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Strong roles, no rules July 15, 2008

Posted by eyegillian in change, diversity, family, journey, learn, life, women.
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in Eden

Janet (Lavenderbay) took this photo of me getting close to… nature.

Not that I’m feeling nostalgic or anything, but yesterday I found a fascinating quiz thanks to a post on Feminist Philosophers. The quiz is based on a Marital Scale which “draws on the opinions of over 600 couples in the 1930s and what they most frequently voiced as flaws and virtues in their spouses”.

Yes, this test is loaded with 1930s’ expectations of how husbands and wives should look, act, and talk. You are rated on whether you leave your socks on the floor or squeeze the toothpaste from the top of the tube, whether you praise your partner in front of friends, or boast about your bachelor days.

Mme LiberteBut the 1930s were not that long ago. My parents grew up in that era, and if you are younger than me, you may still have been brought up to meet 1930s’ standards.

Although I’m contrary by nature, I believe my nurture instilled in me certain ideas that are sealed into my psyche. These ideas were based not only on my parents’ roles and relationship, but also on what I saw in the wider world. We had policemen and firemen, and the church minister and the mayor were male. Although there were some strong female models — the principal of my elementary school was a woman, and I grew up reading girls’ adventure stories — by and large, I didn’t imagine myself in a strong role. Until I reached university, I never really expected to be anything other than a housewife and mother.

crucified womanIn university, my world turned upside down. I fell in love… with a woman. From that point on, I’ve consciously tried to resist any expectation of women in a secondary role. I now work for a women’s organization, so this doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but I have challenged more than a few men who’ve left a mess in the kitchen at work. Sure, I can make coffee and put the mugs in the dishwasher afterwards, and I’m glad to do it, but you’d better take your turn, too!

But figuring out how to split up our roles at home is more complex. Should we take turns at all tasks, or split them between us? Somebody has to keep the apartment clean and change lightbulbs, somebody has to make supper and pay the bills. But the fact is that neither of us likes housework, although we have a different level of tolerance for dirt and clutter. We both enjoy cooking, but not all the time. It would be much nicer to sit in the computer/television/reading chair all day while someone else takes care of us, but that’s not going to happen. So stuff gets done by whoever has the energy and the inclination at the time, or is most bothered by the dirty dishes/clothes/bathroom/etc. So much for roles.

St. BrigidIronically, the only people who seem to be talking about roles for husbands and wives these days are religious conservatives and academics. But whatever your partnership, surely there are some roles that need to be worked out. What do you see as appropriate roles for women and men? Do you have to constantly negotiate the roles in your relationships?

The public art illustrating this post celebrates strong roles for women, but think about all the art you’ve seen which depicts women as property or decoration, innocent victim or evil seductress. How do you think this has influenced your (or others’) expectations? Although I’m writing here about women’s roles, I’m interested in knowing whether you think men’s roles have changed, too.

Now here’s a challenge: take the test as a wife and as a husband… you might be surprised which role you fit best!

Oh, so how did I score? I make an average wife, but a superior husband. Go figure. For more on this, check out the interesting discussion on Boing Boing or look at the scans of the original test here.
Classical styleAboriginal woman

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Related Links
“Women’s Roles in the Late 19th Century” by Dorothy Hartman
Montreal Gazette: “The volunteer who visits you is probably a woman – and here’s why”
New York Times: “A breadwinner rethinks gender roles”
The Independent: “Where have all the strong women gone?
Suicide Bomber Barbie – irony, or not?



1. lavenderbay - July 15, 2008

I’m not in the least surprised that the test sez you make a good husband, eyegillian, ’cause I think you do.
I’m sure if I were male, I would not have any friends of quality. I have no driver’s licence, no credit card, and no steady, self-supporting job. I’d like to look at the test (in between doing the laundry, walking the dogs, sweeping the co-op common areas, writing today’s blog entry, and waiting for the boy I babysit to come home from daycamp) and see how much self-confidence has to do with the differentiation of gender roles.
Men, in my oversimplified analysis, have it pretty clean-cut: drive to work and back, mow the lawn or shovel the walk or take out the garbage (one chore per day), have supper and a beer, get some shuteye. A philosophy of manhood might be: “the unorganized life is not worth living.” But that’s just me contrasting my disheveled existence with my fantasies of how everyone else must be living happily ever after.

2. eyegillian - July 15, 2008

Gee, thanks lavenderbay… though I think I’d prefer to be called a good partner than a superior husband, especially considering (as you’ve pointed out) the low participation in family/household responsibilities expected of a husband, in the 1930s at least.

Compare that to at least one household that I know of where the husband runs the home — he’s a great cook, housekeeper and gardener — and also works fulltime. I think people are still too tied to expectations based on gender rather than on interest/skill, so it’s nice to see some folks taking the time to figure out what works for them, rather than relying on a standard one-size-fits-all formula.

3. Jack's mom - July 16, 2008

Now, which shall I be today! I find women these days take on every role out of necessity. Did we take this on as part of our drive to prove we could to do all things, or did we win it by default? Who knows.

To use someone else’s funny might sum it up:
“I cannot understand you” said the young man to his umarried aunt. “You seem so happy and contented. I”ve always though that unmarried women are lonely and miserable and just longing for the presence of a man about the place”. “Well” his aunt responded, smiling, “I’ve got a fireplace that smokes, a parrot that swears, a cat that stays out half the night with no explanation and a dog that leaves muddy footprints all over the house. What more do I want?”

4. eyegillian - July 16, 2008

You’ve nailed it, Jack’s mom! It’s true that women don’t have (or don’t expect) to wait anymore for a man to open the door, fix the leaky pipes or provide food and shelter. I’m not sure that the superwoman role is the best choice for everyone, but it’s better than being a dainty dependent!

But if women are “doing it for themselves”, are men also expanding their skills beyond their traditional “manly” jobs?

I remember being highly annoyed with a tv show a number of years ago where the original cast members of “The Sound of Music” were interviewed. The women were asked about their families, and the men were asked about their jobs. I still think women — even those with high-powered jobs — are more likely to be identified in a news report as “a mother of three children”, while you rarely read about the new bank executive as “a father of three children.”

5. Jack's mom - July 16, 2008

I think your last comment is actually saddest of all for men. To be valued only for your income potential, nice car etc must be very demeaning. Why can’t society be thrilled by the fact that someone is a great dad? Not that he brought home lots of money but that he spent time teaching his son/daughter to fish, should be the standard for a man to aspire to. Maybe the lack of appreciation for the importance of this role is what has made so many men opt out of the responsibility.
On the brighter side, sons these days know that women can do all things (because their mothers show them), so maybe the next generations will not have such struggles for equality. My only worry is that alongside this progress not many are teaching their sons and daughters, that men are capable of more too.
To teach a boy to become a man (in the true and honourable sense of the word) is a very hard job when men are reluctant to become role models.

6. eyegillian - July 16, 2008

I agree with you wholeheartedly, Jack’s mom — I really believe that for there to be true equality (and mutual respect, etc), that men have to be part of the change. And it’s not all the fault of men. As you say, it’s “society” that pressures people to fit into narrow role expectations, that approves or disapproves of “nontraditional” roles. But sometimes it seems as if society is a generation or two behind — stuck in the 1930s, perhaps — because the systems we’ve put in place to protect and support society (schools, churches, the law, the media, etc) are, ironically, doing their best to guard against change.

I do hope the next generation can break out of this socially-imposed prison!

7. Jack's mom - July 16, 2008

Hear! Hear! and by the way I scored as a very superior husband and a poor housewife. Well, at least I agree with the last bit.

8. lavenderbay - July 17, 2008

I guess I’m a dud all ’round. I scored as a poor husband (27 out of 100 ), and an extremely poor wife (17) . I make a great hibernating turtle, though.

9. eyegillian - July 17, 2008

OK, everybody hold hands and sing, “I love me, you love me…”

But seriously, folks, I would hope a 2008 test of our suitability as good partners, lovers, household engineers, parents, etc would be a lot more evenly weighted than this 1930s quiz. I think it would be interesting to create something which would score household participation and sharing of responsibility, qualities of resourcefulness and nurturing, etc.

So don’t get depressed if you didn’t do well on this test — it’s probably a good sign!

10. paula - July 18, 2008

Hi there – posted a comment the other day but unfortunately it got eaten on the way – I expect by one of those poor starving spouses that have to put up with their partners gallivanting around in their pjs with red nail polish and unkempt hair, smoking a fag, swigging out of a bottle whilst slagging off their better half!
Well, I did very badly both as husband and a wife! Pity they didn’t do one for a mother, a daughter and a carer…though I guess I’d probably fail miserably in that too – just not a 30s sort of person.
Good post!

11. eyegillian - July 18, 2008

Thanks for coming by, Paula, and sorry your first comment got eaten… I wonder if it was that pesky spam-blocker being too vigilant? Although I think your theory is more fun!

It’s funny, isn’t it, the kinds of behaviours considered normal in the 1930s. Still, as my partner points out, a lot of the questions have, at their roots, a concern that the husbands/wives are showing respect and consideration for each other. But not dressing for breakfast or reading a newspaper at the table is no longer considered offensive, while smoking might be…

12. Shelley - July 18, 2008

Well I made an average wife. I’m not sure if thats good or bad. Chris said he made a poor husband.

I said we should now each take the other test 🙂

13. Shelley - July 18, 2008

Okay I’m a VERY SUPERIOR husband (96) and Chris is an EXTREMELY POOR wife 😀

14. eyegillian - July 19, 2008

That’s hilarious, Shelley… although perhaps Chris isn’t laughing?

I guess it would need a sociologist to tell us what about the husband bits translate so well to the current day. And if it’s a good thing for men to work outside the home, take responsibility for food and shelter, etc, why wouldn’t it be good for women?

What I find significant, though, is that few people do well as 1930s wives. Why is that? One commenter on another site has a good observation I thought I’d share: “After trying the wife quiz, I wondered if it’s even possible for a wife to get a good score. I tried a few more times, and discovered that it is indeed possible for a wife to be ranked as “very superior” — so long as she understands that her role is somewhere near the intersection of domestic servant, nanny, prostitute, and nun. And, on top of all that, she better damn well laugh at all his jokes.”

15. will86aber - July 19, 2008

As I read your post, I began to form in my mind a response to the different roles the women in my life have taken, however, when I read your question about “whether you think men’s roles have changed,” everything in my mind went out the window. The sad thing is that with a greater empowerment of woman, an unforseen side effect has backlashed against men and masculinity in our contemporary culture.

I could go off on how men’s roles have changed in marriage but not being married, it would be hard to speak from personal experience. However, from what I’ve seen, the roles and identities of many men in generation Y and Z are hurting. All one needs to do is look at the Emo movement to see a group of men completely seperated from their masculine identity. That isn’t to say that a person need’s to be a man’s man or that femininty can’t be embraced, however, this isn’t an empowered youth but a cowed one. One whose self-esteem is shattered, surrounded with self-loathing and broken down by a society whose popular culture looks down on masculinity and seperates it from everything we consider good in a culture.

In popular culture a man has to be feminine to be intelligent, men in movies although attractive, he lacks in intelligence or the ability to properly care for himself and the vast majority are cheaters and womanizers. Or watch any sitcom, the man unlike in movies is always unattractive, unintelligent, and a feeble match for his level-headed goddess of a counterpart. In public schools even which should be strongholds for true equalist thought, young boys learning styles are ignored, their innate nature is scolded, and they walk the halls with girls who sport shirt’s emblazoned with statements like, “Boys are stupid, throw rocks at them!” How differently we would react if it was a boy doing the same thing.

It would seem we have a long way to go before America has been built into a nation that sees both men and women as equals.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Instead of a Renaissance, maybe Penndel should just pave a road.

16. lavenderbay - July 20, 2008

I think Will86aber has done a lot of thinking about this, and it’s refreshing to hear from someone other than a middle-aged woman.
I agree wholeheartedly that it must totally suck to see discriminatory slogans such as he has described being passed off as humour, let alone as acceptable school apparel.
One major trouble with “masculinity” is that the concept has often been equated with physical power. Male humans are larger and more muscled than female humans. Physical power can be abused. How can we bring out the subtler ideals of masculinity so as to stop belittling men or threatening women or upholding racial segregation or insulting LGBT people? What is the essential goodness, the wonderful core, of masculinity — or femininity, for that matter — that goes beyond social role playing, quadruceps, or gametes?

17. eyegillian - July 20, 2008

Thank you, will86aber for stopping to comment. It’s great to hear a male perspective on this question!

You say there has been a backlash against men and masculinity. I agree that women who have become empowered sometimes feel angry against society, and especially men, for having tried (and succeeded) to keep power from them, for having treated them like property rather than equals; no doubt you have seen some of that. I know this because I have felt it, but I have not often expressed it, at least not directly to men.

I believe it has something to do with the sense of entitlement that most men seem to grow up with, and women have to fight for. For example, spend a bit of time observing a busy sidewalk, and watch who takes up more space (not just in a physical sense): women or men. I’ve watched men striding down the centre of a sidewalk as if they own it, swinging their arms and effectively (but not intentionally) blocking anyone from passing. But women will usually stick to one side or the other, check to make sure they aren’t blocking anyone, and apologize if they are. How would this look if society was equal: would women feel entitled to take up the whole sidewalk as well? That might seem fair, but it wouldn’t be practical. Women are socialized to be polite, considerate, nice… but when we revolt against this socialization, sometimes we aren’t!

However, I also see what you describe as a backlash as a challenge. As in: Listen up, men, we’ve changed. The old patterns, the “old boys club” and other sexist institutions need to make room for a new way. Now it’s your turn to change. Make us proud. Don’t fight us; join us and help us make society a better, more equal place. There’s enough power and respect to go around.

I can’t really speak to the school system, although I have read some analyses of the difference in learning styles between girls and boys. I know teaching methods have tended to swing wildly from one extreme to the other; certainly, we need balance and a system where everyone can be encouraged to learn to their best potential.

And certainly, not just the U.S. and Canada, but almost every country is going through some version of these struggles right now. It would be wise to see how other people, other societies are working toward equality, and emulate their best practices.

And thanks, lavenderbay for your response. I particularly like your comment about masculinity and physical power. “What is the essential goodness, the wonderful core of masculinity (or femininity)?” Good question!

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