The latest femosphere drama got me thinking off on a tangent about the degree to which we owe loyalty to our nearest and dearest not to gripe about them or about problematic aspects of our relationships. But first, to give some context, let me recap the drama to which I am referring. A non-feminist Christian "mommyblogger" named Jenn wrote a post describing how her husband sloughed off her request to help with their baby who was crying in the middle of the night. She concluded that she was a "bad Mommy" because it turned out that neither of them had fed the baby that night, each thinking the other had done so. Then Amanda weighed in with a critique of Jenn's post to make a point about how "male dominance goes unquestioned." Jenn took the critique to heart, as it hit rather close to home, with the result being that she is going to take a break from blogging, and Amanda has responded.
Here is the portion from Jenn's most recent post that got me thinking:
It was never my intention for Jon to be portrayed in a bad light, or in a bad way. He is an amazing husband, father, and partner; I feel truly blessed to be his wife. Posts that I have written, either in fun or as a way to write down my thoughts, are being misconstrued or taken out-of-context. In that respect, I’m not bringing honor to my husband as I am called to do.
Contrast Jenn's statement with the following from Amanda:
[Jenn] is also sadly blaming herself for the [blogosphere] dust-up and is wondering if she should quit blogging, i.e. quit analyzing her feelings due to uncomfortable questions that arise during that process. Mommy blogging is a feminist rallying point even for determinedly non-feminist women, it seems, which makes sense.
I agree wholeheartedly with Amanda that Jenn should not blame herself for anything related to Amanda's critique of her post, but what I really want to focus on is an issue that Jenn and Amanda's comments made me think about -- the question of how women can reconcile their personal relationships and personal loyalties with the notion that "the personal is political."
I can relate very strongly to Jenn's desire to honor her husband and to not portray him in a bad light. Such a sentiment is not an ideal unique to conservative Christianity; it is fundamental to anyone who values personal loyalty especially in a marital or romantic relationship. I too strive to avoid speaking negatively about my husband to third parties, not because I am a submissive wife but because I believe that he and I owe each other a duty of loyalty that is implicit in the wedding vows we took. I would feel extremely hurt and betrayed and embarrassed if I found out it he were griping about me to his friends or family-- probably even more hurt than if he had an affair.
On the other hand, my standard of personal loyalty can be extremely problematic and isolating in a lot of relationships. For example, I never said anything negative to my friends or family about my college boyfriend during most of our three year relationship. As a result, it was very hard for me to have a sense of perspective about a lot of his troubling behavior and attitudes, including a number of sexist and even misogynist statements and regular attempts to undermine my confidence or order me around. I started to perceive his behavior as normal because I wasn't comparing notes with my friends or getting an objective outside opinion. Finally, I confided in a couple of my friends and as we talked through my then-boyfriend's behavior, it became very clear that I had been putting up with abusive or borderline abusive behavior for far too long. But even though the behavior had angered and upset me all along, I would less likely have identified it as an ongoing pattern in the relationship or come so clearly to the conclusion that it was unacceptable until I hashed the whole thing out with my friends. I broke up with my then-boyfriend very soon after-- and I believe the whole experience of having a relationship with him, being gulled into allowing him to push me around a lot more than my politics really permits, and then having the scales fall from my eyes with the help of my friends was a very positive and valuable part of my personal development.
I also believe that the old feminist practice of "consciousness raising" sessions in the '60s and '70s was an extremely valuable exercise. Women would get together to talk about their lives and in doing so, recognized not only destructive patterns in their personal relationships but also broader societal patterns resulting in women more likely being taken advantage of in their presonal relationships because of gender inequality in the larger society. These types of discussions involved actually discussing one's partner and one's spouse in perhaps very critical terms but not just for the purpose of griping but also to see that, "Wait a minute, this isn't just my personal problem but rather a symptom of entrenched gender expectations that deserve criticism." Women started to ask, "Why is it always the wife who gives up her ambitions to support her husband through professional school only to find herself an unpaid servant in his home?" or "Why do I assume that it is my job to do almost 100% of the child care?" to give just a couple of examples.
Yet consciousness raising exercises and discussions about the political implications of our personal choices are inevitably intensely painful. We do feel a duty of loyalty to our husbands and male partners -- and a duty of loyalty to the choices we ourselves have made and the time we have invested in those choices. That's what makes feminist discussions about work-life balance, childcare decisions, and sexual politics so wrenching and often divisive. It's the nature of the subject matter itself. How can women discuss these things without implicitly insulting each other or insulting the men in our lives? That's I think the way in which the "patriarchy" (or the "status quo" if you prefer) often has us over a barrel. Assumptions and attitudes about appropriate gender traits and gender roles can be so pervasive that they are part and parcel of how we make our most intimate decisions of how to live -- and hearing critiques of how gender roles affect us adversely feels like a personal attack either on ourselves or on those to whom we feel we owe loyalty.
Some feminists, your Linda Hirshmans for example, just call things as they see them and put their ideas out there without pussyfooting around. Others, like me, tend to err on the side of being diplomatic, which has the advantage of getting people to listen but that diplomacy can sometimes interfere with really asking hard questions.
I am not sure I have a good answer to the question of how we reconcile our sense of loyalty to the men in our lives with the important exercise of analyzing our personal lives through a feminist lens. Such an analysis can be tough or even impossible to do on one's own. It may necessarily involve criticism of the men to whom we have made vows (if we are straight and married) or to men we love or to fathers who have given us a great deal and for whom we have love and affection. In essence, we are dealing with competing values -- the notion of loyalty in romantic and family relationships, and the notion of feminist analysis based on the idea that the personal is political. I suppose everyone has to negotiate her own solution to this quagmire as far as her own loyalty and her own personal life. But then there is also the larger question of how we can talk to each other in anything but a stilted way about the larger implications of such things, without either censoring ourselves from fear of causing offense or not censoring ourselves and actually causing offense. (The Linda Hirshman discussions on this blog are great example of this conundrum.) And I think these tough conversations are important because they are an essential first step towards change.