Last week, patriarchal blogger Lori Alexander published an anonymous comment, along with her own commentary. I found the comment utterly fascinating:
“I recently received a Christmas card from the most traditional Christian family I know in real life. As is typical of Christmas cards, it contained updates on each family member. I was saddened, though not surprised, to find that the card listed the professional accomplishments of each grown and married daughter, including progress on Master’s degrees. These women all married young and are still of childbearing age but none have any children, having chosen at least for the present to focus on careers and educational pursuits.
“It seems clear to me that the current ‘Christian’ marriage model of ‘equal partners’ is in fact a functionally homosexual relationship, by which I mean that there is no clear delineation of roles between husband and wife, and the wife does not depend financially or in any other way on the husband. The only real distinction between husband and wife is that the wife could bear children if she chose to do so. If she does choose to bear children, she is unlikely to interrupt her career or educational pursuits to care for them as a full-time mother and homemaker. And if she does choose to pause her career and care for children, she will be constantly assailed by the grievance mongers peddling discontentment with her choice.”
I am extremely curious what this individual would make of stay at home dads. One stay at home dad I know takes his kids to school, manages their appointments and activities, and does the bulk of the cleaning and cooking while his wife works as a college professor. They have one of the most caring, positive relationships I know of, their home is happy and tended, and their children are thriving. I suspect the individual who wrote this comment would accuse them of inverting marriage, or living a backwards sham, or even of being “functionally transgender.”
But I actually think the author of this comment is getting at something important. After all, the movement for same-sex marriage came after marriage as an institution had become more egalitarian. I’ve often felt that there was a connection there.
Did gay and lesbian individuals become more attracted to marriage after it became more egalitarian? (Of course, not every gay or lesbian relationship is the same; there were gay and lesbian couples interested in marriage before the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s changed marriage, and there are gay and lesbian individuals today who do not believe in marriage.) Or was the general public perhaps more able to imagine same-sex marriage after marriage as an institution became more egalitarian?
It’s one thing to discuss the impact growing equality within the marriage relationship may have had on the movement for same-sex marriage, however. It’s another entirely to call egalitarian heterosexual marriages “functionally homosexual.”
A man and a man, the idea goes, are on equal footing. Neither has de facto authority over the other. Neither is presumed to be the “provider” or the “caregiver” based on their gender. The same is true of a woman and a woman.
But, if you follow this line of thought, a man and a woman are not on equal footing. Socially, the man is expected to adopt a provider role, and the woman a caregiver role. This is why the anonymous writer Lori quotes could argue that heterosexual marriages in which each party functions as an equal are “functionally homosexual.” In this view, a man and woman in an egalitarian marriage are acting like a gay or lesbian couple because “there is no clear delineation of roles between husband and wife.”
It occurs to me that for all that this perspective gets something right—I suspect that there is some relationship between the growing egalitarian nature of marriage sand the acceptance of same-sex marriage—it also gets something else very wrong. Does this writer actually know any gay or lesbian couples?
Purveyors of patriarchal marriage typically argue that men are naturally made to be providers and protectors, and women nurturers and caregivers. So, within marriage, that is how they divide the roles. Feminists typically respond that people should be allowed to play to their strengths, as individuals, and not be expected to adhere to a rigid model they may or may not fit (or like). This does not mean people are identical, however. This does not mean creating some gray world of sameness.
That stay at home dad I mentioned? He’s great with kids. He loves it. He and his wife each play to their strengths and interests, and in their case that means he has adopted a caregiver role while his wife is their family’s provider. Even in marriages where both parties work outside the home, each has their own strengths and preferences.
Egalitarian does not mean sameness.
Same-sex marriage also does not mean sameness. The gay and lesbian couples I know negotiate the work of the household (and childrearing) based on their strengths and interests. They don’t each play identical roles in their relationships or marriages. They don’t split everything down the middle; each party isn’t an exact cookie cutter image of each the other. It turns out that all men are not the same as all other men, and all women are not the same as all other women. It turns out that people are individuals.
What a thoroughly novel idea.
Defenders of a patriarchal social order often seem to think that women want to be treated like men—sameness—when in fact women want to be treated like people. Far from wanting to erase all differences, feminism is about being able to play to our own individual strengths and interests rather than being expected to conform to a monolithic idea of what “women” or “wives” are. (And they’d like the same for men!)
Remember the Christmas card the anonymous commenter referenced? The one that “listed the professional accomplishments of each grown and married daughter”? If that commenter spent time around these grown daughters and their husbands, she would likely find that these couples play different roles within their marriages based on their strengths, preferences, and personalities. By erasing the “clear delineation of roles between husband and wife,” we have created space for people.
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