Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Patriarchy Within

I don't write about my personal life a lot on this blog but today I will because I have an important point to make. Namely, that patriarchal ways of thinking are so deeply ingrained that even the most progressive of us need to be on the lookout for the patriarchal woman within. She is there, people, always ready to rear her ugly head and devour all of our feminist achievements. My goal in life has never been to service anybody's needs or to make anybody happy. Except, of course, mine and myself. My number one priority in life is not relationships (as I'm told it should be by pop psychology swill). It's my intellectual growth. Sacrificing my needs to please men is completely alien to my way of being. Or so I thought until the patriarchal woman within showed me how easy it is for women to succumb to patriarchal conditioning.

So here is the story. From the day N. and I started living together (which was on our second date), we have had the following distribution of household duties: I cook and he cleans and does the dishes. (If it seems to you that his duties are heavier, it's because you never tried my food. False modesty aside, I'm a fantastic cook.) This system worked great for us for years, and we never had a single discussion - let alone an argument - about household stuff.

Last Saturday, though, I had this very bizarre experience. Maybe it happened because I was exhausted. Or maybe I had a mini-stroke. Or maybe it was a temporary bout of insanity, I don't know. But I heard this weird voice in my head that said, "Oh, poor N. He has such an important project he needs to finish. Why don't I do the dishes to help him out?" Get it? HE has an important project. Because, obviously, I don't. The three projects I'm working on at the moment (a literary translation of a novel, a talk for a conference in November, and an article on Galdos's Lo prohibido) pale in comparison with the really important stuff my husband is doing.

So believe it or not, I proceeded to do the dishes. Then, I did the laundry. And then - oh, horror - I folded it. Folding the laundry is weird on two counts. One is that I never fold my own laundry and consider the habit to be a weird waste of time. The other one is that in all of my marriages and relationships I'd never had an occasion to touch male socks. Until now. And I can't really say that it did a lot to enrich my existence. Just the opposite. Our heretofore perfectly balanced and beautifully feminist co-existence suffered a blow.

First of all, N. wasn't all that happy that I did this stuff for him. Turns out he likes doing the dishes and folding the laundry because it's a way for him to take a break from the above-mentioned important project. Since on that day he didn't get an opportunity to take his little breaks, he was cranky and curmudgeony for the rest of the evening. And on the next day even weirder things started happening. First, he said he was tired and suggested I do the dishes again. And then, he went off on a strange discussion of. . . gender differences.

Now, what you have to know about N. is that he is extremely feminist. Obviously, I wouldn't even be with him if he were any other way. Jessica Valenti's Yes Means Yes  is one of his favorite books. When we were discussing what would make each of us consider a divorce, I said cheating while he said that he would consider divorcing me if I turn out to be not a true feminist. (I then asked him whether this means he would be fine with me cheating, to which he responded that cheating would be un-feminist. Which is, of course, very true.) So for him to discuss gender differences like they actually exist is equal to me saying that I hate reading and books are evil. To say I was flabbergasted at this turn of events doesn't even begin to describe it.

Of course, since then we re-established the balance of the relationship but this situation made me think about how easily women slide into patriarchal subjection without even noticing it. In this country, women still do most of the housework, which drains their energy, undermines their careers, and gets in the way of their personal and intellectual growth. For the most part, women choose this household slavery without any prompting from men. I'm sure there are male ogres who refuse to clean their own shit and do their own laundry, but why enter into a relationship with such a prehistoric creature to begin with? Most men have no problem with taking care of themselves and doing things around the house. Women choose to infantilize men because it offers them a certain degree of empowerment they can't find in other spheres of their lives. We all hear these nasty little voices in our heads, from time to time, telling us to postpone activities that would enrich us professionally, intellectually and spiritually and go take care of some guy instead. And this state of affairs will not change until we start changing it.

So, dear female reader, please step away from that laundry hamper, that dishwasher, and that pile of stuff spread all over the living room. Take the baby, put her in her father's hands, and leave the room. Go read a book, take a nap, call your friends and go out drinking and dancing until the closing hours. If you are just embarking on a new relationship, enter into an agreement about how the household duties will be distributed and, no matter what happens in the future, never do more than your share. If you start having those images of the house going to seed, the husband starving, and the kids running around dirty and famished, remember: this is patriarchy speaking to you, trying to scare you into subjection.


Snarky Writer said...

I'm in one of these relationships you mention where the man does absolutely nothing. We're both working on our PhDs, I teach part-time, and he works in an office full time, yet somehow it still falls to me to do all the housework. Because if I don't do it, it WILL NOT get done. For years, possibly. One of our cats ended up with an infection because he wouldn't dump out the litterbox for me (it's a really big litterbox and I can't lift it) and she was squatting on dirty litter.

TMI, I'm sure, but I wanted to throw in my two cents and say that I totally understand what you mean and I wish to apostrophes I could find a way to break out of this cycle of woman=housework despite my libertarian-feminist-ness WITHOUT ending up living in a pit of filth with two very ill cats.

Anonymous said...

Our relationship like yours, Clarissa, is very egalitarian though we structure it as we like.

We both cook about the same, but I do a lot more cleaning. We both do laundry. I take out the garbage. She drives us most places as I can't stand driving, especially around here.

It works for us.


Clarissa said...

I never doubted your commitment to feminism, Mike. Especially after your recent posts. :-)

Clarissa said...

SW: I know what you mean! Of course, you can't let the cats suffer because, poor creatures, it's not their fault. But if you stop doing his laundry, for example, he will have to notice it eventually and start doing something about it, right?

Anita said...

I've read the comments on some of your posts which tells me that I'm not your typical reader, generally speaking.
But this subject seems to cross all households...eventually.
I have a B.S. degree, was a computer programmer for 15 years, got married at age 36, and stopped "working" to have 3 kids between ages almost-38 and 42.
Initially, I tried to be the "good wife and mother" but being a full time maid and nanny is stressful. Sooo...after getting over the guilt of not being extremely domestic, I've evolved into a woman who plays tennis, rides horses, runs, reads books and blogs, writes, talks to her girlfriend on the phone, etc., all while the little darlings are at school. Because when they get home, it's back to work - although I have to fit it some things during the day that we all have to do: groceries, laundry, bills, emails, etc.
Now 52 and experiencing the mental freedom of menopause, the housework dilemma has taken a back seat. But, other issues, like having joint mail addressed as Mr. and Mrs. John Doe, still urk me. (I've written a post on it.)
I should quit writing here. This is one of those topics that some of us can go on and on about. Feel free to delete it because I've taken so much space. lol
but...thanks for the forum. :)

Clarissa said...

Anita: an interesting comment like yours can never be too long. :-) So feel free to comment as much as you like. I'm sure many people will find your experiences very enlightening.

Pagan Topologist said...

The concept of "cheating" being not feminist is strange to me. My wife is not my property, sexually or any other way. If she has the desire for sex with someone else from time to time, it is not my concern unless she infects me with some STD. I trust her to avoid this.

Clarissa said...

Well, if you agreed to it, then it's not cheating. For me, cheating is something that presupposes lying or concealing stuff. If, as a feminist, I believe that my body belongs to me and nobody else than me, then why would I lie about my sexual desires and activites to anybody?

In terms of exclusivity, while I in no way judge people for living their lives differently from the way I live mine, I can only be in a completely exclusive relationship. Any sign of a flirtation or an interested glance in anybody's direction from my partner, and this relationship will be immediately over. Simply because it isn't something that I need in my life. But other people live differently and good for them. I'm extremely non-judgmental in that respect.

Just wanted to share.

cringe-all said...

So a woman who likes to cook and clean is not being feminist? I find this a rather narrow interpretation of feminism. I personally find cooking and especially cleaning extremely wasteful in terms of time and energy, and if the woman finds it distasteful, its not my problem. I'd be happy to let her clean. (Well currently I live with a male housemate who does most of the cleaning, and he doesn't complain because I don't do anything to mess up his side of things, and also because most of the housekeeping gets done his way. I don't see why this arrangement wouldn't work with some woman I'm living with if she happens to share my housemate's disposition. Gender doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it.)

Clarissa said...

cringe-all: A woman who likes to cook is me. Cooking is my hobby, and I'm extremely good. I cook like a chef in a very expensive restaurant.

But believe me, my friend, cooking as a hobby is very different from having an OBLIGATION to have 3 meals daily ready irrespective of whether you are planning to eat, or whether you ate at work, or with friends. It's the daily obligation to do things that's so grinding.

In terms of cleaning, I agree with you. I'm naturally kind of a slob. So I warned my partner from the start that if he wants to leave in a clean space, he will have to take it upon himself to clean because I simply don't care one way or the other. It has worked out beautifully for us.

Anonymous said...

Poor guy!!!! He can't get his wife to fold the laundry once a year and has to put up with her writing a mile-long post about it. I feel genuine compassion for him. That's why feminists can't find a guy to fuck them as hard as they try. Don't complain when he dumps your sorry ass.

Temie said...

Clarrissa, first, I must say that I adore you. :)

Second: This is a battle. Patriarchy is EVERYWHERE. Its reinforced over and over again in every single aspect of modern American (do not let me start on Nigeria, that is a whole post of its own) living. TV shows, Ads, Books, Magazines, Work, Schools, Hospitals...even surprisingly in feminism.

Its a conflict between both of my worlds. Being an Intellectual and existing in the world of a 24 year old Nigerian American girl (with all the rules and regulations that guides this) is impossible and uncomfortable.

However, tell me this, my dearest feminist God (or Science) aunt, isn't feminism meant to help women choose whatever lives they want? Whether its cleaning and cooking and living in contempt of all intellectual pursuits or the alternative world of books, thoughts and ideas. This is the only way I have been able to manage my two worlds.

Feminism should allow women to choose. When you are able to choose however and whatever you want without contempt from other women and coercion from Men then you are a True Feminist.

Being fully who you are, whatever that is, isnt that the goal...all our goals? What if cleaning, and folding and cooking and doing household chores genuinely makes you happy? (yes, its possible that this is all the result of being conditioned) but regardless, happiness is still happiness, No? Should you then attempt to choose otherwise?

Cheers and thanks for all the giggles you have supplied.

Your blog ROCKS!

Clarissa said...

Anonymous: I'm grateful for your concern for the man in my life but, honestly, you don't need to worry. He read the post and roared with laughter. You see, unlike you, he has a sense of humor.

And I solemnly promise that when/if he dumps my sorry ass, I will not come complaining to you. So you can rest easy from now on.

Clarissa said...

Dear Temie: I adored your spirited and intelligent comment. :-) Thank you for reading and participating in the discussion.

I absolutely do not discard the possibility that a woman (or a man)can be genuinely happy cleaning, cooking, and folding. There is a way, though, to find out whether you do, in fact, genuinely enjoy it, or if the patriarchal conditioning makes you think you do. In a relationship, get the guy to do all those things for you for at least six months, while you are out there having a brilliant career and enjoying yourself. And if after 6 months of doing this you genuinely feel like choosing to abandon that brilliant career and life of fun in favor of picking up after him and cleaning up and folding for him, then, by all means, choose that. :-)

The only kind of choice that matters is an informed choice, wouldn't you agree? A choice made after you explored all possibilities and arrived at the one you really want, right? So, all I'm saying is just explore the options.

My sister bought this magnet saying, "A princess doesn't do dishes" and stuck it on the fridge at the dawn of her relationship. I think that's a good way to start for everybody.

cringe-all said...

' "A princess doesn't do dishes" and stuck it on the fridge at the dawn of her relationship '

Haha...fancy a left liberal lady like yourself falling for familiarly filthy feudal (alliteration...yay!) stereotypes. :)

Clarissa said...

You do realize that my sister and I are two different people, right? :-)

Also, a sense of humor is a good thing to have even in discussions of painful subjects like women choosing to pursue their own happiness instead of babying a grown man and picking up shit after him. :-)

Anita said...

Checking back in and have gotten a few laughs.

Thanks for your personal and kind reply to my comment.

Canukistani said...

It's tough being married to a feminist. :-) I was married to a feminist pioneer for twenty years - first priest in the history of the diocese to take maternity leave. We use to get mail addressed to the Rev. and Mrs. X. I guess that I was the Mrs. X.

Robin said...

Wow Clarissa...are you my secret twin? This post felt like I wrote it,so thank you. As complicated as it is now (and doubtlessly you've heard this before), it all gets WAY out of whack with kids...but I never saw my participation in it before...what I get out of it. You are right. Infantilizing men is a way of being powerful when there are so few other readily available options. Appreciate the insight. I'm a new reader and I'll be back.

Clarissa said...

Thank you, Robin, and welcome to the blog!

Dominique said...

Having a partner is one thing, but I'm finding it tough-to-impossible to negotiate things living with an elderly father. He's severely limited now, though not mentally. He leaves food on dishes after washing them and never cleans his toilet (which people must use if they come over). If I don't do it it won't get done, despite the fact that as a Privileged Old White Male, he could a afford personal care attendant at minimum wage full-time, five days a week, and still have the equivalent of my salary after he pays taxes. Yet, who do you think looks like a heartless bitch if there's shit on his toilet seat? I feel trapped.