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Why I, too, am a feminist

[ 0 ] December 30, 2005 |

Lots of reasons, but Scott’s post below reminds me of a post I meant to write last month, but never quite got around to. On Thanksgiving this year, just a few weeks after his 94th birthday, my grandfather died. Deaths of close family members always have an element of tragedy, but as far as deaths go this was expected and for my grandmother, who has found taking care of him as his health deteriorated, some semblance of relief. I could certainly recount the ways patriarchal norms have limited my grandmother’s potential and actual happiness, but it’s not all that different than the sorts of things Scott discusses below (with respect to his mother, thankfully, and not his grandmother).

My grandfather was a beneficiary of a variety of the privileges of patriarchy. For many years, while he had little work available and my grandmother worked as an elementary school teacher, she did all the housework and cleaning and cooking. This was so expected that it didn’t seem to cause resentment. My grandfather didn’t marry until he was 37. His father died when he was quite young, and he spent his life until marriage being doted on and cared for by his mother and his father’s sister. My grandmother slowly took over this role in the early years of the marriage, and continued it for the next 57+ years (for the early years of the marriage, my grandfather’s mother still lived with them, which from what I understand was a pretty difficult existence for her).

This rendered my grandfather unable to take care of himself in important ways. When my grandmother retired from teaching, she wanted a vacation, which she’d never had. She booked a flight to Virginia and a senior bus tour of historic sites, which meant she would be away from home for more than a day for the first time in their marriage. Before she left, she prepared meals for the entire time she’d be away, in Tupperware labeled “breakfast,” “lunch,” and “dinner” with comically explicit microwaving instructions. These meals went untouched. While my grandfather would simply ignore any questions about what he ate during these eight days, the physical evidence left behind suggests that at first, he eight all the cookies, candy and chocolate he could find in the house. After a few days, when this resource ran out, he drove to Burger King (they live in the country, it’s a 30+ mile round trip) for each and every meal. The only explanation he gave for his behavior: “I can’t figure out how to work that contraption” (the microwave). This story has since been retold as a humorous anecdote about his stubbornness, but when I always thought he seemed a bit embarrassed when it was brought up.

Throughout his life, my grandfather had an interest in antique farm equipment, which he collected, repaired, and exhibited at antique farm equipment shows around Washington and Oregon. At his memorial service, my grandmother told me that she once asked him what he would have liked to have done had he not been a farmer, to which he replied he’d like to have been an engineer.

Most would point to my grandfather’s privileges and my grandmother’s hardships as the feminist lesson here, but there’s another one as well. File this under Ampersand’s “patriarchy hurts men, too.” His autonomy was limited in important ways by patriarchal norms as well. Feminist theory has often told us that the patriarchal version of autonomy relies on the non-autonomous labor of others, and that’s clearly correct. But this autonomy is corrupted both ways. The women in my grandfather’s early life shaped and developed him into an incomplete person. The man who could repair a 19th century steam engine he’d never seen before couldn’t—or wouldn’t—figure out how to use a microwave. It’s easy to chalk this up to stubbornness, but it’s a particular kind of stubbornness that shows the depths of which the patriarchal norms about certain tasks had been internalized. The same patriarchal norms that gave him the large farm he inherited (it was assumed that the female members of his generation would marry, so they weren’t inheritors of the farm) and placed him in charge of it at a young age also foreclosed the possibility of him becoming an engineer. He had made his peace with being a farmer–he particularly enjoyed hosting the local grange’s annual threshing bee fundraiser–but the thought that he might have liked to pursue a different path stayed with him.

One thing feminism does is demand that we change society in order to create and enhance the opportunities for women to have autonomy. But the gender roles that feminism resists can also serve as a constraint on male autonomy as well. Patriarchal autonomy disguises male privilege, but it also disguises the ways in which some choices and options are foreclosed and limited. My grandfather never would have recognized any of this, and he’d probably think this is all pretty silly. Still, while I’ve suffered my share of embarrassments and I’m sure I’ve got many more coming, I’ll never be embarrassed by my lack of ability to operate a microwave. In the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty trivial, but it is one tangible way feminism can be beneficial to men as well as women.

Robert D. Herren, 1911-2005, RIP

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