Does your husband know you're out marching?

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Earlier today, just on a whim, I tweeted:

Feminists in a relationship with a man - how often do you get the 'And what does your partner think about all this?' question?

Answers ranged from "All the bloody time" to "Wow! I don't recall ever hearing it." Me, I get it quite a lot. Sometimes someone will ask in a fairly nervous way, as if I'm about to rip their head off (being a terrifying feminist and all, what else would you expect?). Other times they'll be a bit confrontational, a bit challenging. So does your husband mind that you may or may not have a cavalier attitude towards body hair? Oh, as long as you're not one of those ones with short hair and Dr Martens, then that's okay. Who really wears the trousers in your relationship?

Some time ago there was this man who would always sit next to me on the bus in the morning. We worked for the same company and got on at the same stop. I just wanted to read my newspaper. He just wanted to tell me about his exploits at chess club and his nightmare ex-wife. He told me he was just temping and I'm not going to lie, I longed for the end of his contract because he was downright strange and I don't like small talk. One Friday he asked me if I had any plans for the weekend and I told him I was off to Million Women Rise on the Saturday. He asked what that was and then he asked:

"And how does your husband feel about you going to that sort of thing? Is he okay with it?"

"Er, yeah he is."


A few weeks later I spotted him on the bus one Saturday. He was sat several seats ahead of me, animatedly telling the man sitting next to him about his belief that men are the 'heads' of women and that women should be 'in submission' to them. Personally I can't believe I took a bus journey with him every day for several weeks and he never even tried to evangelise to me. Bad form, Creepy Man.

Creepy Man was just one of many. Women ask me about it too. Every time I wonder what I should say - and not just because I have a really hard time not being sarcastic. Yes, my husband really objects to me being anti-violence against women. And protesting rape. And attempting to fight for equality. What do they expect? It's like they think that's the moment I'm going to admit to being a fully-fledged man-hater, keeping him firmly under the thumb until I decide how to do away with him. Or that I'm going to say that actually, yeah, it's a big issue within our marriage and he wants me to stop and go back to being the sort of wife who says nothing and makes him a sandwich and sits with him on the sofa with downcast eyes instead of swanning off to all those demonstrations.

In all seriousness, it's started to grate a bit. Just so you know, I have an incredibly supportive husband who is pro-equality and has no objections to my writing, or my activism, or my opinions. Some bits of it interest him more than others, but he supports me all the same. As he said to me a while back when I was telling him about an article written by some of our somewhat less equality-minded Christian brothers, "Why would you spend all that time trying to 'prove' that gender equality is a bad thing?" So when I answer in the affirmative to these people, it's a bit of a conversation-killer.

I think there's a few things people mean when they ask me this question. Does he feel threatened by my opinions? Does it mean I'm the one 'in charge'? Does it mean I'm domineering and unpleasant and don't care what he thinks? As the man, he has to approve everything I do and think, right? He gets asked the same sort of things when he's on his own with male acquaintances as well. Are my 'strong opinions' overbearing? Is he okay with me being one of those feminists? Is it threatening his masculinity? Okay, he's never actually been asked that, but I'm sure it's implied.

It's sad that people can't see past this scenario where one person's 'in charge' and one person's 'under the thumb'. Where one person has to 'approve' everything the other does. Where believing that both people are of equal worth is somehow an issue. You very rarely get the assumption that the relationship might in fact be an equal partnership. It's sad that people see my desire to see an end to the oppression of women as some sort of threat rather than A GOOD THING. And I wonder how often people are quick to assume that a woman must be 'under the thumb' if she has a male partner who's politically involved?

In the Christian circles I move in I think there can be a major fear of women with power and women with opinions. They're automatically questioned because for many people there's something not quite right about it. A lot of Christians see strong women as a challenge to 'Biblical womanhood' and the 'correct' order of things, where men are in charge and do the talking and the decision-making. They think of Jezebel.

Even among those who don't feel quite as strongly as your average misogynistic fundamentalist err on the side of caution when it comes to women and power. Woman preaching a sermon? Said with doubtful tone: "Of course it's only okay if that's definitely what God has gifted her to do." Woman in leadership? "Of course we need to know whether she has the correct motives or not." Woman making big decisions? "Well, as long as her husband's okay with it."

This tends not to happen with men and church life. Even though countless men have been exposed as abusive leaders or false teachers, there's not this nervousness about them being in charge. People don't automatically look for the downsides or criticize them as much before getting to know them. It's just assumed that it'll be fine, they're Great Men of God. And, you know, I like to think that before men take on preaching or leading responsibilities they discuss it and agree to it with their wives. But very few people automatically clutch at their pearls and say "Well - is his wife okay with it?!" It's kind of assumed that she will be.

I didn't mean to talk too much about this as it applies to a church setting but I do think that many people could have a bit more faith in this way in women who preach or lead and support them for who they are. It's discouraging to hear it when it's the first reaction to a woman being in a position of power. We need to trust more and believe more that women are being used in this way because that's right where they're meant to be and not because there's something wrong with them.

It's discouraging when it's the first reaction to me saying I've been to a march, or a conference, or that I believe in gender equality. You don't need to be so incredulous or put out that men can be okay with that kind of thing too. You don't need to smirk and say 'Your poor husband!' And I don't need to run every opinion I have past him before I air it in public or go everywhere with him. Just think about how ridiculous it sounds: "Is your husband okay with the fact you believe in the equal worth of men and women?" Yeah, I thought so too.


Lily and the valley said...

I think the people ask things like that because they don't understand what feminism really is.

I usually answer by saying that he's a feminist too. And if I'm feeling sarky I add that I'm lucky to have a boyfriend who is anti-violence towards women and anti-rape, don't you think?

Hannah Mudge said...

Yes that's part of it, i think. Hostility towards feminism always wins out!

I say that a lot too ;)

Maria said...

great post. Psychologically it's a really interesting issue- I'd love to see studies into it. For example, to expose the differences/contradictions between what people THINK they believe about equality (e.g. "sure, men and women are equal"),
and what they actually believe and act upon (e.g. "men have to approve women's membership of a club"). I'm actually doing my dissertation into religious thinking using this method.

I think part of it is a threat to the masculinity, and fear of upsetting the status quo. People are afraid to stand out, basically, and stand up for what's right. Most people would rather let other people do the talking, I think. So perhaps that has something to do with it too.

Those men who are secure in their masculinity (clique, I know) aren't afraid of (being) feminists.

Sara K.S. Hanks said...

Fantastic post and observations. I only remember getting this question once (I think the particular version was "How does your husband feel about your feminist leanings?"), and it was from a fellow feminist. Her question sort of served as a gateway to talk about our shared reality of being liberal, progressive women married to conservative, traditional men. We knew each other well enough to understand that the question was a genuine one in search of an answer and mutual helpfulness.

If a similar question comes from a relative stranger or seems to carry a tone of disrespect, I think I'd try to react first by saying, "Why do you ask?" That might clarify their intentions and put the onus on them to explain whatever belief they're carrying into the conversation. No doubt that a lot of folks who'd ask this would be doing so with a sexist bias that leads them to think of any husband who's "okay" with his wife's feminism as weak and whipped. Gag me.

I have to say, though I haven't received this question very often from others, I would ask it silently to myself all the time during a certain phase of my growth. "Is Craig [my husband] okay with this? Does he approve of my reading material? Is he against me speaking up for what I believe, because it's embarrassing for him?" etc. It was a silly way to think, but it was a phase that eventually helped me to a better way of thinking, so I can't be ashamed of it. And maybe answering these questions from others will occasionally help them to see where they're being silly. The idealist in me would like to think so, anyhow.

Red said...

That's the problem with 'labels', they get misinterpreted. People hear the word 'feminisim' and think burning bras and male supression. I have the term 'evangelical woman' added to me often, which I don't have a problem with until someone says 'well you're an evangelical woman you believe xyz..' without bothering to ask me what I actually believe. And bearing in mind I am looking into ministry this is usually ad odds to what they expect!
All that said, I think part of the issue is inequality has been inbred in our western culture since the beginning of time and in reality woman have only really begun to get some 'air time' if you like in the last 100 years or so. Not that I'm excusing the behaviour, it's just that there are still plenty of people who have been brought up under the banner of 'men have more power/women can't do that' etc who really need re-educating!
loving your blog by the way :)


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