Gender Blind Spots

Sometimes I think that being raised the way I was I notice things that others don’t. Sometimes it seems like I see mainstream American society miming the beliefs of Christian Patriarchy in uncomfortable ways. It’s like there are these damaging gender blind spots that no one notices and everyone buys into. Take, for example, Michelle Obama’s recent email promoting her campaign group, Women for Obama.

As I have traveled across the country, I have had the privilege of meeting incredible women from all walks of life. From young women paying their own way through college, to moms working the extra shift to keep food on the table, to women struggling to make ends meet during retirement.

So far so good, but brace yourself for what’s coming.

We talk about their bills, their children — how they’re constantly striving to strike that balance between work and family. And no matter what kind of challenges they’re facing, they don’t complain. They just work harder.

Oh my word. Women don’t complain. No, sorry, this is one woman who absolutely does complain. When things are unjust, I complain. When I see discrimination or someone being hurt, I complain. I don’t just suck it up and “work harder.” I’m tired of being told I’m not supposed to complain and I’m tired of being told to just put a smile on whatever life hands me and keep on going! But unfortunately, the next section isn’t any better.

This is what we do as women. We persevere. Because no matter our ages, backgrounds, or stations in life, we are determined to leave a better world for our children and give them opportunities we never even dreamed of.

Wut. Not “no matter what, we are determined to achieve female equality.” Not “no matter what, we are determined to lead fulfilling lives.” Not “no matter what, we are determined to make this world a better place for humanity.” No. Instead we get “no matter what, we are determined to leave the world a better place for our children and give them opportunities we never even dreamed of.” Because, you know, apparently all women ever do is sacrifice for their children (which, apparently, every woman has). Do you have any idea how tired I am of being reduced to an appendage of my (present and future) children? Do you have any idea how tired I am of the idea that I should exist solely to give my daughter a good life? How about, instead of simply giving my daughter “opportunities I never even dreamed of,” I go out and grab those opportunities and dreams for myself? Because that’s what I’m working my butt off trying to do! If every generation of women spends all of their energy making their kids’ lives better than there own are, which generation of women gets to actually start living? Life isn’t about the future, it’s about now.

I realize that I’m being a bit nit picky, but like I said, I think growing up the way I did makes it so that I see things others generally just gloss over and don’t notice. I think Michelle Obama is a wonderful, strong woman and I admire her, but I think she has some of the same gender blind spots that many other (most?) Americans have:

1. Women shouldn’t complain even when things are bad.

2. Women exist to fulfill the needs of their children.

I got these messages loud and clear growing up. Don’t complain about having to do more chores or about having to watch your siblings instead of spending time with friends; just work harder.When your father dictates your love life, don’t complain; trust him. Your duty as a woman is to be a wife and mother. The more children you have, the more you are to be praised.


These blind spots are not just wrong, they’re damaging. They may seem innocuous, but they have served over the years to dehumanize women and rob them of true equality. You see, if something is wrong or unfair, I will complain, and so should every other woman out there. This idea that women shouldn’t complain has been used for centuries and longer to oppress women. Because you know what? If people never complain, things will never change. Complaining is the first step to making things better. And you know what? If women had never complained, we’d still be little more than property. The truth is, if we don’t dump this “women don’t complain” meme we can’t achieve complete equality.

Furthermore, I love my daughter Sally dearly, but I do not exist simply to fulfill her needs – or anyone else’s. I am my own person with my own hopes, dreams, longings, and desires. I reject that meme of the self-sacrificing woman who puts everyone else before herself and works until she drops. It’s not that I wouldn’t jump in front of a bus for Sally, it’s just that I want to live too. I have needs too. I’m a person too. I exist, I didn’t just disappear when Sally was born and become sort of extension of her. If we really want to achieve equality, we’re going to have to drop the self-sacrificing woman meme.

It’s weird that something as simple as a campaign email from a progressive woman could bring all this up for me again, but it has. Am I the only one who sees these things? How can we hope to dismantle things like Christian Patriarchy when mainstream society jumps up and down to parrot its main tenets?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Anonymous

    1. Women shouldn't complain even when things are bad. Although that's troubling, I see that message as being more applied towards people in general – which is just as troubling, of course, as in "You shouldn't complain about tough times, because there's nothing to complain ABOUT. If you just put your nose to the grindstone and work harder, you'll rise above and make things better for yourself. (Conversely, those who don't aren't working hard enough, because they spend so much time complaining.) The problems, after all, aren't with the stars or, heavens! society, they're with yourself. So suck it up already and stop whining!"

  • Christine

    I guess that also explains why, when women like myself choose not to have children, we're called "selfish." Because it's selfish not to take care of a child that doesn't exist. Evidently.

  • Wendy

    I wouldn't have noticed the underlying message if you hadn't pointed it out. Good catch.

  • October

    Hi,HiThis is a great post. I love your blog and I've been lurking for a long time. I'm shy and don't like to pipe up much on comments, but I feel the same way! I think growing up in patriarchy does allow you to see things that other people shrug off. Some of my friends get a little annoyed with my feminism. I suppose if you haven't live with oppression, it's not a big deal to you. But yes, I see stuff like this all the time. – October

  • E. A. H.

    I am/was a stay at home Mom for 10 years. I've never had a full time job, and I'm finishing up college to go into the workforce upon graduation. When I tell people I'm a stay-at-home Mom, I've had responses ranging from, "Oh my gosh, what do you DO all day? I would be soooo bored!" to "Oh my gosh, that is THE hardest job in the world!" After changing diapers and making meals and wiping noses and cleaning the same dirty house day in and day out (with no paycheck, no coworkers, no recognition) you really want something to show for it. So the idea that I'm giving my all for my kids– that I'm doing all of this for their greater good– somehow gave me the strength to keep at it. Because if there wasn't some noble reason for what I was doing, then why the heck was I doing it? So while I agree with your post, at the same time, part of me is saying, "Preach it, Michelle! I *do* work my tail off for my family!" It may be an unfair expectation, but it's one that many mothers wear with pride, because like me, it's all they have.We need to change the dialogue to not praise the stay-at-home mother to the expense of the working mother whose child goes to daycare. We also need to change the dialogue to always include the father. How does it affect his career when a baby comes along? What changes and sacrifices does he have to make? We can't get around the fact that the woman carries and delivers the baby. Biology is what it is, so there will always be sacrifices that only the mother can make. But we can change the assumption that she bears the bulk of the responsibility of raising and caring for the child.

  • jose

    Very well spotted. No, you're not the only one, at least not now that you've broken it down for us.She should read this post if there's a way to have it sent to her, because she's probably oblivious to the points she's actually making, the underlying ugly stuff. I don't think she would consider dr. King's "dream" speech as "complaining" or as a bad thing at all; and the "think of the children" business is commonplace among politicians. They're always talking about the world they're going to leave to their children, no matter the issue at hand is the environment, social security, immigration, or nuclear weapons.

  • Libby Anne

    E. A. H. – Oh, don't get me wrong, I sacrifice for my daughter too; I pay for her daycare, I spend a great deal of my free time investing in my relationship with her, and I give up a lot of grad student social life to be with her and my husband. The problem I have isn't with women sacrificing for their children, per se (though that idea can be a problem if it is (a) taken to the point where women cease to exist as separate entities with their own desires and needs or (b) used to invalidate the lives of women who choose not to have children), but rather, as you point, with the gendered nature of the idea. EVERY parent, whether male or female, makes sacrifices for their kids. Why emphasize that it's MOTHERS who sacrifice? Also, I totally agree with you that the stay at home mom v. working mom mommy wars need to end, but I think part of the problem is how gendered parenting decisions are. Fathers should feel free to be stay at home dads if the situation makes that make sense, so that it's about being a working PARENT or a stay at home PARENT, based on the needs of the family, rather than about a highly gendered idea of parenting and responsibility.

  • Joy

    It's not that none of them complain. It's that none of them complain to the First Lady. The reason for that should be self-evident.

  • Melissa @Permission to Live

    Yes! It is so so hard for me to shake this programming. Just last night my spouse and I had a chat about how in the last few weeks I've been slipping back into old patterns of defering my needs for everyone elses. It effects everyone badly, I am wiped out and creatively stifled, my kids and spouse get the grumpy distracted version of me. It's so much better when i just recognize that I am worth as much as everyone else and just take care of me!I think that Michelle Obama is recognizing what it reality for many many women, but it's sad that she is glorifying it yet again, women need to hear that they matter, not that they need to sacrifice more.

  • Merbie

    "If every generation of women spends all of their energy making their kids' lives better than there own are, which generation of women gets to actually start living?" Very well said! I think one of the best ways to make our kids' lives better is to give them strong male and female examples who LIVE.

  • shadowspring

    I am the daughter of a mom who existed quite literally for herself only. My future, my dreams, my life itself was of no concern to her. The rhetoric of the 70s feminists were the perfect rationalization for her narcissism, neglect and at times, abuse.I am now closing in on fifty, and it is only in the last five years that I have been able to stop blaming feminism for my mom's extreme self-centeredness and her viewpoint that I, her own child, was a parasite holding her back from the life she really wanted. I took years for me to come to believe that feminism was NOT about abandoning the responsibilities of parents in the cause of self-fulfillment. This blog post now has me questioning that, as it seems as if you are repeating my own mother's sentiments. Say it isn't so, Libs!The biggest problem I see with what Michelle wrote is it's gender bias. It is the responsibility of ALL parents- not just mothers- to work to "leave a better world for our children and give them opportunities we never even dreamed of."If feminism really is a mom first, children last ideology, then it is right for it to be castigated. All adults have the responsibility to leave the world a better place for those who come after, and to work so that future generations have greater opportunity for a better life. I would even argue it's an evolutionary imperative. Being female is not a free pass excusing one from this responsibility.As far as the "don't complain- work harder" rhetoric, that just makes no sense. Complaining, i.e. protesting, advocating for change in print and in speech, is a HUGE part of creating that better world. Again, that responsibility belongs to both genders.So while I also see some things out-of-whack with Michelle's speech, it is not at all the same problems you see, Libs. It is very personal to me, as the neglected/abused and ultimately abandoned daughter of a woman who used the same rhetoric you are using to justify her narcissism. I do want my children to have opportunities I could only dream about! I have worked very hard to make that happen, and will continue to do so. I want the world to be a better place for future generations. That's why I speak out against injustice and advocate for change. I also have other dreams and ambitions beyond giving my children a leg up to success, and it was MY CHOICE to make boosting my children the first priority. I also plan to fully enjoy the empty nest that will comprise more of my life than parenting did. What does that make me? Am I not a feminist? Wait, don't answer that. There is a good chance you, like my own mother, will reiterate that I don't count; that my female opinions, dreams and goals are not important. Can you tell this struck a personal chord with me?The thing is, I am not the only woman to face this. Our pain is the reason for the backlash against feminism in the 90s. It's really insulting to be told you're not a real woman because the evolutionary imperative to see your offspring thrive is stronger in you than contemporary feminism will allow.I hate to be arguing with you again, Libs. I really do. It's just such a slap in the face to read this, because my own flesh and blood mother, who literally slapped me in the face repeatedly, busting my lip and bloodying my nose on more than one occasion, has said the exact same things. And backed it up too. *unhappy face*

  • Anonymous

    Shadowspring – the issue is that it's not an "either moms are first or children are first" dicotomy. It's shouldn't always be "dads first", "moms first" OR "children first", but rather it should depend on the situation. Is it a question of school supplies versus a manicure? Then pick school supplies. Is it a question of the child wearing designer jeans while the mom wears 10-year-old threadbare clothing? Who picks what to eat if the family is going out?If mothers always defer to their children, they are telling them that an adult woman is not a full human being, and setting a precedent for their sons and daughters on how adult women should act and be perceived. The answer is not to do the *opposite*, to but to try to achieve balance.

  • Anonymous

    Same person again- what I am trying to say is that mothers should treat their children with respect as individuals, but should also treat themselves with the same respect. Not all needs/desires are of equal value, but every person' needs and desires are of equal value. I didn't mean to make all my examples monetary, obviously time management is another huge example. What I am seeing in the world right now is a lot of mothers who take pride in denying themselves anything in order to give their children everything. Denying your child's personhood in favor of your own is not at all what Libby is advocating.

  • Libby Anne

    Shadowspring – You've been reading my blog for months, I'm surprised you would so quickly claim that I am doing or saying what your – by your own admission – abusive mother did. I've said again and again that parenting is about a balance. It can't be all about the parent's needs to the exclusion of the children's needs but it also can't be all about the children's needs to the exclusion of the parent's needs. This is not an either or thing; there's a happy medium between the two extremes where the parents' needs and the children's needs are BOTH acknowledged and met. It's that balance that I'm striving for, and it's that balance that Michelle's email doesn't seem to leave any room for.

  • Libby Anne

    Shadowspring – Also, if you want to put aside any personal hopes and dreams to put all your energy into giving your children a better life, feel free. The problem I have is with the idea that that is what every woman has to do. Remember that I grew up very differently from you. I grew up being told that I was to only ever live for others, that I had to put aside any "selfish" dreams of anything outside the home and instead make my existence solely that of being a mother. My desire for something more is not a rejection of my daughter or of my role as a mother but rather a desire to find balance and to be able to have independent hopes, dreams, and desires. And trust me, my daughter is NOT being neglected – or abused.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I definitely think you're on to something, Libby, but I wouldn't be surprised if Michelle, on some level, understands these gender blind spots herself. I don't know how closely you followed the Obama campaign when it was going on, but Michelle had to clip her own wings a lot because she was becoming a lightning rod for controversy. She was initially quite a bit more blunt then her husband as well as being "more black," and she's an enormously accomplished professional woman who made no apologies about it. Basically she made, and still makes, conservatives' head spin around with rage Exorcist-style. It's widely acknowledged that she had to reign it in in order to not damage her husband politically–highlight her role as a mom more, focus more on her more traditionally feminine qualities, be more of the traditional First Lady. That's what she's been doing for the past few years (although the conservatives have even managed to freak out over her shocking "eat your vegetables" message to children). I actually feel sorry for her–my feeling is that she just wants to scream sometimes! But focusing on the mother aspect of her and other women's identity is a way to not pile any more controversey onto the President, who is already believed by much of the country to be a raging bolshie, among other things. It's not fair.Shadowspring–I must say, I am also surprsised to see you read all that stuff into Libby's post. Have you found her descriptions of her daughter, and of parenting her daughter negligent and uncaring, because I certainly haven't! A good deal of her blog is dedicated to thinking about exactly how to do exactly you're talking about–give her daughter a better life, with more opportunities than she had!I think Libby is objecting to women being defined by their roles as mothers above all things. When speaking to mixed gender groups, politicians and political spouses often invoke tropes about working hard for your children and making the world a better place for them, as they should. But it's only when talking to an all-female group when the conversation becomes ALL ABOUT doing that, as opposed to having hopes and aspirations that are for oneself. It's not a choice, a woman can have both. Plus, defining a woman by her children is problematic because not all women have children and not all women want them. I don't have kids currently (although I'd like to some day) and I work hard. I've busted my butt to be a great student and to dedicate myself to work that I believe in for not much money (non-profit, y'know…). Does my hard work and my dreams not count because I don't have kids yet to sacrifice for and to dream for? Cannot I not dream for myself? Is that not also to be admired? President Obama appointed the 3rd and 4th women ever to serve on the Supreme Court this term. Neither have ever had children. Do their enormous accomplishments not count? They've brought us closer to gender equality in the justice system, but does that not matter because they're not moms? THIS is what I see Libby's post as being about.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Also: "The thing is, I am not the only woman to face this. Our pain is the reason for the backlash against feminism in the 90s."Sorry but…no. Feminism did not create a generation of selfish mothers who neglected and abused their kids into rejecting feminism. Selfish people will justify their selfishness with whatever ideological framework is available. With your mom, it was feminism. I know plenty of people who grew up with very "traditional" mothers who were no better and just as damaging to them. As a youth worker, I've dealt with plenty of kids with bad moms (and usually completely absent dads) and they don't have feminism to blame.Men freaking out about the prospect of sharing the world with women, having to deal with them as equals–THAT is what caused the feminist backlash in the 90s! Other people just got on board.

  • Anonymous

    One of the reasons I chose not to have children was because I did not want to sacrifice for them to have opportunities – I wanted the opportunities for myself. Maybe this makes me selfish, but it also makes me very happy.Also: I aways find your posts interesting! You are a good writer.

  • africaturtle

    no, libby, you are right that there are many gender "blindspots" in society as we know it. I am more sensitive to it now that I (like you) have moved away from the "submissive christian housewife" ideal and since having kids. I cringe when my kids open the christmas catalogue and each section is highlighted by blue or pink, according to gender and kids pick up on this "expectation" very fast…"no i don't want to look at THAT page, those are GIRL toys!!"Also my kids came home making a big deal about an incident at preschool where two boys had kissed eachother on the lips while walking down the hallway and had gotten in trouble with the teacher…when i asked "why" they answered "because, mom, they were BOYS!"plus all the fairy tale stories (which my daughter just loves) and many times there are good lessons in these stories but htere is always a underlying message about being beautiful and riding off with the prince who comes and finds you. I want my girls to have higher hopes than that!I also hate hearing agressive/violent behaviour justified with "that's boys for you". First of all, my daughter can be quite violent if left uncorrected. and secondly I expect more than that from my boys…i expect them to learn to communicate just like everyone else, with words. I do grant "generalities" that i recognize applying to each gender, but i make sure to let my kids know they are "allowed" to make up there own rules as far as that goes…

  • Kristen

    When I married my husband, I told him I wasn't going to be a "burnt toast wife." You know how Mom always takes the pie piece that fell apart or the casserole edge that got a bit burned? I think it's a sad trend around our country that, when sacrifices must be made for the family, women are expected to step up over men. When both parents work and the kid gets sick, Mom leaves work. When it isn't financially feasible for both parents to work and pay for day care, Mom stays home. When both parents are tired but the dishes or laundry needs to be done, Mom does it so Dad can rest. I resolved when I got married that this WOULD NOT BE ME. I'll sacrifice everything I have, but I won't tolerate sacrificing while my husband sits around. I got a lot of flak for it, but that's why I kept my last name when I married. I had so many female college friends who told me when they got married that, "Well, we wanted to have the same name, but my husband wouldn't change his name, so I didn't mind too much." That's crap!! Why should you be the one to give in? That just represented too much to me. I didn't want to set that precedent that if one of the two of us had to sacrifice for the good of the family, I would step up and do the unpleasant thing. I'm glad that my husband has been a real partner for me. We have different strengths so we don't split responsibilities exactly down the middle, but he has never expected me to be the "burnt toast wife" who always does whatever it takes to keep the family running while he sits around.

  • Kristen

    Petticoat Philosopher, I totally agree about Michelle Obama, also. I'm not sure whether to feel bad for her because of the sacrifice she has had to make for Barack's career, or criticize her for being willing to do it to such a degree. I really feel she could have kept more of her individuality and it wouldn't have hurt Barack's career, and may have broadened the minds of some people. She's become almost Stepford-wife-creepy.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    Kristen–haha, I love "burnt toast wife," that is a great term! I think I'll start using it. :-) And yeah, I'm with you about changing my name at this point. That's an issue I've struggled with for years because there really are no easy solutions when it comes to the kids' names but I think I've finally decided that if/when I get married, I'm keeping my name too. It's not that I'm particularly attached to my last name–everybody misspells it and it's annoying–but it's been my name my whole life. I can't imagine life without having to spell it for people. It's part of my identity. I can't imagine myself just waking up one day and having a different name from the one I've answered to since I could understand words–it's my name, for crying out loud. I don't know how anyone gets used to it!Don't get me wrong, I have married female friends who are very liberated and who I respect a lot who took their husbands names. But I can't help but feel that that must have hurt a little bit. One of my friends who is a doctor doing her residency got married last year and she took her husband's name. She uses her maiden name as her middle name now and she says that she tries to just look at it as adding a name and not giving one up. I think that's a nice way of looking at it. But professionally she'll still go by "Dr. Husband's Name" not "Dr. Maiden Name." All that work to get that "Dr." and now someone else's name goes in front of it. If that makes her happiest, it's her choice, but I just don't think I could do it.Re: Michelle Obama–Personally, I feel both sorry for her and frustrated with her. It's not so much that I think she could be more herself without freaking conservatives out as much as it is that I think that conservatives will freak out anyway (I mean when "exercise and eat healthy" becomes controversial…) so she might as well do as she pleases. Maybe, just maybe, it will lead to some progress at some point.Of course I could say everything I just said about her husband as well…

  • Carolyn

    I hate this with a passion. Yes, if you have children, there are things you will have to give up. But if there's two parents in a family, or a trusted friend or family member who wants a relationship with the child, what is lost if each parent takes a little time and money each week to do something apart from the children that gives them joy? Heck, what's wrong with having things you love that you share with your children? Why is an unhappy mother supposed to be good for her children? I loved seeing glimpses of my parents and other family members in their roles outside the family. And I think that if there's not enough for everyone's needs to be met, it's a problem for society, not just the family, and that the mothers should be complaining at the top of their voices.And Kristen: I basically declared I would never have kids unless I had kids with someone who was willing to be an equal parent. I'm still trying on the having kids thing, but the husband and I have agreed to split our allowed parental leave, and then we can probably each negotiate a compressed week or working at home a couple days after that's over (we're in Canada, so we get a year of leave to split).

  • Anonymous

    There's not much for me to add since everybody has explained everything so correctly so I'll just rejoice that in my country we don't change our names when we marry and our kids get both our surnames (we even can pick the order, although the common way is the father first) but I guess this is common knowledge :)Keep writing Libby Anne :D We love reading you ^__^

  • College At Thirty

    Thank you for this. I'm not married and I have no children. It's not that I don't want the world to be a better place for future generations, but I want it to be a better place NOW, for me! I totally feel that as a woman over the age of 30 without a "home life" (what a crock…of course I have one!), I am marginalized into some sort of "worthless" category. Even if I did have a child, wouldn't I want it to see me acheiving wonderful things? I feel this way about race relations too. Shouldn't we be trying NOW to make a difference?

  • Libby Anne

    College at Thirty – "Even if I did have a child, wouldn't I want it to see me acheiving wonderful things?" This. Part of why it's so often so hard for me to visualize a life where I balance my needs with the needs of my family, a life where I have a life beyond my children but also invest in them, is, quite simply, because I never saw that growing up. My mother had her hobbies and her friends, but her identity was "wife" and "mother." I have friends now who grew up with mothers who were living out their dreams AND investing in their children, and for these friends, visualizing this balance is no problem, because they've seen it modeled. I didn't. And that's part of why I really want my daughter to grow up seeing it modeled – for HER, not just for ME.

  • Sierra

    Hear hear!The lesson I learned from my mother's selflessness, sacrifice and submission was that once you have kids, you're as good as dead. You become a kid-support system. Nothing made me want to be a mother less than having my childhood be the center of my mother's universe. It convinced me that my life would expire sometime in my twenties to make room for the next generation. I still haven't entirely shaken free from this idea, and this is why I have no desire to have kids yet. I can't risk resenting them for 'ending' my life; it wouldn't be their fault. But how am I supposed to know what it looks like to have an independent existence without the lurking fear that your kids will grow up to hate you for not sacrificing for them?