do is also what matters. If you add up everything that it takes to maintain the life you and your partner envisioned, including the finances and children, if applicable, and your partner isn’t sharing the workload, then there is an imbalance. Traditional gender roles are no excuse for one person doing too much and the other doing too little. And yes, this applies when a man is expected to make all the money while his wife sits doing nothing on the couch all day, claiming it is her right as the “wife”, too.
I have met some women who refuse to do anything considered domestic. They proudly proclaim that they can’t cook, clean anything or even sew a button. I’ve wondered if some take this extreme opposite stance to traditionally female roles because the women in their lives are treated as second-in-command, “less than”, powerless, or, in the extreme, demeaned, by taking on those tasks. Who wouldn’t want to distance themselves from these labels by avoiding anything domestic?
I believe our concept of a person’s value based on gender begins in our own original families. It can be hard to see out of that mindset unless we really step back and question how and why our beliefs about gender roles were formed. Obviously women have a history of being seen as “less than” and this belief is still deeply ingrained in our society. Everyone can fight for equality by first taking a look at those people we share our home with and making sure we do not accept anything less than “equal”.