Friday, February 3, 2012

Mothers of Sons

In my gender theory class, we have been reading some of the "oldies" -- Wollstonecraft, Stanton, De Beauvoir, Friedan, Orton, Angier, Wittig. They all have slightly different ideas about the hows and whys of female oppression, but they all agree that women are oppressed and it is men who do the oppressing. As I have said before, I love the clarity of early feminism, its ability to point a finger at an enemy and a victim. Of course, third wave feminism is less sanguine about enemies and victims and offers much more complex and contradictory pictures of the world. It is harder to call a contemporary feminist a man-hater but it is also harder to call her a feminist.

So, as we have been discussing the ideas about men in these theories in class, I have been thinking about whether I think men oppress women today. I mean, I do not doubt inequities and imbalances. But I tend to view these as structural, not individual. Still, the buck has to stop somewhere, right? And, as we know, the institutions that structure the patriarchy are themselves often run by men, so I know that while individual men seem to have changed a lot, men still by and large oppress women.

But then I look at my husband and son. Are they part of the problem or do they somehow escape the logic of the patriarchy? Wollstonecraft said that we were often blind to our oppression as a class because we focused on our individual relationships with individual men. And I am sure she is right. But a different way to think about it is that our awareness of ourselves as a class can help us help the individual men in our lives to change their ways, and hopefully help change those structures from the ground up. In my life, I know that my husband was already something of a feminist when we met, raised by a feminist mother, attached to two strong sisters, proud of his female family. But I know that as we have faced the changes and challenges of marriage and family he, like me, has been awakened to some of the imbalances, some of his own assumptions. I think he walks the walk more now than when he was younger.

My son is being raised by two feminists, then. And he grapples with gender issues all the time -- mostly trying to figure out why girls can have girl power and he cannot claim boy power, or recognizing that his sister can play video games, read graphic novels, use Legos, wear pants and other once-upon-a-time masculine pursuits whereas he has internalized some sense that his liking for cuddly toys, kitty cats and little Japanese figures might be seen as feminine, and therefore bad. He sees a woman working and a dad who cooks. He has a sister he admires. But what will happen as he gets older. Will the social pressure he already feels take control. Will he stop playing with those toys? Will he have to pretend to care about sports? Will he "man up" and lose his internal sense of fairness and equality? And what is my role? How do I shape him without warping him? I suppose that we will continue to talk about all of this, as we have done since he was little -- to acknowledge the ways it is hard to be a boy, but remind him of the tough history that girls have had, to acknowledge the distinction being his individual behavior and ideals of the patriarchy, but also to make him aware that while being a boy carries some responsibility, too, to change the system.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe he'll go through a "man up" phase or two, but I think what you're instilling in him are core values, assumptions, and appreciations. He may or may not outgrow the cuddly toys, but I think he'll always be affectionate. He's a thinker and an assessor, and my guess is that offensively patriarchal behavior just won't make sense to him.

    As a Reform Jew, I was raised with the inclusion of both the matriarchs and the patriarchs in a key prayer (the Amidah). I'll never forget the first time I heard the tradtional version - sans matriarchs - in a more traditional service. It was like a slap in the face. I know there are many who prefer the traditional version - for sincerely feminist and non-feminist reasons - but it's still really hard for me to hear. Childhood input makes an imprint that can be reviewed and reconsidered, but not forgotten.