catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 15 :: 2009.07.17 — 2009.07.30


Beyond competition

Let the women of a country be made virtuous and intelligent, and the men will certainly be the same.  The proper education of a man decides the welfare of an individual; but educate a woman, and the interests of a whole family are secured.
Catharine Beecher, A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841)

Laura Shapiro’s book Perfection Salad: Women and Cooking at the Turn of the Century is a fascinating exploration of domestic science as a kind of early feminist-religious movement that didn’t necessarily seek to liberate women politically, but intellectually and spiritually.  Shapiro writes that

…in middle- and upper-class families, …husbands left home each day to dwell in the frankly godless world of commerce and industry — even to profit from it.  When they returned home each evening, the most horrifying conditions of factory life and wage-slavery could be gently washed away, all greed absolved, and Christian values brought to the forefront once more, thanks to the domestic angel who spent her day polishing those values into brilliance.

Embedded in popular turn-of-the-century advice about cooking and managing domestic help, twin undercurrents encouraged women to think of their home tasks as especially holy, while fostering a secret pride in their moral superiority as the trump card for any emotional distress they might experience.  Bad husbands could be tolerated by perceiving them as children who needed Mother’s guidance just as much as their infant sons and daughters.  As the aforementioned Catharine Beecher advocated in her other writings, we might even see the ideal Christian family as a unit of women working on behalf of the disenfranchised, implying that men, along with their industrialized world, were simply a necessary evil.

We may consider Beecher’s analysis quaint and old-fashioned, but fast forward more than a century and a half.  As much as we’ve changed in our understanding of the healthy flex in gender roles, Catharine Beecher could find many a contemporary woman to fit the role of heroine in the story she was trying to tell.   Consider Debra Barone, the longsuffering wife-goddess of the doofy (Everybody Loves) Raymond; she’s simply one archetype of the modern domestic angel whose husband, but for her infinite wit and wisdom, would be sniveling along in his mommy’s spare bedroom like Ray’s foil brother Robert.  At the end of almost every episode, Debra wins and Ray loses and we all have a good laugh at what a silly, lucky guy he is.

I would not for a moment argue that gender equality hasn’t been a vital pursuit of the last couple of centuries or that there isn’t still work to be done, but I do wonder about the effectiveness of approaching inequality with an endless cycle of covert competition and blame.  Attempting to advance justice using the model of a game sets up clearly defined teams, one of which must lose in the end.  The winners are the ones who can maximize their power and self-esteem through the diminishment of others — perhaps you’ve witnessed a marriage in which this is the case.  Additionally, there are some, like my gay Christian friends, who don’t even make the cut to be on a team at all in such a battle.

We can’t hope to achieve a society that doesn’t take into account gender distinctions and preconceptions — this side of the veil, anyway.  But we can work within our families, neighborhoods, schools, churches and workplaces to personally and structurally demonstrate belonging for all people, both the parts of them that clearly fit one team or another and the parts of their identities that blur society’s definitions.  Healthy, full institutions will create many layers of interaction among members that bind us to one another through cooperation and conflict.  Girls on the baseball team and boys in the knitting club, women in the pulpit and men in the kitchen — if helping one another realize our true identities in Christ is a primary objective, breaking the rules might come right alongside traditional ways of being to honor the intention of an infinitely creative Source.  And whether oppressor or oppressed or neither or both, we must strive to always humanize each other as entirely unique children of the Beloved in our moments of interaction.

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