Is Egalitarianism Prescriptive or Descriptive, Part 2

Yesterday, we established that there’s nothing inherently wrong with an egalitarian couple choosing a more “traditional” arrangement for their roles in the family. Egalitarian men can make more money than their wives. Egalitarian women can cook and clean with the best of them. If a couple functions well that way, who’s to stop them?

Why, then, do egalitarians like myself tend to actively champion nontraditional arrangements? Doesn’t that risk irritating traditional couples for no reason? That is today’s question.

To answer it, I usually start out by making a distinction: There is nothing inherently wrong with a traditional arrangement of gender roles—if that works well for every member of the family.

There’s a tendency in our church culture to assume that, because so many families live out traditional roles, they must work well. Strongly complementarian environments go beyond assuming this and actually teach it outright. And for some families, this is absolutely true; a more gendered role division fits with their personalities and goals. In other cases, however, a husband or a wife may not be the best fit for that lifestyle, and may experience stress while trying to squeeze into that box. Egalitarians encourage couples to ask that question, and to be unafraid of changing their life if traditionalism isn’t their best fit. This advocacy can seem like (and let’s be honest, sometimes is) an exclusive focus on people who aren’t traditional. That’s a pitfall egalitarians should be careful of. In my experience, most of us are willing to be careful about that if reminded, and our motives truly are about helping people who feel stuck rather than penalizing people for whom the system is working.

This desire we egalitarians have to make other couples think about their choices often comes from our own experience. Some of us found great improvement in our lives by moving toward a more 50/50 division of roles, or, in some cases, a reversal of roles. We feel that those benefits need to be common knowledge, since the benefits of traditionalism are already well-represented in church culture and literature. Further, we recognize that the desire for equality and freedom has been vilified by some corners of Christendom, and we want to correct that by presenting nontraditional roles as a normative, positive option.

Which leads to my last point. I firmly believe that cultural and religious biases about gender influence our decisions much more than we realize. I think that about myself, and I’ve been an active egalitarian for eight years! With that in mind, I believe people should use an ounce of caution and a pound of discernment when choosing what is best for their family.

As I said earlier, it’s easy to assume that society’s usual way of doing things will work for you, or is your actual desire—because it’s what you see. It’s the picture you have of doing life. I’ve often observed that, even in environments where everyone says they’re making choices independently, everyone’s choices look suspiciously alike. Chalk this up to many things; society pushing us all the same direction, general trends in what men and women are socialized to value, and yes, perhaps even some general trends in how men and women tend to be wired (how much any of these things plays a part is still up for debate).

And let’s be honest; the very fact of something being usual makes it the path of least resistance. Going against the grain is hard work. You have to be your own role model and cheerleader while simultaneously unlearning much of the subconscious programming you’ve been exposed to all your life.

It takes real motivation to be a woman pastor and deal with suspicion and, from some quarters, hostility. It also takes patience and security in your identity to be known as “the pastor’s husband.” These barriers do not exist for husbands who attend seminary and the wives who support them.

Many men face questions or outright criticism if their wife makes the majority—or all!—of the family income. Meanwhile, that wife has probably observed that women’s careers are more flexible or expendable in middle-class families. Her climb up the ladder may be seen as selfish, or wasteful if her at-home husband could be making more money, while the same effort from a husband would be met with praise for providing the family’s income.

It can be hard for a husband to see the details of household chores that his own mom took care of during his childhood. If, despite his best efforts, the dishwasher is loaded wrong, crumbs still scatter the carpet, and those pens from upstairs are for some reason living in the underwear drawer, the wife may decide at 9 p.m. that it’s easier to fix everything herself than teach him how to do it (a teaching process she may not have seen modeled by her parents, either).

As you can see, many forces both conscious and unconscious can push us into living a certain way, and this is even more true if we live in a somewhat conservative church culture, as so many of us do. Egalitarians can be so outspoken because we worry that these factors discourage couples from asking what’s really best for them. Not only that, but we want future generations to have an easier time making choices, and if we don’t do the groundwork of deconstructing today’s biases and pressures, all we do is pass it along to our kids.

Finally, I always want to make sure that we egalitarians refrain from judging each other. If a couple feels called to shake up the gender role status quo in their home, they mustn’t judge other egalitarians who don’t feel that call. Accordingly, the traditional couple should not judge the other couple for being too much the activist. There is room for beautiful variation within the Body of Christ. We just need to make sure that when systems like complementarianism try to put restrictions on that variety, we give them a firm “No, thank you.”

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