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.”

Is Egalitarianism Prescriptive or Descriptive?

male and femaleIn all our discussions of egalitarianism vs. complementarianism here at Observational Ginger, very important questions occasionally arise from readers. My oldest childhood friend inspired today’s topic with a question she asked long ago. My answer then was dreadfully inadequate, and since it’s a common question anyway, I thought I’d take a blog post to soothe everyone’s curiosity. (With the understanding that it tackles the question in general and isn’t a specific response to her situation).

The question: Does being egalitarian mean you must live in a way that eschews traditional gender roles?

Does it mean dividing up everything 50/50 no matter what? Is it wrong if the husband makes decisions sometimes, if the wife stays home, if they don’t divide household chores down the middle like kids divvying up the backseat of a car?

In other words, does egalitarianism prescribe a certain life mold the way complementarianism often does—just a mold on the opposite side of the spectrum?

The short answer, of course, is no. Being egalitarian doesn’t mean you have to live out a certain pattern.

In fact, that’s rather the point. In theory, egalitarianism should free couples from constraints they might feel about how they “should” do things. Most complementarian couples in mainstream churches seem to be okay with some amount of flexibility in how they arrange their lives, but there are areas many still see as uncomfortable, such as women pastors, stay-at-home fathers, or wives who make most family decisions. Egalitarianism removes those boundaries and frees couples to pattern their lives according to however God has gifted them—including following desires that happen to fall along “traditional” gender lines.

For example, a naturally decisive, outgoing man might marry a naturally reserved, type B personality woman. The personalities God gifted them with might lead to a situation where the man makes more decisions or is the energy behind the family’s direction. That’s fine. However, it crosses the line into complementarianism if that couple believes God wants every man to be that way, and every woman to hold herself behind her husband’s lead. If they believe that a type A wife and type B husband are failing to honor God’s gender design, then we have a problem. (With a capital P, and that rhymes with C, and that stands for Complementarianism.)

And it goes without saying that the type A husband must still recognize his wife’s equality in family decision-making, even if she doesn’t exercise it all the time. (Ditto the type A wife to the type B husband, as in my household).

For another example, an egalitarian wife might decide to stay home with a baby. Perhaps they don’t want to use outside childcare and the husband makes more money. Maybe Mom simply wants to stay home. Maybe she’s not done with school and can’t handle kid, school, and work at the same time. Who knows! A complementarian couple, though, might make that choice simply because they’re reluctant to go against what they believe is God’s design for mothers—nurturing—and God’s design for fathers—breadwinning. The egalitarian couple would know that they were free to reverse their arrangement should circumstance or desires change; the complementarian couple might not feel that freedom.

Ditto with chores and such. I’m amazing at organizing and keeping track of things, while J has been known to lose items he was in the middle of eating, so I take on the traditionally feminine role of household organization. But we don’t believe that I’m doing this because God made me female, or that J refrains because God made him male; it’s just who we are. And we realize that J could take over this job with enough practice if some pressing situation took me away from home more often.

The bottom line is not how you and your partner choose to live but why you made that choice. Was it based on your gifts, desires, or maybe circumstances outside your control? Or was it based on a belief that God only sanctions a limited range of choices?

Here’s another way to say it; complementarianism is not the practice of traditional roles. Anyone can practice traditional roles for any number of reasons. Complementarianism is the belief that God has mandated the traditional roles and that you should shape your identity and self-perception around them.

If this is the case, though, why do so many egalitarians seem to actively advocate for nontraditional choices? Why does it seem like we always champion nontraditional people if that’s not inherently “better” or necessarily “more egalitarian”?

Tune in tomorrow for that discussion!

Radio Silence, What’s Next, and A Featured Article

My bovine maternal instinct kicks in.

I feel it’s been an unpardonably long time since I made any kind of post. I assure you, it’s not due to laziness.

First, I had to finish up the semester, a challenge all by itself. Then we left on vacation the day after my last set of papers was due.

Vacation has been an amazing time to recharge and rethink some things, especially about the way I use technology. I’ve often noticed that when I’m away from home, my technology usage decreases to a marked degree. That’s been especially true on this trip. My cousin’s farm has little cell phone signal, and her family makes a point to limit technology usage for themselves and their son.

So instead of spending Memorial Day weekend perusing Tumblr, getting into stressful arguments on Facebook, and getting suckered back into work through e-mail, I spent the weekend: playing with baby goats; swimming/tubing in the creek; getting chased by a snake in the creek; saving the world through several rounds of the board game Pandemic; eating home-cooked meals with family; feeding a baby calf who was born sickly but is fixing to survive after all; enjoying the world’ best chocolate cake; and reconnecting with an important part of myself through reminiscing with an aunt and watching old family videos with “the next generation” (i.e. my cousin’s kid). I had some seriously awesome and bittersweet memories of my grandparents, and realized through those videos how much my 30-year-old self is beginning to resemble them in personality.

I’m reminded all over again that technology is what you make of it. It served us well by allowing us to stay connected (when needed) to pet-sitters and sick family members back home, and it gave me a valuable and much-needed trip down Memory Lane; but it functioned well because we chose when to use it, and didn’t just default to it every time there was a lull. We had so many other, richer experiences in the meantime.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…Crocodile Rock.

We visited a friend after my cousin’s house, and that’s where we are now. I like to think we’ve done a good mix of techno and real at this location too. While I’m obviously blogging, and got caught up on free reading of some other blogs, we also spent a lot of time outdoors. We discovered a trail that forbids one from climbing on rocks, but then has rocks in the middle of the trail; we discovered that I am The Centipede Whisperer, owing to the disproportionate number of centipedes that have scurried toward me on this trip; and we stood by a waterfall that gives those water-spray cooling centers at the zoo a run for their money.

Who knows what the rest of the trip will hold? I hope to get inspired and get back to blogging once we return home. I’ve already got some thoughts percolating for a rather scathing review of Hannibal, Season 2, which is, in my opinion, some of the laziest writing I’ve seen in recent history. Around June 6 I’ll be reviewing the book-to-movie of Fault In Our Stars, that is, if I can stop crying long enough to type. I may do something with the whole #YesAllWomen hashtag, although that’s been covered by so many brilliant bloggers already.

And by the way, a huge shout-out to The Junia Project blog. They featured my “Feminism: Friend or Foe?” post this week, and will post Part II shortly. I respect them and the work they’re doing for Christian egalitarianism, so to say I’m excited is an understatement. Go check them out (but read more than just my guest blog…they have lots of food for thought).