This post is co-authored by Sara Thompson
In 2016 it will be 10 years since my wife, Sara, and I first met. Sara has always held very strong convictions and ideas about women's economic, social and political status, but had never considered herself part of any "feminist movement" as such. It was only about three years ago that authors like Judith Butler, Catherine MacKinnon, bell hooks, and Andrea Dworkin were finally given life on the bookshelves, tables and desktops around our home, and it seems that every day one of them is "stopping by" for supper and conversation. Every day I learn something new about them, about my wife, and also about myself.
Becoming involved in any social or political cause (movement) probably results from one's personal experiences, and Sara's coming to feminism is no different. As she tells it, living in New York City offers a wealth of social experiences, human interactions (and sometimes collisions) capable of triggering, in an already very curious and inquisitive mind, new questions and concerns about gender (in)equality, power (im)balances and women's overall status in society. Six years in public education, followed by three years of law school had certainly cultivated in her many ideas about social justice and gender equality, both in the workplace and within the home.
When I began looking back over the myriad events involving gender equality -- victories and losses -- in 2015, I wondered how our relationship measured up under Sara's own feminist ideal. I asked her to write about it, and the result is what follows below. Initially, I had no plans of publishing the piece, but I am a huge fan of her writing, and thought her words provided an interesting perspective on what gender equality in the home might look like. With her permission, and with the goal of joining my voice to my wife's efforts to build a more just world, I want to share what she wrote:
There are (at least) two sides to the story of my, indeed of any, marriage (or live-in) relationship. In telling these stories we sometimes resort to shorthand descriptors -- good, complicated, loving- to describe our partnerships. Of course, these descriptions are great for brevity but rarely capture the nuances of any relationship adequately. When I think in the abstract, about our specific type of relationship (man/woman), I am immediately drawn to speak about the idea of egalitarianism -- the ever-elusive 50/50 ideal -- for which any "good feminist" should strive. Perhaps that is right, but regardless of whether it is or isn't, that ideal is where I will begin.
I understand an egalitarian relationship to be one that, in both principle and fact, evidences the belief that sex, to the greatest extent possible, is not a factor in the assignment of roles and responsibilities. It does not follow, however, that partners who have assumed gender conforming roles are foreclosed all chances of achieving an egalitarian relationship. Indeed, if the feminist tenet of "choice" means anything at all, it must mean that women should be free to assume any role at all, without risking that she will be deemed "unenlightened" by her peers. Though we should probably always understand choice as a function of culturally regulated gender norms, we should not automatically assume that at the individual or partnership level, people are incapable of undermining those regulations. In my view, arriving at a truly egalitarian relationship necessarily requires that the partners have the capacity and the capability to undermine pervasive gender norms. If it were not possible for individuals to undermine the current gender regulatory regime, then what are we even fighting for? If it were not possible that singular acts of subversion (e.g. a solitary egalitarian marriage) could expose patriarchies as arbitrary and impermanent, then what could?
Very often, the question of whether an egalitarian marriage is even possible begins and ends by pointing out how domestic tasks (e.g. caregiving, cleaning) still disproportionately fall to otherwise "non-domestic" (i.e. working out of the home) women. I am inclined to think that achieving equality in a marriage depends less on the specific set of tasks (i.e. roles) that one does, and more on whether both partners manifest a genuine desire to advance their partner's interests. In other words, what matters is whether both partners understand that they are operating within a broader system of inequality, have nevertheless tasked themselves with, and believe themselves capable of, actively undermining that system. If we assume the partners both desire to, and can succeed at their goal, then the existence of "imbalances" within the distribution of domestic tasks, for example, should not be understood to negate of the egalitarian character of the relationship. The very fact that the partners are capable of achieving an egalitarian marriage at all probably means that it would be more accurate to attribute the existence of any such imbalances to the partners themselves, as opposed to say, broader notions of inequality. The trouble with presupposing the supremacy of culturally imposed gender norms as the cause of imbalances, is that we risk undervaluing (or dismissing entirely) the individuals' contributions and call into question their capacity to achieve the egalitarian marriage in the first place.
Our marriage is an egalitarian one. It is also imbalanced in some ways. Sometimes we do more, and sometimes we do less of a given set of tasks or functions. I have assumed many "traditionally female" domestic tasks (e.g. cooking dinners, grocery shopping), and sometimes I have assumed less traditional ones (e.g. rewiring electrical outlets and fixing a leaking sink). Sometimes André assumes "traditionally male" domestic roles (e.g. taking out the garbage, household accounting) and sometimes his tasks are less so (e.g. remembering birthdays, general daily tidying up, sweeping the floors).
But then there are the other things. The things that are not task-based or tangible--the thinking about things, the mental effort things, the psychological expenditures. Here too, we have somehow achieved the task of dividing our roles, sometimes down "traditional" lines, and sometimes not. André possesses a social aptitude and warmth that I do not. He is consistently attentive and patient with me--not two of my strong suits. I am (non-stereotypically) decisive, and inflexible when it comes to asking for help or more information. André is inquisitive and will always "stop for directions." He demonstrates a level of flexibility with other people that I find simultaneously admirable and "not my thing."
More to the point, neither of us presupposes that we should do any given set of tasks or functions merely because gender norms would otherwise dictate that result. Our marriage is egalitarian, not because the distribution of task-based activities is completely equal, but because in and among all possible domains (e.g. daily tasks, emotional stability, strength of character) there is a balance that exists.
Even on the occasions that I have assumed a more traditional role out of comfort or "superior skill" with the task, the egalitarian goal is addressed by creating space, a dialogue, which challenges any underlying assumptions about who "should" be doing that task. We very often do agree that I am better at certain traditional domestic tasks, but we also agree (as I think we must) that my being better is really symptomatic of broader gender norms having fostered in me a level of comfort and contact with such things. Importantly, though I actively assume certain roles (cook, buyer) there has always been space within our marriage for me to reject them as well.
In short, our marriage is an egalitarian one not merely because of the arithmetic of role divisions, but because we demonstrate an awareness that if an ongoing and fair dialogue on gender (in)equality is not nurtured, culturally imposed gender norms will adversely permeate our relationship. We are capable of preventing that!
Sara Thompson is a Lawyer and lives in New York City.