The nagging wife: symptom or cause?

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The 'nagging wife' is a centuries-old stereotype that refuses to die. She's the subject of eye-rolling banter between men, the warning from the pulpit and the marriage guidance book, the defence of countless men who have committed murder. In recent weeks, she has resurfaced as a truly 21st century reminder to women that there's something else they're probably not doing well enough at - in the form of a piece entitled 'I wasn't treating my husband fairly, and it wasn't fair'.

The post, which appears to have gone viral in the grand tradition of 'pseudo-meaningful revelations about my relationship that easily translate into clickbait' (247,000 shares on Facebook), details a wife's realisation that her controlling and obsessive attitude to household matters was belittling her husband and buying into another hard-to-stamp-out stereotype - that of the 'useless' husband who can't be trusted to do a thing around the house.

Thousands upon thousands of women have apparently recognised themselves in this tale and I don't think she's entirely wrong. I've heard her tale in conversations in the office or on nights out with friends. 'Wife always knows best' - 'happy wife, happy life' - I've heard people say it and I've most definitely seen them post it on Facebook (there is a theme here. Facebook has a lot to answer for). And I don't buy into it because, really, what does it say when the only words that come out of your mouth regarding your partner, your husband, the father of your children - are about how 'useless' he is and how you won't 'let' him do things?

This works both ways. It's clear that men and women are called to respect and honour each other and sickly relationship-themed clickbait is, for all its faults, reasonably good at pointing this out. However what's often noticeable is the way this point is made differently, depending on whether the post in question is primarily about, or written by, a man or a woman. A key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from men (particularly of the loosely Christian variety): 'You'll be bawling your eyes out when you read about the amazing thing this guy did for his wife'. Conversely, a key theme in relationship-focused clickbait from women: 'The one thing I realised I needed to do more of/less of as a wife and mother'. As ever, identifying our inadequacies and how we must 'do better' defines us as women.

In writing about her tendency to take control and insist that things are done 'her way' - the purchasing of meat, the sorting of laundry - one woman has identified a key way that power struggles between couples often play out. She mentions that she doesn't believe men act in the same way towards women, referencing the fact her husband is 'just not as concerned with some of the minutiae as I am'. But what she doesn't identify is what is so often the reason for this, and the reason for the way women frequently feel compelled to assert power.

I don't know many women who are comfortable with simply doing nothing. Relaxing, chilling out, whatever you prefer to call it. I'm one of them. I've had countless conversations with friends where we've discussed our discomfort with sitting still. There are, quite simply, always things that must be done, whether that means housework or running errands or getting through our 'to read' list or writing another blog post. Not for nothing do we talk about the 'second shift' or the 'double burden' - the fact that women's increased entry into the workplace has not resulted, in the majority of cases, in an egalitarian set-up when it comes to housework, childcare, and the general organisation of family life. 

Even women who do enjoy a more equal partnership struggle to allow themselves downtime, knowing at the same time that their partners have no such qualms about relaxing - and for many it's learned from childhood in the way they've seen the household roles their parents have played.

The curse of modern womanhood, as we all know too well, is that whatever you do and however you do it, feelings of guilt and inadequacy will snap at your heels like an angry terrier. The majority of society, from politicians to journalists, to people on parenting forums and your own relatives have a wealth of opinions on what constitutes acceptable womanhood and unfortunately, most of us socialised to care a whole lot about what others think about us and out lifestyle choices.

This, of course, happens in different ways. I enjoy a pretty egalitarian marriage and couldn't care less if I haven't dusted my mantelpieces in living memory, but I've certainly considered myself a bit of a let-down for sitting on the sofa watching television when emails have languished in my inbox and projects haven't moved forward as quickly as I would have liked (and those are personal emails and personal projects, not even work-related ones).

Even today, especially today, the running of the home and of family life inevitably falls on the shoulders of women. Even if it doesn't, in theory - for those in equal partnerships for example - we still consider it our responsibility, berating ourselves internally when they let something slip. The minutiae of daily life all too easily becomes a source of anxiety - I know I've had to remind myself that I am, in fact, allowed to relax and that this is not the same thing as laziness. And for many women, the efficiency and performance of the minutiae of daily life is one of the few areas in which they can exert power and control.

Guarding against a hunger for power and control is something all humans must do. A toxic force within relationships and families, it often manifests in differing ways because of the ways men and women are brought up to behave and to gain power, and the ways society considers it acceptable for them to do so. Discouraged from speaking our minds and pursuing confrontation or appearing to 'dominate' a relationship, women are encouraged instead to resort to manipulation and only ever to demonstrate indirectly that they might 'know best', or indeed have feelings about anything at all. It's even a tactic that's encouraged by numerous Christian books on marriage: upholding traditional gender roles means subtly manipulating and influencing your husband rather than asking him or telling him. That would, of course, be 'nagging', or assuming a dominant role.

'Nagging', and the range of emotions and issues it encompasses - the wrong meat purchased, the blue sock accidentally included in the white wash, the fact that somehow, people do things differently to you and that's just not right - must therefore be looked at as part of the wider picture of how women are permitted to exercise control over their own lives and the lives of others. 

The key sphere in which women are permitted by society to exercise authority is the home. In a world of judgement, anxiety and the feeling that whatever you do will somehow be not good enough and that there are countless factors in your life that you can't control, household tasks are one of things that you can. Whereas men are allowed to assert authority in the public sphere and as the 'head of the household', women remain largely responsible for all that lies beneath, and even today, they know that their worth as women is often judged by it.

Men have - usually - not been brought up to notice the minutiae of the home and family life. They haven't had to, because, historically, it's always been women's work. It's something that's been done for them and they've often never really had to think about it - yet many (not all) expect it to somehow get done anyway. Even in relationships where both partners truly don't care about crumbs on the floor and the correct brand of mayonnaise being purchased, women feel compelled to set standards lest they be judged by society, their friends, their mother-in-law - and found wanting in a way that men never will. 

In a world where this burden still inevitably falls to women, in a world where humans want control and power, the woman whose anxiety and anger over things not being done 'her way' can be seen as a symptom, not just a cause, of gender relations that need restoration. Perhaps a more balanced and egalitarian approach to home life - where tasks and responsibilities are not gendered - might alleviate the need to control and 'take charge' over simple household tasks.

'You can't be what you can't see' - or why gender parity at conferences matters

Monday, 12 January 2015

In 2011, Jennifer Siebel Newsom's documentary Miss Representation captured the imagination of those who are passionate about seeing girls and women reach their full potential. Despite the advances made in recent decades, women are still subject to messages from society that tell them their worth lies in how they look, assigning them a narrow set of priorities and limiting their horizons. That year, the motto "You can't be what you can't see" was everywhere. As I wrote at the time:

"Even if you haven't watched the trailer yet, with its footage of bikini-clad women in music videos interspersed with derogatory newspaper headlines about women politicians, you can probably reel off a list of the ways the media and popular culture makes it abundantly clear what us women are good for. We're the eye candy, the gender whose worth is bound up in how sexy we are. We're the bitches and the backstabbers and the lovers of catfights. The yummy mummies and the slummy mummies. The bosses from hell and the boardroom ballbusters. When we go into politics, the newspapers run stories on our dress sense and cleavage rather than our achievements. Men turn up at our public appearances holding banners saying 'Iron my shirt'. 

"How is this making the women of the future feel and what's it doing to their ambitions Miss Representation reveals all. It reveals how such toxic imagery is making girls and women feel devalued and ignored - as one teenager says, it's as if no-one cares about their brains, only their looks. It reveals how girls' dreams and ambitions change over time, as they find themselves trapped in stereotypes of what a woman should be and treated accordingly by boys, trapped by the perception that 'feminine' or 'like a girl' means 'inferior'." 

In recent months I've had cause to look back at my diaries from years gone by, and what has struck me more than anything else is the sense of alienation that I felt from the church as a young woman who didn't feel like she conformed to the popular stereotype of 'Biblical womanhood'. When I finally found women 'like me', particularly women who I could see doing the things that I felt I was gifted to do, I knew that they were my people. They were mentors and cheerleaders and role models for women like me, and they gave me hope that contrary to the impression I'd been given, there was a place for me in the church.

At the end of 2013, I was involved in the initial conversations that grew into what is now known as Project 3:28. These conversations were inspired by the discussions about that year's The Nines conference, which began with a tweet from Rachel Held Evans: "More than 100 speakers and four of them are women. This is not what the church looks like." We wanted to take a look at the UK Christian conference scene and see if we'd fared any better than The Nines. In our first year of analysing conference line-ups, we found that although it's claimed 66% of churchgoers in the UK are women, they make up just 34% of speakers at conferences.

Last week, we released the statistics from 2014's conferences, and it was encouraging to note that several organisations had been encouraged to think about gender parity in their line-ups that year. The report, once again, prompted plenty of conversations. There has been news coverage, and there have been blog posts. Some people think that the report is a terrible waste of money (hint: it didn't really cost anything at all), and others have argued that it's obvious that women are underrepresented - why should we need a report to tell us that? I would argue that a report was needed because it has spurred people into action. It has recognised the efforts of organisations trying to be inclusive, and in giving people the figures, it underlines the extent of the issue. The vaguely negative accusations levelled at those of us involved in the project have been interesting and frustrating, not least because they're no different from the stock responses that those passionate about gender and the church have to deal with every time they stick their heads over the parapet.

Nobody's saying that we should prioritise a 50:50 ratio of speakers over gifting, knowledge, and experience. 

What we're simply saying is that the gifting, knowledge and experience of the body of Christ is often not reflected in who gets to speak, who gets to lead, and who gets to be considered an authority.

Yes, women sometimes have different styles of leadership to men. And they often make different life choices due to lack of confidence. 

But as Miss Representation told us, you can't be what you can't see. I speak from personal experience when I say that many of us who are underrepresented in leadership benefit from having people like us to model it for us before we can believe it's something we can do, something that would be possible. That doesn't just go for women and the church - we're talking about all minorities here, in all areas of life. If women aren't stepping up to speak at conferences right now, that's not to say things can't change if they start to see a better way modelled.

Women are mothers. And?

Some of the women who have been the greatest influence on me in recent years are mothers. And they're doing what they're doing despite being mothers. It's my firm belief that mothers who are called to lead can do so with the right support, whether that's more equally shared parenting or conferences and organisations being considerate of their needs and helping out with childcare, or enabling them to bring along another adult to watch the children while the preach happens. It is simply not true that the secular feminist movement, the Christian feminist and egalitarian movements and conferences with a commitment to gender parity have little interest in promoting a more equal approach to parenting. It's one of the keys to women realising their full potential, And we must continue to advocate for it.

If women feel that their children take priority over ministry and career, so be it. That's their prerogative. But it's not the whole story. To say this is the case for the majority of women is incorrect - and it casts a disapproving eye on women who feel otherwise: women like me, and so many other women I know, who don't feel that a few hours of evening preparation and a day spent at an event means our children are worth less than profile and accolades.

Lack of gender equality isn't the problem. Conferences and high profile speakers are the problem, apparently. 

All that scoffing at Christian events and 'well known speakers' and snide little 'ughs' at the very idea of desiring to hold a leadership position or stand on a platform or teach people looks a little bit suspect when it's coming from people who are the leaders and the speakers and the high profile names, by which I mean white men - sorry, but that's exactly who I mean. It's all right for you, isn't it? You can scoff, and talk about how Christian culture needs to change, but come conference season everyone on the line-ups will look a bit like you, sound a bit like you - and they'll probably include some of your friends as well.

Project 3:28 didn't spring up when a bunch of people in thrall to the idea of helping women to become 'big names' and 'Christian celebrities' decided to try to make it happen. We'd all agree that a culture of Christian celebrity and waiting for conference season for a yearly spiritual high at the expense of the local church, of building relationships and grassroots organisation is inadvisable and can be toxic. But at the same time, we know that events and conferences are important to many. People go to them in order to be fed, to be inspired, and to grow in their relationship with God. We all need a balance - and while we know that Christian culture can be problematic, there's no reason we should seek to model gender justice in this very visible sphere.

How is making women more like men the answer to inequality?

Let's get one thing straight: appealing to the 'why should we squeeze women into a male mould?' school of thought doesn't wash. If you think the 'masculine flavour' of church leadership and speaking is a problem, why seek to uphold the status quo and fob us off by pretending we're better off out of it? Let's challenge inequality together, not by keeping men and women in separate spheres. Change the 'flavour'. if women lead and speak in different ways, let them do it.

What about [insert issue here]? Isn't that far more important? 

Maybe it is. But gender justice is my thing and I'm going to stick to it, for all the women who have ever felt they can't be the person they want to be because they can't see anyone like them paving the way.

2014: A recap on those resolutions

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Happy New Year! At the beginning of 2014 I overhauled the look and feel of this blog, and resolved to be a bit 'better' at posting. Last year, I managed a whole 12 posts. I didn't write about nearly as many of the things I would have loved to write about, and I felt as if I missed the boat on many other things due to just having too much on. But I was proud of what I did manage to produce. However, I'd made some other resolutions for 2014 as well, and I wanted to chronicle how I got on with them.

Be hospitable (and a good friend)

If you're a Christian you get to hear a lot about being hospitable. Christians just love people who are good at hospitality. They are everyone's favourite. They are the people at church that everyone just adores. We're told that it's a special gift that some people have, but we're also told how hospitality has been a key aspect of the church since ancient times. So, you know, we've got to do it. When you're an introverted couple with a non-sleeping baby and living in a flat it's not all that easy. Plus I was convinced I hadn't been at the front of the queue when the gift of hospitality was bestowed on God's people.

Everyone knows a woman (or women - and it is always women), who's a pro at sorting out a buffet or doing the refreshments for everyone. She's good at bustling round a kitchen. And when there's some sort of party, several of these women will just get everything done. They just get on in there and bustle. Now there's a very important conversation to be had here about gender and why, exactly, it's women who are the ones that do this, but my point here is that I never got this gene. When everyone with ovaries starts doing that bustling around thing and being hospitality pros, I ask if there's anything I can do. And invariably, there isn't much I can do. So I get a drink, and feel slightly guilty.

In 2014, a few things changed. We became an introverted couple, with a toddler who finally slept at night, living in a decent-sized house. Having been really rubbish at socialising for well over a year, and having moved to the periphery of church (more on this later), I really wanted to get better at hospitality. And you know what? It's still hard, but it's been working. We like cooking, and people appreciate that. We're really trying to open up our home a bit more - subject to everyone else's busy lives as well as our own, so it doesn't happen all the time, but I hope we can build on this in 2015.

Sort out The Church Thing

On 2 January 2014 I gave myself a bit of a talking-to and decided I was going to attempt to move forward on my long-running struggle with church. The year, in this respect, was full of ups and downs. I read things like A Churchless Faith and read a lot of blog posts by post-evangelicals and disaffected people and people seeking authenticity. In the process I think I learnt a lot about myself. When we say we're seeking authenticity, are we merely seeking more people like us? And what happens when you're reminded that creating communities of people like us is, really, pretty exclusionary? If those who ask questions are currently the people of the moment, surely, at some point, some answers would be helpful? Or at least, some ways to move forward. And if we have issues that we need to discuss, it's always better to discuss them rather than simmer over them and expect people to understand why we're upset, when we haven't actually told them in the first place (what do you mean, people aren't mind-readers?).

Through the spring and summer, following the (extremely disheartening) disbanding of the midweek group we were attending, I was dipping in and out of visiting a couple of other churches. But when I thought about it, I just didn't feel led to make the move anywhere else. I was feeling as if I was going to become a 'done'. What ended up happening was that we discussed it and decided we needed a fresh challenge that would help us get more involved and enable us to build community again. This challenge came to us in the form of an opportunity to become the new leaders of a midweek group, and at the moment it's going really well. I still have a long way to go when it comes to Sundays, but at least one thing has changed and one thing has made a difference.

A new resolution for Twitter

I got really disillusioned with Twitter and internet activism in 2013 - more specifically, the way that a community I had once loved seemed to become primarily about performative 'call-outs' as activism, the monstering of women trying to make a difference because they haven't yet managed to focus on or solved all the world's problems, and the readiness of people to brand others  as 'vile' and 'disgusting' over things that may not have happened and may never have been said. In 2014 I pledged to do what I could to support people, signal-boost good things and be encouraging instead. I didn't entirely do away with having a bit of a rant on occasion, however (one friend I met for the first time in 2014 mentioned my 'controlled rants'!). This also meant getting rid of a lot of negative and unhelpful voices from my timeline - and in return a lot of people did away with me, often for something as simple as being seen talking to particular people or sharing their writing, which pretty much proves my point about the way things have gone.

I'll be carrying my 2014 Twitter resolution over into 2015 and keeping up with some of the wonderful people I've been talking to and getting to know over the past year. In 2014 I had the opportunity to meet some longtime Twitter friends for the first time (quite a few of these at Greenbelt).

Get fit again

I used to run half marathons, remember? The guilt of my paid-for and unused gym membership motivated me to get back to working out last year. For a time. It was all going so well - and then a particularly busy period at work happened, and my lunchtime trips to the sports centre tailed off (although I've continued to do plenty of walking). Like nearly everyone else this month, however, I'm hoping to get back into exercise for the new year.

Be kind

I didn't always manage it, particularly in the first few months of the year, but in 2014 I've been working on being a lot kinder to myself. This has involved a few different things:

- Identifying some avoidable causes of feeling anxious and/or miserable, and trying to avoid thought patterns that exacerbate these. This has had mixed success but is really getting better
- Trying to ignore impostor syndrome whenever it rears its ugly head
- Acknowledging that I do need - and deserve - downtime - and not beating myself up for failing to achieve things 24/7
- Do the little things: use the nice skincare every day rather than sporadically!

I've also been working on extending the kindness through reaching out to support friends and family. 2014 was a tough year for my extended family as both my maternal grandparents passed away (in September 2013 and January 2014), so we've been particularly trying to spend quality time with my mum.

Say yes

At the beginning of 2014 I started to become involved in more talks and get-togethers about the gender imbalance of speaker line-ups at Christian conferences, following this bit of research by my good friend and partner in crime Natalie, and the many discussions it prompted. One of the main barriers to women being more visible as speakers, as 'experts', is that we're much more likely than men to say 'no' to opportunities put our way. Sometimes that's down to a lack of confidence or impostor syndrome; sometimes it's due to responsibilities like caring for children. I was so encouraged that some organisations were really willing to talk about all this and discuss how they could make changes, and I'm really excited that out of all these discussions, Project 3:28 - a new initiative for 2015 - was born.

I knew that in 2014 I had to get better at saying 'yes' to opportunities too. And so I did some exciting things:

- I did another talk at Greenbelt (and helped organise a Christian Feminist Network worship session; and exhibited for my day job there too)
- I wrote a feature on Christianity and feminist activism for Christianity magazine
- I wrote for the New Statesman's series on second wave feminism, discussing Susan Brownmiller's In Our Time and the lessons the movement today can learn from it (particularly pertinent to my 'new resolution for Twitter above). The series generated a lot of controversy, but was also well-received by a lot of people
- I presented on 'Hashtag activism' at the Christian New Media Conference
- And I also got approached about writing a book. This was incredibly exciting, and I did a lot of thinking, praying and planning as a result. Over the summer, however, I had to concede that while writing a book would be amazing, it's not something I can commit to right now - my life is really busy already and I just don't have the spare time needed

However, the past year has really underlined for me the importance of keeping the right perspective as I 'say yes' to things, not becoming too invested in profile and self-promotion at the expense of authenticity and relationships. Unfortunately I've seen this happen to people, and I know how much hurt and disillusionment it can cause.

For 2015, I've decided to carry over all of these resolutions and build on last year's efforts, with one new addition: read more. I have a stack of new books following Christmas, and lots of things I want to learn about too.

Before I go, some mentions for the blogs I kept on reading in 2014 despite a distinct lack of free time: GlosswatchA Room of Our Own; Sarah Ditum; C. Jane Kendrick; Dianna E. Anderson; Messy Nessy Chic; Littlee and Bean; Lulastic and the Hippyshake; Sian and Crooked Rib; Mummy Says...

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