Growing up in Seattle, I was indoctrinated with great oratory on the glory of women’s rights. It was never anything like the militant feminism many conservatives fear today; they were very practical and, as far as I’m concerned, true statements concerning what a man’s proper relationship with a woman should be – no means no, women are people and not property, women should be able to work and go to school if they so desire, women deserve equal respect in the workplace, etc., ad nauseum. If you look at the history of the world and the state of many women around us today, you cannot help but shake your head at the sickening repression women have faced. To me, women’s rights had never been opinion or theory – it was simple fact.
This has two repurcusions – one, I feel I’m a big proponent of women’s rights, and that it helps me with my marriage as I treat my wife with respect and dignity. Two, because I am a big proponent of women’s rights and consider myself progressive in this area, and I have thus become smug (note: smugness is a byproduct of any zealous ideology, not just feminism).
My wife and I have a very balanced relationship. But, to be truthful, that balance need to be calibrated in the beginning, and a lot of that required calibration was because of my love of women’s rights. When I moved to Utah, I rejected a lot of the more conservative, traditional views on women. It would, from time to time, make me sick. The marriage frenzy of the BYU sub-culture always seemed to put a greater toll on women than men, and it was generally women that seemed to compromise themselves more in effort to fit into what society demanded.
Because of that, I intentionally nurtured various non-traditional female roles in my wife. For example, I encouraged her to play some video games. She loved Katamari Damacy, eventually moving to Okami, and recently just finished her first video game in the form of Persona 4 (true ending and all). Some days, to relax after work, she would sit on the couch for an hour or two (or sometimes even three) playing video games to de-stress and unwind the springs her workplace tightly winds. When she lamented that she felt lazy and ugly, sitting on the couch in her pajamas playing video games all day, I merely reminded her that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that I felt she was attractive, and that because she had a high stress job, I didn’t mind if she took an hour or two to just relax.
We would often share the workload of household chores. When Dantzel came to the realization that she hated the never ending laundry piles or dishes, I cheerfully picked up the slack, mostly because I find the monotony of daily household chores to be incredibly Zen and almost relaxing. When Dantzel lamented that she felt somewhat useless around the house, I merely reminded her that such gender constructs, while useful, are not universal, and we should adapt to our individual family needs.
I was, in my mind’s eye, the paragon of the progressive, non-oppressive husband that encouraged his wife to think outside the box and broaden her horizons. She had a career, she attended school, I didn’t chide her to do housework all day and I allowed her to do traditionally non-female activities such as video games. I felt she was on the track to become a confident, well adjusted female in today’s modern-day society.
Except the opposite was happening. Her self-image plummeted. She began to feel completely useless when I would do the housework and she couldn’t help and would sulk or go to her other tasks listlessly. She began to feel pigeonholed into her job. My wife became incredibly depressed.
For the longest time, I couldn’t figure it out, and perhaps a little bit of resentment creeped in. Why was my wife sulking when I was doing the dishes and laundry? Didn’t she feel grateful that I didn’t make her do this? Why does she feel so ugly all the time? Don’t I foster and encourage an environment where she could feel comfortable no matter how she looked? I didn’t understand, because I couldn’t see how I was contributing greatly to the problem.
Eventually, I began to suspect that perhaps I was supressing her in a completely different way. Dantzel, despite being somewhat of an iconoclast amongst traditional Utah Mormon women, still had a feminine side. I quickly realized this when, as my guilt nagged at me, I bought her lip gloss from Target. It was from the bargain bin for $1. It purported to taste of orange colada. It had some sparklies. But Dantzel was amazed – shocked, even – that I would get it for her. Her expression flustered and somewhat embarrassed, she graciously accepted the gift, and I realized that this whole time, I was acting with zeal, but lacked knowledge.
Femininity is a complex concept, multi-faceted and especially hard to understand from the straightforward, one track mind male point of view. My wife was strong-willed and independent. What initially drew me in was her penchant for challenging my world views, opinions and ideas if she saw them confusing or logically unsound. But I realized that also drew me to her was her stereotypical, traditional feminine side – her flirty hats and cute pigtails, along with her ecclectic fashion. I had nurtured all aspects of her – except her feminine aspect, which arguably is her most natural.
When I denied her the ability to contribute in household chores, I wasn’t doing her a favor. She felt useless. I encouraged her to play video games – and she enjoyed the pasttime – but it wasn’t until later in our marriage that I also encouraged her to knit, her more traditionally feminine hobby, because I was afraid of forcing a traditional stereotype on her. When she sat all day in her pajamas playing video games and complained of feeling unattractive, I carelessly and insensitively shooed away these thoughts as lingering malfeasance from living with an oppressive, over-sexualized and physical image obsessed society domineered by uncaring men. Of course, if I sat around in pajamas all day doing nothing, I would feel nasty, too, but I never seemed to make the connection with my wife. And when I focused on helping her advance her career, she felt trapped in trying to please her husband while maintaining her grip on everything else in life as work became more complicated.
I became like Julia Robert’s character in the movie Mona Lisa Smile (yeah, I referenced a Julia Roberts movie. What about it?). Like her, I enforced my own view of what a woman should be, rejecting all “traditional” views, and in the end, became just as oppressive as the more “traditional” oppressors. What if, her students cry out in the movie, I want to be a traditional housewife and mother? What if that’s what they actually want and Julia Roberts is preventing them from doing so because of her own pride, stubbornness and inability to realize people are diverse and different? I was doing the same thing. My wife is much too modest to agree; however, while a woman’s self esteem and self worth and body image is a complex composite of a vast recipe of thoughts, attitudes, experiences and horomones, my overbearing zeal in promoting a “progressive wife” (whatever the heck that is) also took its toll.
Now, I try to do household chores together, and she loves it, even though she constantly expresses dislike for them still to this day. I bought her a knitting basket to hold all of her knitting materials, which she stows right next to couch and the Wii. I encourage her to do what is best for work, even if it means cutting hours so that she can devote more time to other pursuits. And, yes, sometimes I will go out of my way to look for something nice for her, whether it’s an eclectic turtle carving necklace or even the $1 lip gloss in Target’s bargain bin, to show that I respect her feminine nature. Even if it means supporting that evil, oppressive, overly-sexualized, physical image obsessed society controlled by domineering, insensitive patriarchs. Sometimes, my wife just wants sexy lips with sparklies. And, well, as an occasionally domineering, insensitive patriarch (without intending to be one), I can’t say I hate it either.
True freedom for the woman is not achieved through any type of dogma; rather, the dogma is an anathema to female agency. A strict, dogmatic anti-establishment feminism quickly transforms into the very shackles the movement strives to o’erthrow. In the end, we become the enemy. We should celebrate all types of women with their myriad of personalities. But traditional feminine roles seem to be based upon natural instincts that our ancestors found best to propogate the species and protect the herd. Even though she hates it, Dantzel still feels a need to act domestically from time to time. While today, it seems to hinge more on her feeling of usefulness rather than fulfilling any internal domestic agenda, it is a good reminder for the feminist (male or female) to remember that tapping into traditional feminine roles may become some of the most liberating activities for today’s 21st Century, modern woman.