Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Why the "submissive woman" role is damaging, not just offensive

In my parents’ and grandparents’ generations, more people hewed to traditional gender roles: The woman stayed home to take care of the kids, and the man brought home the bacon and made the decisions as the head of the household. I understand that because it was the norm. Now, even if the man brings home the bacon, both people usually have some input about what to do with it.

But in recent months I’ve heard people my own age say that it’s better for women to be submissive to men. One conversation started in reaction to Gabrielle Reece divulging that she is submissive to her husband. My first reaction to the people I know was: Oh, they’re kidding! But they weren’t. I have tried to wrap my brain around that, but I can’t. 

I understand people tending toward traditional husband-wife roles. If your husband wants to take care of the finances and make most of the big decisions and that works for you, why not? If you feel more comfortable running things by him before making decisions yourself, sure. If you’re better at cooking and he’s better at choosing which car to buy, fine. I get that. But being submissive? That’s another thing entirely. That means that when you disagree, the husband is always right in the end. And that your life is not completely your own—it is your own as long as your husband approves.

I don’t mean to suggest that I go out and make major decisions without any regard for what Jeff thinks. It’s not like I come home and tell him, “Hey, I’m going to Rio for a week—you don’t mind, do you?” We talk about almost everything before making decisions. When we disagree about what to do, one of us has to give, and we are OK with that. That’s how a partnership works.

It’s not just that the idea that women should be submissive offends me personally because I don’t want to be submissive. It’s because I think it is a dangerous model for our kids. So we teach little girls that they can be anything they want—astronaut, president, the sky is the limit!—until they get married and go home to their husbands and have to submit to them. 

It teaches them that they are worth less than boys, that boys have better ideas than they do, and that it’s OK for boys to always have some authority over them. It teaches them to second-guess their own instincts (and beyond that, their dreams). It teaches them that they are not to be completely trusted. It poisons their sense of self and their sense of their place in this world. Girls need room to grow and explore their potential without someone stepping in and putting up boundaries for no reason.

And I need the same thing. That’s why, when I was young and looked forward to marrying a guy, I wanted to meet someone I could share my life with, not someone I thought would be good at telling me what to do.  

The people I disagree with say that men are made to lead and women are made to follow, and even that women shouldn’t act like men. These things offend me to my core. In college I was a serious athlete and spent a lot of time surrounded by strong women, and I am a leader at work. I enjoy my life, and I wouldn’t as much if I always had to submit to my husband as I was living it. 

I know I’m lucky in that I had pretty strong female family members. Even though my parents fit the typical mold of working dad and stay-at-home mom for most of my childhood in the 1980s, my mom has a degree in computer science (one of the few women to do that at her college back then), so she was not about to tell me I should approach anything—career or husband—meekly. A couple of years ago, my grandma mentioned in passing that she had taken flying lessons and had flown a plane—something that my mom, my brother, and I had never heard before. We were astounded, and she said, “Well, it’s not a big deal.” My brother said, “Well, you’re the only aviator at the table, so….” My family taught me to value myself and not look for validation in a man. 

Jeff and I complement each other and value each other for our similarities and differences. That is what I hoped my marriage would be.

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