When men are taught that the natural state of affairs is for their female partner to be younger, less educated, and forever conscientious of her success in relation to his, we are categorized as “unwomanly” simply by trying to carve out individualities the way men have always done.
At Hood College, it was tradition for the graduating seniors to bequeath a list of well-wishes upon the rising juniors in their dorm. Some of these sentiments were generic, like “a great senior year!” Others, like “an infinite amount of puppy kisses,” were directed toward my two roommates who would later work in veterinary medicine. I saw my own list tacked up like Luther’s 95 Theses and snatched it off the door.
Down at the bottom of the list, under several references to my love of literature and future as an educator, were the words “androgynous freedom.”
My roommates and I stared at the paper in my hands for a minute, heads tilted. “They wish you ‘androgynous freedom’?” “How are you even supposed to take that?”
I sat on my bed and thought for a while. Maybe they meant my short, shaggy hair, which my boyfriend berated me endlessly for (“I should call you Charles instead!”). Maybe they meant my low voice and direct communication style. Or maybe they noticed that most of my friends were male and/or members of the LGBT community. It could have been any of these things, despite the fact that I flounced around campus in feminine dresses, high heels, and colorful makeup.
It was the first time anyone had made me consider this collection of attributes—my presentation to the world—as anything other than what I understood as female.
When I began working at an evangelical Christian school a year later, I quickly realized that there was one collective understanding of “female” and that I didn’t exactly fit the mold. The “modest” dress code for women included no skirts above the knee, no open-toed shoes, no sleeveless blouses, and unspokenly, no flashy colors or gaudy jewelry. After being reprimanded by a teacher who could see down my shirt when I bent over and being handed a donated monokini swimsuit because “this is too risqué to sell at our auction, but maybe Chelsea would wear it,” I felt like a flapper in a room of Victorians.
I learned that women were expected to mute their personalities along with their fashion. Girls were taught to be “strong,” albeit within patriarchal confines so as not to ward off potential marriage prospects or step out of their God-given places. The “ideal” woman created in God’s image was always defined in relation to someone else: wife, mother, daughter, sister. And any choice that either re-prioritized or complicated the fulfillment of marriage and motherhood was immediately dismissed as a threat to the Christian way of life.
These views are par for the course in the evangelical community which, as we have seen during the past few presidential races, holds an increasingly considerable amount of American political influence. Take this cautionary tale from self-proclaimed “#1 pro-life news website” LifeSiteNews. Staff writer Hillary White, running with some recent Pew Research findings that the percentage of young men uninterested in marriage has dropped a staggering six percent, concludes that “good men” are being driven away because “women aren’t women anymore.” Twenty-first century women who dare long for a well-rounded existence have, according to a Fox News op-ed titled “The War on Men,” (you can’t make this stuff up) “changed the dance between men and women…pushing [men] out of their traditional role of breadwinner, protector, and provider.”
Half a century ago, Betty Friedan famously deemed this training and reinforcement of women as passive companions rather than autonomous beings “the problem that has no name.” Psychologists, anthropologists, and educators encouraged women to attend college for the sole purpose of finding a husband, to not make use of their degrees so that they wouldn’t compete with their husband’s success, and to abstain from involvement in any arena of social or political change. Today, the personal is still political. The GOP’s crusade to defund Planned Parenthood and more broadly deny women access to reproductive health services, though masked as the adoration of wife and motherhood (think of Ann Romney’s disingenuous “I love you women!”), is a vested interest in denying us positions of real influence.
The political is also personal. I grew up strongly identifying with TV characters like Miranda Hobbes, Robin Scherbatsky, and CJ Cregg who were often chided or ridiculed for being too masculine. I’ve been directly told by past partners that I am “too intimidating,” “the guy in the relationship,” and that my career is a threat to our future together. Over dinner with another former boyfriend a few years ago, I listened to the reasons why my job as an English professor was problematic. “I got a D in English when I was in college,” he said. “It just…always makes me feel bad.”
When men are taught that the natural state of affairs is for their female partner to be younger, less educated, and forever conscientious of her success in relation to his, we are categorized as “unwomanly” simply by trying to carve out individualities the way men have always done. A Shriver Report study published last spring demonstrates just how strongly-rooted these beliefs are: When 881 men were asked what qualities they’d most want to see in their daughters, they responded with “intelligent,” “independent,” and “strong.” But when the question addressed qualities they’d prefer in their wives, their answers changed to “attractive” and “sweet.”
Suzanne Venker of Fox News, who has been most helpful in propagating the Scary, Man-Hating feminist image, insists that “feminism…teaches women to think of men as the enemy.” Betty Friedan, conversely, wrote that “men are not the enemy, but the fellow victims. The real enemy is women’s denigration of themselves.” Unlike White and Venker, Friedan recognized the crucial distinction between anger with men versus anger with the patriarchy, a system that likewise harms men through the learned suppression of emotions, the jeers aimed at stay-at-home dads, and other manifestations of toxic masculinity.
Women who are unapologetically intelligent, educated, ambitious, and no longer freshly-minted 18-year-olds have to fight every day against a view that expands well outside the evangelical circle and beyond the 1950s. Thankfully, encouraging new data on dads being more willing to stay at home with their children and younger men being increasingly open to dating older women is a start in the right direction.
So instead of pining for a world where “men are men” and “women are women,” let’s build one where androgyny is celebrated, where partners support one another’s successes, and where everyone’s best talents and attributes, regardless of gender association, are put to good use.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.