I, like many, dread the weeks we talk about gender roles at church. These conversations are often trite and repetitive and serve to alienate those who fall outside the prescribed ideals for men and women. My Relief Society had one of these lessons several weeks ago and I was pleasantly surprised that the class actively engaged with the topic and sometimes critically pushed against some of the more restrictive ideas. For example, the class had compiled a list female roles, a typical list that included things like women are nurturers. At one point one of the counselors in Relief Society presidency pointed out that there was not one role on the list that men could not fulfill except for the physical act of giving birth.
There were several comments along this line that filled my little feminist heart with joy. And just as I was basking in the glory of having a lesson on gender roles that didn’t make me want gouge my eyes out, a dear sister raised her hand and expressed her concern that men are losing their identity. She felt that with the advent of feminism men are no longer sure what their place is in the world.
This is an argument that gets played out quite a bit. There are a multitude of books, articles, academic studies, advocacy movements, etc. that deal with the question of “what about the men?” A lot of feminists dismiss this question as ridiculous because it’s not like the power structures have radically changed. Men are still mostly in power and women are still systematically discriminated against. The feminist movement hasn’t changed this. However, “what about the men” is a valid question.
Maybe I say this because I am the mother of two little boys and I worry about them finding their way in this world. In many respects they won the genetic lottery by getting a Y chromosome, there are lots of privileges that come along with that Y. But on the other hand, it’s not always a picnic either, there are many restrictions and expectations that our society places on men that are downright abusive. As a mother, I worry about the day when my sweet little boys have to contort and change themselves so they can fit some preconceived notion of what it means to be a man.
Feminists have always argued that patriarchy is just as damaging to men as it is to women. And recently anti-male violence activists such as Jackson Katz and Tony Porter have been making this same argument. There is this wonderful TED talk that Tony Porter recently gave that discusses this very issue. I recommend watching the whole video (trigger warning for sexual violence) but there is one part in particular that has really stuck with me. Porter says:
I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men. That it’s okay to not be dominating. That it’s okay to have feelings and emotions. That it’s okay to promote equality. That it’s okay to have women that are just friends and that’s it. That it’s okay to be whole.
That my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.
That last line is exceptionally profound and speaks to me as a Latter-day Saint. If there is anything that the restored gospel teaches us it is that we are inextricably linked. Women and men need each other to liberate themselves from the evils of mortality and receive exaltation. But we have botched this doctrine by clinging to patriarchy. Even in its most benign form, patriarchy negates any efforts of women on behalf of men and makes men’s efforts to liberate women heretical. Women are to be “led, persuaded and gently guided.” Where is the liberation for anybody in this?
I understand that some men will feel that they no longer have a place if we do away with the patriarchal order, but male identity and a world without patriarchy are not mutually exclusive. Male identity can still be found in service and equal partnership with women; in fact, that’s where it has always truly been. To understand that our liberation, our happiness and eventual exaltation is tied together should be enough to give all of us purpose. So I don’t worry for the future of my sons in a world without patriarchy as long as they find purpose in advancing the cause of equality for their sisters. But a future that requires them to mold themselves into patriarchs, well, that is immensely more terrifying.
This is excellent.
The point that came screaming out to me is your statement,”But on the other hand, it’s not always a picnic either, there are many restrictions and expectations that our society places on men that are downright abusive. ”
For some reason, when I think about this statement I think of how all males are forced to register their name at the age of 18, with the idea that their name could be called upon in a time of war. If we were truly an egalitarian society wouldn’t we be like Israel? Wouldn’t we have our daughters and sons both registrar at the appropriate age. Please don’t misconstrue what I’m saying, I’m not advocating war. But, if war is necessary. Why are only males expected to participate. And if they elect to object on grounds of conscience objector for whatever reasons, they then have to deal with a negative label for the rest of their lives.
Interesting example, Diane. Yes, the military is one area where the problematic aspects of patriarchy are on full display. This really could be a full post in and of itself but suffice it to say that the current patriarchal culture of the armed services is not serving the needs of the modern men and women who comprise it and is doing a lot of damage. Thanks for the comment!
I worry about this for the sake of my son, who likes to dance ballet with his older sister and (so far) seems to follow in the steps of my less-than-talkative husband. The qualities that I love in my husband (our sort of “role sharing” that we do, how thoughtful he is before he says anything – even though he doesn’t say much in meetings etc what he does say usually impresses me and makes me thing – the list goes on and on) and want to encourage in my son, are not necessarily the qualities that society values for a man. I hope that things can and will change.
I love your idea that “If there is anything that the restored gospel teaches us it is that we are inextricably linked.” I’ve been thinking about this in terms of how we construct marriage, and love the idea that really it’s all about learning to love each other as Christ loved people….and helping us to help each other as we progress.
*think, not thing. Oops.
Absolutely, Emmaline! I want those same things for my sons as well and feel like they have excellent examples in their father and grandfathers. I just hope this is enough to drown out society’s message of what it means to be a man. And I love your last paragraph, that is exactly what I feel the purpose of life is. It is unfortunate that this is often not given the precedence it deserves.
This post resonates with me and my worries as a parent. Being female, in a family of females (5 sisters and all of their kids are females too), I hadn’t really been concerned until I realized the effect of expected men’s roles on my husband (an elementary school teacher who *likes* teaching Kindergarten) and moreso, once I had a son of my own.
Part of me wants to help him be a “typical” boy so that he can be accepted, but part of me shudders at the thought of trying to “mold” him to fit society. Yes, I want him accepted, but I also want him to grow up into the kind of man who shares responsibilities, can and will take care of himself and the care of his home, a man who is confident in his abilities and will stand for what he wants even if it’s not “typical”, and a man who can’t imagine having a spouse who is less than a fully equal partner. Basically, I want him to be the kind of man I picked to marry.
So, my son plays w/ dolls. Both of my kids help my husband cook. Both kids help clean the house and do the laundry. I suppose I try to make the changes I can in my own life and hope that by small changes in the home, slowly change will occur in society as a whole. Is that wishful thinking?
This is so true, especially for some parents who when they say my son plays with dolls, quickly becomes, ‘No, my son plays with action figures,”
Such a wonderful post as usual, Mraynes. I especially like this thought: “Women are to be ‘led, persuaded and gently guided.’ Where is the liberation for anybody in this?” I’m going through an awareness of soft patriarchy lately, noticing how sneaky and pervasive it is. It is the softness and niceness of this patriarchy that makes it so sinister to me. So sinister that we cannot even see that we, both men and women, are all being held hostage by it.
How can we be liberated indeed?! Of course we can’t while the imbalance is still there. I love how far we have come with equality, but I want MORE. I want this last little bit, to taste the liberation of both sexes!
To be honest, I have no sympathy for men when it comes to “Oh, gosh, what will they do if the patriarchy goes away?!” I suppose they will do what every other disenfranchised person does – freak out for awhile, get bitter, then figure out what works best for him as an individual.
Interestingly, I have been dating someone for several months who is very “traditionally male.” And I hesitate to say, gulp…it’s working for me. For anyone who knows me, you are probably shocked that we are compatible. He takes care of stuff, he kinda takes charge, he makes reservations, he makes sure I have icy cold Diet Coke at all times, he watches karate movies. He has voted Republican in the past. I mean, really, me? date this guy? The thing is – it totally works. I’m still not sure the reason, but here’s my guess: he treats me as his equal. There is not even one little hint of “I am the boss of you” in him. He never tells me what to do. He has only given me advice once – ONCE! And he asked if he could give it before offering it. As a result, I drank that advice in with joy!
Oh, it’s so lovely.
I haven’t been married for very long, but my husband is very masculine in a “traditional” way and I never expected to marry someone as traditional as he is. He enjoys shooting and hunting, he usually votes conservatively, he takes care of issues with our car and watches war movies. And it works for me too. But what I’ve found is that it doesn’t work because he “wears the pants” and I’m the lady, it works because we balance each other out. He’s not too emotional and I’m very emotional. He sees the big picture and I’m detail oriented.
It’s not the traditional roles that make us work for each other, it’s us as individuals balancing each other out.
That’s why I like D&C 121:41-45. The character traits that are mentioned, are not typically things that we as a society place an importance on in being a man. Meekness, kindness, expanding knowledge without hypocrisy, charity, faith, virtue. It’s good stuff.
And I also love how you recognize that it’s TAUGHT behavior and not inherited behavior. So many people have a hard time understanding that gender role socialization starts even BEFORE kids are born (hello blue or pink baby clothes!) And since it’s a taught behavior we can change it.
lanwenyi – I LOVE how you have your kids help out at everything! And that they play with dolls, and help in the kitchen. And do their own laundry!!! And I do think, that if we all start doing it with the next generation – they’ll learn when they’re young, and they’ll look back at us one day and go, “why was that such an issue?”
Another thing I’ve observed is this attitude that because one is male, they can’t fully understand how sexist attitudes affect women, I recently checked out my University’s course description on Gender Studies, All of the Professors are women, I’m curious if its like this at other Universities as well, and if it really matters whether or not Professors in this area are Male/ Female?
I’m sorry if this is off topic.
This comes from standpoint theory. You’ll find a similar phenomenon in ethnic studies departments (Asian American studies, Native American studies, etc).
Forgive my ignorance, but can someone explain what “standpoint theory” is?
Traditionally you do see this in other departments dedicated to the study of people with a unique minority perspective. However, I think the tendency for gender studies to be dominated by women is stronger than for something like Native American studies to be dominated by Native Americans. There are a variety of reasons for that, including the fact that Gender Studies programs generally grew out of women’s studies programs. But I personally believe it has more to do with the fact that thinking about gender studies from a heterosexual male perspective is still a relatively new thing in our society.
I was wondering the same thing April, What is Standpoint theory, and I’m sorry but, I don’t see this in the other departments you mentioned
This particular item, there are many restrictions and expectations that our society places on men that are downright abusive. reminds me of a couple I knew. The wife clung to patriarchal and stereotypical views of both male and female roles. The wife greatly respected “manly” men she knew, including dominant military leaders and rugged construction workers, but she frequently and publicly demeaned her shy, schoolteacher husband and complained about his lack of “manly” skills such as carpentry and plumbing. Privately, she was physically abusive, throwing blunt objects at him.
Thank you mraynes as always for this thoughtful post. In light of Caroline’s post about how to improve the church for women, I can’t help but think that even if we succeed in doing those things to lessen the influence of the patriarchy (which would have a huge impact), that within the church so long as men are the only ones that have the priesthood that it still “requires them to mold themselves into patriarchs.” And I don’t have an answer for that.
It may be time to re-evaluate patriarchy. Men rule the planet. How’s that workin’ for ya? There may be a higher reason that more women are in college than men. Maybe they’re being groomed to rule the Earth after men all but destroy it.
Since Adam had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the Great Mortality Experiment, his posterity gets to be the boss. Okay, I won’t try to figure that one out. However, matriarchal societies such as the Iroquois Confederacy have been very good for social justice and avoidance of war.
I would be careful about the notion of “Liberation”, which is often a code word used by the World to enslave women in the same that men are enslaved. For example, it was used by the tobacco companies to double their market size. Before that, only men smoked.
I would say that we as a society tried patriarchy and while it worked in the past, because of empowerment by technology it is quickly coming up on its limitations. So, some other options should at least be explored.
I’m sorry, I left something important out of my comment.
A patriarchal society is the best kind to have when issues are settled by force. As they were for thousands of years. But nowadays, conflicts for the most part are not solved by force. Thus, society has moved beyond that need. However, women here may think differently. Do you want to see your husband go kick ass for you?
I appreciate your comments, Bradley.
“Do you want to see your husband go kick ass for you?” That question made me laugh. If someone had to administer an ass-kicking, it would be me.
Women have been redefining themselves and their roles as we reject patriarchy. One part of that has been an insistence on our humanity. As we attempt to break down patriarchal systems, maybe instead of trying to redefine men and women, create new male and female roles, we should try define everyone as human beings. Instead of trying to answer “what is a good man and what is a good woman,” can we ask “what is a good human being.” that might free individuals to determine what is best for them without feeling bound by tendered expectations, and allow couples to do the same thing. Granted, biologically women are the ones who give birth to children which might make this idea problematic, but breaking down gender roles could free both parents to be responsible and involved with their kids in a new way. I’m not sure if this possible, but I think it’s an interesting idea.
This trajectory of rendering men obsolete is going to prove as unsatisfactory to women as it is to men. The reality is that sex inequality runs in the opposite direction of gender inequality. If this divisiveness continues, then so will the paranoia, oppression, hostility, and contempt. The answer, of course, is mutual service, reconciliation–parts of a whole uniting as ‘one’. In short, at-one-ment, which should not be so unfamiliar to Christians. Men must learn to be reverent in asking, and women must be generous in giving, neither through compulsion, of course, but adoration. This is the subtle art of lovemaking.
Mraynes, I have had many similar thoughts as I consider all aspects of humanity. If this patriarchal world is intent on imprisoning women, wouldn’t it also imprison men in the process? Ideologies tend to be slave keepers. People who stick to one idea–like gender roles–refuse to consider alternatives and I can’t help but wonder how they fare when things don’t work out how they expected, like if the woman becomes the bread winner. For men, who are expected to earn the higher income, when their significant others out rank them depression is often reported. I would say these men are as damaged through gender role expectations as men are.
All this said, I really do attempt to raise my children with an appreciation of their sex while allowing them to explore all parts of themselves. My little guy loves to wear his sister’s tutus while my girl enjoys building and destroying. It’s important to recognize that gender is important. I tell my daughter that being a woman is amazing frequently but also remind her that she is not limited in where she can explore her intellect. As my son ages, I hope to tell him the same thing. I do worry how to approach this because I am very concerned with feminist issues, so how do I praise his gender while recognizing that he can do whatever he wants–being a preschool teacher if that’s where his heart desires to go! So how do I do this?
All this said, I do imagine a world without patriarchy as not only liberating, but more humane. I don’t know if I can put into words exactly what I mean when I say that, but maybe if we all recognize the feminine and masculine parts in each of us, we can built a world that emphasizes the best attributes in these characteristics we possess.
Oops, I mean “women” in the last sentence of the first paragraph.
“…her concern that men are losing their identity…”
Identity as what? Do some women really think men will lose the ability to do things, as women are involved in more roles?
Wonderful post. I’ve had many like discussions with my husband and male friends. The partiarchy hurts everyone. Feminism is about bringing everyone up. And so is the gospel.