I feel like I’ve hurt Jesse Singal’s feelings, which wasn’t my intention, so I wanted to let him know that yes, you can be a man disagreeing with a feminist and not be labeled sexist. Also, I would like it to be known that I didn’t label Jesse “sexist”, and it’s not generally my policy to label well-meaning liberal guys “sexist” even if I do think they’re experience ye ol’ blindness of privilege. On the subject of marriage, which is what my obnoxious post was about, I do think it’s probably ill-advised for a liberal man to simply dismiss a woman’s concerns about whether or not the institution itself has the power to turn perfectly serviceable heterosexual relationships and make them into gender Republican* nightmares. It fails to take into account how much power a man has in a heterosexual relationship simply by virtue of being the man, no matter how feminist his or his partner’s politics are.
I did detect a defensiveness about marriage in Jesse’s retorts both to Courtney and to me, and maybe I’m wrong, but I suspected that he was invested in the idea of getting married himself one day, which brings to the plate a great deal of privilege and power for men in our society. Which probably wouldn’t bother me, except that it often does so at women’s expense. We know that married men have better mental health, physical health, and financial well-being than single men, and we also know that married women have higher rates of depression than single women, and getting married doesn’t do squat for your income level, but it can increase the pressure for you to become financially dependent on a man. You don’t make more money, but if you’re a wife, you do get to work more—7 hours more a week, to be precise.
But I won’t bore you with all that, because it doesn’t matter, since everyone thinks they’re the exception to the rule anyway. Why I’m a frustrating person, I suppose, is I refuse to honor most people’s opinions that they’re something extraordinary. I don’t think I’m extraordinary, so I hold that belief with all fairness. I think, having lots of experience in that department, that it’s very easy for the inequalities of heterosexual relationships to take over even in well-meaning people, and I think it’s hard for liberal men to reconcile the fact that their wives are doing more housework, more childcare, and taking on more of the social pressures with their own views of themselves as good guys. Anyway, a lot of the shit women have to put up with is invisible to men, so really they can’t even be expected to know what it is. Many, many, many liberal men think nothing changed when they got married, and it’s because they’re not the ones who are expected by society to turn into wives now, with all the attendant baggage. They no more see that then they can see how cat callers on the street treat women, because cat callers rarely ply their trade when their victims are accompanied by men. And women play a role in helping men be blind to this stuff, because really who wants to be the bitch who burdens your genuinely kind, loving husband or partner with garbage that will make him feel guilty or defensive, to probably no productive end?
Jesse’s gender is relevant to this discussion not because of his penis, as he suggests, but because of his life experience as a dude.
The heart of Jesse’s criticism of Martin’s argument seems to be that he can’t imagine why the simple legal status of being a man’s wife would threaten a woman’s sense of equal standing in any progressive relationship.
Well, whether he can imagine it or not, there are a lot of entirely rational women who seem to fear whether they are capable of this very resistance to the historical sexism of an institution. The truth is, most men will never experience the same social or even self-inflicted pressures to be a certain person once they have that ring on their finger. It’s incredibly difficult for women to single-handedly redefine what being a wife is or what being married means, even in their own minds, because the traditional, sexist definitions are so deeply ingrained not only in society but in our very psyches.
Read the whole post; it’s so well-written.
Why it’s really hard for men to see, and it’s not their fault is well-established in my canonical example of the proposal. (Which is probably as far as my imagination takes me, since I’ve never been married, but I bet many married women can come up with really good post-wedding examples.) Men don’t deal with the no-win situation that is waiting for a proposal. They can literally ask when they get to the point that they want to get married, and they can often expect to have a luxurious time after deciding to ask to work up the courage to do it. Women are stuck in a double-bind if they decide they’d like to get married but the proposal hasn’t happened yet—ask, and you feel like a loser because he didn’t ask first. Don’t ask, and you have to wait for him to do it, all while anxious about whether or not he’s actually going to do it. Decide to strike the middle ground and set an ultimatum for his proposal, and you’re a bitch. I’m not denying that it’s hard for men to ask, but they do have a ready solution that’s under their control. The only way for it to be easy on a woman is for her to be remarkably free of social pressures and ask without being fearful of what that means about what he thinks of you, or for a man to ask at the exact right moment that it occurs to her that she’d like to get married. Unlikely for most of us.
I like the housework wars, because it’s something I have direct experience with and can speak to. Women are kind of fucked, as we’ve gone over time and time again. We’ve internalized the idea that a) a neat house is necessary for peace of mind and b) that no one else will do that for you. Some men are neat people and feel the same, but it’s clear that in many, probably most houses, men just don’t have these same pressures. Unless a man goes out of his way to do 50% of the work, then, women are going to be stuck with most of the housework. Women get angry, and then men say, well just let it go like I do. Half of those men are full of shit and will start complaining as soon as they see how messy things really can get, and the other half just don’t understand how cruel it is to tell someone that her peace of mind just isn’t that important. Is that their fault? Are they bad people? Are they sexist? Well, only so far as most of us are, but I’d say not really. They just haven’t walked in your shoes and they don’t know what it’s like.
To be fair, I do think feminist-minded men are pretty much stuck on this one. If you protest marriage for feminist reasons, people are going to think you’re a cad who’s hiding behind feminism to excuse your refusal to commit. If you want to get married, you’ve signed up to the various powers and privileges you’ll directly have over a woman and that’s likely part of the appeal for you. Ideally, you luck into a feminist woman for a partner with a well-articulated position on this and you can follow her lead. I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world for feminist men to cede that authority to women, and I say that having learned from watching men do it and argue articulately for that themselves. Which is why I singled out Jesse for criticism—it’s great to have an opinion, and you can disagree or bring up examples. But the line in the sand that I see—and mind you, it was with the help of feminist men that I’ve seen this—is when you start telling a woman that her own discomfort with institutions and power plays in heterosexual relationships is wrong. There’s a lot of stuff about being a straight woman that has to negotiate romantic partnerships with people that automatically have more power than her that’s not visible to the people with more power.
*Phrase coined by Katha Pollitt.