I received an e-mail from a reader this weekend:
“I am a career focused woman, and mother of 4. My husband is a stay-at-home dad, but the disrespect he receives by taking this role in support of me and my career and ambitions is appalling. The other day a woman (stay-at-home mother) in our neighbourhood even accused him of being a pedophile because ‘why else would a man stay home with so many children?’ This was disgusting to me because, unless some major scientific medical intervention is involved, it takes a man as well as a woman to have a baby.
I’m disgusted that women don’t accept men in the stay at home roles. Why should he have to be part of a daddy play group rather than just a play group? The worst part is that there is so little voice for this fight. Men who complain about this are treated horribly. The general attitude is that stay at home dads just play video games all day, while the stay at home moms work way harder than any man.
I firmly stand behind the opinion that until men have social equality at home, women won’t have it at the office.
On top of that, the discrimination I have received because my husband is a stay at home dad is abhorrent. Maybe you can figure out why no one can accept a woman working and a man staying at home? Because I’m not sure why it only makes sense to them all if they switch our genders.”
I have to note here that this particular part of what I do - this blog - focuses mainly on the language we use and the way we use it, i.e. how we construct arguments, how to construct a good argument or spot a bad argument. The bottom line is that I’m a feminist because the arguments against feminism are really, really bad and the arguments for feminism are good at least half the time (there are some arguments made in the name of feminism that are horseshit).
The reader asked me to write about this and I have plenty to say, but part of that plenty is this: I hate the notion that gender-binary roles are “traditional.” I prefer seeing them as “conventional” in that traditions can be wonderful things that affirm cultures whereas conventions have less meaning; conventions are “practices established by usage,” habits, things we do because we’ve always done them.
An argument I see freeeeeeequently from anti-feminists is that men have been providing and women have been caring for families since the beginning of humanity, so SCIENCE, FEMINISTS! HA-HA! The implication is that women and men should still be operating by this set-up because it’s what’s natural or inevitable for human beings.
Except that’s not even historically true. I’ve seen this National Geographic article cited to prove the point on more than a handful of occasions. I mean, if you only want to read the headline, that’s fine, but maybe paying attention to the content of the article itself would help:
As in hunter-gatherer societies of the recent past, men likely hunted large animals while women gathered small game and plants, enabling a more efficient use of available food sources.
When small game and plant foods were scarce, women and older children were often involved in other vital activities, such as producing clothing and shelter.
In other words, women have always worked. It’s not efficient for a society to employ only half of its potential workforce. Our role has never been solely that of mothers and caregivers. Furthermore:
The scientists point out in their study that gender roles were not always the same in early-human cultures, and there's nothing that predisposes either sex toward certain kinds of work.
"That women sometimes become successful hunters and men become gatherers means that the universal tendency to divide subsistence labor by gender is not solely the result of innate physical or psychological differences between the sexes; much of it has to be learned," the authors write.
Emphasis mine, obviously. And further emphasis on “subsistence work,” because this is absolutely crucial: If we’re talking about the developed world, most people are not performing subsistence work when they have a job anymore. The comparison between work for post-neanderthal humans and work for humans in 2014 isn’t even apt. We’re working in a service economy, where instead of hunting for prey we’re providing services in exchange for money, which we then exchange for our subsistence goods.
To review: hunting for food ≠ going to the office. Maybe men were (on the whole, but not exclusively) better able to hunt for food when we had to do that instead of going to the grocery store, but that’s not the world we’re living in now. Beyond that, scientists agree that there is no sort of work to which men and women are inherently predisposed because of our gender. Gender roles are learned.
I’m going to take this argument one step further because this is my blog and I can. I have to point out that there are only sort of surface reasons that we divide human beings into “men” and “women” anyway. The heart of it is that it’s efficient to say, “Well, the majority of human beings are born with what is clearly either a penis and testicles or a vagina, so let’s just say that those are the two broad categories of people.” It’s efficient, but not exactly correct. I will continue to cite the shit out of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s The Five Sexes and The Five Sexes Revisited until you people get it in your heads that human beings don’t consist of only “men” and “women.” Genital ambiguity is more common than we imagine, and we don’t imagine it mostly because the parents of babies who are born not strictly female or not strictly male are told that they have to pick one while their child is still an infant. It’s not that other sexes don’t exist, it’s that our medical system doesn’t allow them to exist. Because of convention. Raising children with ambiguous genders just isn’t what we do, not least of all because there are so few guidebooks for parents of intersex kids. We’ve built a male-female society and parents of intersex children are told that they must fit their children into that society one way or another.
What this means, broadly, is that conventional ideas about gender are abstractions, not concrete realities. The concrete reality is that human beings are more diverse than just “men” and “women.” We’ve washed people of other sexes out of our medical and cultural memories, but they exist. What are their roles? What is inherent to them? It’s easy to divide our culture in half and say “men, you take this; women, you take this.” It’s harder to treat individual human beings with individual respect, but now that we aren’t living in a subsistence economy, for those of us who have reached the top of Maslow’s hierarachy and have our basic needs met and have the luxury to justice and philosophical pursuits, it is possible for us to do so and we should.
For the sake of this particular post, I hope you’ll understand why I’m going to go back to talking broadly about men and women. There are two philosophical issues at play when I talk about gender roles: The first is the fact that we treat people as “men” and “women,” and that is a system that comes with its own consequences. The second is that regardless of the way we treat people, there is in actual point of fact a huge diversity of sexes and genders. The fact that there’s a diversity of sexes and genders should make us question the fact that we treat people as if they are only “men” and “women,” and the fact that we treat people as if they are only “men” and “women” has had immense ill effects on the lives of people who do not identify as such. All of that has to be acknowledged, but right now I’m engaging with the first philosophy.
As the reader pointed out, our conventions about gender have been detrimental to everyone. She’s had abhorrent language directed at her for working while her husband stays at home with the kids, and he’s been excluded from the regular play groups (how is that healthy for the kids’ socialization?), perceived as lazy, and called a pedophile.
This reminds me of a good friend of mine who agreed, during her divorce, to have her husband take primary custody of the children because he wanted it and would be better able to provide for them. She’s taken flack for years for being a bad or uncaring mother by people who aren’t really in her life and don’t really know how dedicated she is to her kids. She told a friend that she didn’t want to disappear from her children’s lives, and her friend said, “So don’t.” So she didn’t - just like a lot of fathers who have secondary custody don’t disappear from their kid’s lives. When my parents separated, my dad lived in a different state, but he drove 300 miles round trip in a night to come to school events. My friend has been there for her kids for all their games, recitals, conferences. She talks to them every day. But people still look at her and think “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing.” How would they know? They’re basing that judgment on only two facts: She is a woman, and she is not her children’s primary caretaker.
Likewise, Reader’s husband is being dangerously labeled as a pedophile based on two facts that Nosy Neighbor knows: He is a man, and he is acting as the children’s primary caretaker. There are any number of conclusions you could draw from those two facts, and it seems like Reader’s community is jumping to the worst possible conclusions (“He probably just sits at home playing video games all day!”). They certainly aren’t basing their assumptions on the well-being of the kids. It sounds like Reader and her husband both care a lot about their roles as parents, and there’s no tell that the kids are doing anything but well. As long as that’s the case, why criticize the way a family structures their home? Why is it anyone’s business?
And I’m stuck on this pedophile thing. This is also at the heart of the reason that men have a hard time getting jobs as grade school teachers and librarians: Because people assume that the primary male motivation is sex, and whatever they’re doing, they’re doing it because it gets them off. Therefore, if they choose to spend a lot of time around kids, they must be pedophiles. If that was true, though, most men throughout the history of industrialized society would be gay, because god knows there are plenty of workplaces and social spaces that are exclusive of women. This assumption is exacerbated by the fact that our conventions teach us to see male caregiving as “unnatural.”
But the whole point of the first half of this post is that there is no such thing as particular work being “natural” or “unnatural” to gender. So we’ve covered that.
As far as the supposed male sex urge goes, can I ask everyone to think back on books they’ve read that were written by men, movies they’ve watched that were directed by men, music composed by men, scientific advancements that were made by men, furniture crafted by men, farm work done by men, clothing designed by men, diplomacy performed by men, sports played by men, surgeries performed by men, lives saved by first responders who are men, planes flown by men, and on and on and on into infinity, and tell me again why it is that we assume that sex is the only thing men think about? Is there not enough cultural and economic production done by men to adequately demonstrate that men’s brains have a lot going on inside them, and a whole lot besides sex?
I think we’ve set it up so that it’s socially beneficial for men to embrace their sexuality openly, to talk about sex publicly, to joke about only wanting sex. But it’s a stereotype and it’s imbalanced and untrue. I have never in my life met a man who is as preoccupied with sex as the stereotype would make him out to be. The stereotype doesn’t allow room for men to be rational or intellectual or even emotional, to be whole human beings, much in the same way that the woman-as-caregiver stereotype doesn’t allow women the room to be rational or intellectual or sexual. How is this fair to anyone?
I reiterate: Everyone is different. We have the ability to treat everyone as individuals and give them individual respect instead of painting in broad strokes that don’t at all adequately represent the real diversity of humanity.
Reader: I noticed a pattern in your speech. Appalling, disgusting, disgusted, horribly, abhorrent. You’re expressing revulsion. The way you talk about your feelings is visceral. The words people are using toward you and Mr. Reader are going in your ear, through your brain, under your skin, and into your bones, and the words you’re using aren’t even describing the way people are treating you, but instead the way you feel in your body because they’re treating you that way. They’re talking about you and the person you love and the children you love and the responsible and healthy choices you’ve made together in a way that is false. I don’t blame you for feeling that way.
That being said, you asked me to figure out “why no one can accept a woman working and a man staying at home.” I hate the fact that you used the phrase “no one,” because that’s also false. A lot of people around you don’t accept it, but there are lots of resources and sources of support for stay-at-home dads and working moms. Some people can’t accept the choices you’ve made in your family despite the fact that A) it’s been good for your and Mr. Reader and the kids and B) it’s none of their damn business. But you are by no means alone.
I agree with you about women in the office and men at home, but I would phrase it a little differently: Professional equality and social equality go hand-in-hand. Professional spaces are social spaces too, after all, and our social lives are informed and paid for by the work we do. To me it's not just about men and women - it's about being whatever and whoever you are or want to be and having that identity separated from the way you're valued as qualified at what you do. The fact that I'm a bisexual woman has nothing to do with how well I write. The fact that Barack Obama is a heterosexual black husband and father has nothing to do with his capacity to govern. The fact that Laverne Cox is trans has nothing to do with the quality of her acting. The fact of Mr. Reader's possession of a penis has nothing to do with how well he changes diapers, prioritizes his and the Little Readers' time, cooks meals, reads aloud, cleans, dresses them, plays, or makes decisions.
Why can’t they accept it? Convention. Because it’s what they were taught. They are wrong. You and your mister should feel free to make a polite fuss over the regular play group and insist that he and your kids be included. Feel free to give people who think Mr. is just playing video games all day an exhaustive list of the things he did yesterday. Count it on your fingers. Then tell them to mind their own business. And your neighbor? Tell her that by her logic her husband must be sexually attracted all of his coworkers, since going to work is how he chooses to spend his time and god knows men only think with their dicks, and that you’re so sorry her marriage is going through such a rough time and see how she likes it. Or don’t, because that might not be a good way to interact with other people, and just keep your head up knowing that you’re better than resorting to spurious and hurtful assumptions about other people and their lives that hinge on bad logic and falsehoods about gender and biological sex and sexy-sex.
More than anything, don’t fall back on the bad feelings you have over this. Feel them, but don’t let them color the way you talk to people about this. Use facts to deconstruct their arguments. Reason wins out. You have reason on your side.