Friday, July 20, 2018

(Doing) Down with the Patriarchy by Sarah Bessey

I could relate to this article (even though I don't make jam). Sarah Bessey is a fave.

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*pulls out Ye Olde Ranting Soapbox*
*blows off the dust and coughs dramatically*
*tap, tap*
Let's see if this thing still works.

This past week, I made jam. Full disclosure: I am not in the habit of making jam but my husband, Brian, is an avid gardener so we are swimming in raspberries at the moment. And I cannot - in a neighbourhood of Mennonites and lapsed Mennonites - be perceived as wasteful so jam-making it is.
When I was growing up, we used to call canning or preserving "doing down" - I've since learned that other regions say "putting up" and that juxtaposition made my day. My mother and I used to joke that there are two types of women: the women who "do down" and the women who don't. We have always been the latter.

My granny on my dad's side was a Saskatchewan farm girl. She moved to the city after the war and set up an urban homestead in their backyard that would make precious food bloggers kale-green with jealousy. She often did down with the veggies and berries left over from a summer of grandchildren snitching from the garden.

I am nearly forty and I have yet to enjoy eating anything as much as I enjoyed eating a carrot pulled out of the dirt and washed with the garden hose or a warm strawberry plucked from underneath a leaf in her garden when I was a child.

Every bite has been downhill since then.

My daughter, Anne, and I have been watching the new series "Back in Time for Dinner" on CBC this summer and it has reminded me of how my generation - raised in the 70s and 80s - were the first to receive both traditionally unprocessed food and processed or convenience foods because we were the first generation with both parents employed away from the home. We were the children of the second wave of feminism.

And what a joy that was - to be honest, I am just as nostalgic about hot dogs cut up into Kraft Dinner as I am about tomatoes from the garden.

(Side note: Almost the only people who can un-ironically talk about the good old days are middle-to-upper class white men because for the rest of us, the good old days cannot be characterized as actually "good." And I say that as a relatively privileged white woman so imagine the story for people of colour and indigenous communities...)

Seeing Tristan, the mother in the reality TV series, balanced in high heels in her immaculate 1950s kitchen after a day of housework - the epitome of the sitcom mother we seem to have confused with biblical womanhood - with a tight smile as she said through gritted teeth, "This was a horrible decade for women" was a reminder of the truth. The joy she portrays in the 70s and 80s episodes when she is finally emancipated from the requirements of exclusive labour intensive domestic life - doing-down, baking the family bread, spending 80 hours cleaning the house, washing clothes by hand, - is palpable and relatable. The advent of dishwashers, a de-centralized approach to caring for the family, the option to resume her work as a nurse, and, yes, Kraft Dinner meant that women had choice for the first time in a long time. And for that I'm incredibly grateful for the sacrifices and work of feminists.  

Christians often tell me that they parted ways with feminism during these decades of the 60s and 70s because they saw it as a “threat to the family” which I find interesting. Prior to that, the first wave of feminism was deeply devout. A lot of the women who were fighting for women's rights, for workers rights, for abolition, and so on were doing so precisely because of their deep Christian faith. These women were disturbing and rabble-rousing and disrupting because they believed the inherent value and dignity of women's lives and votes, duties and responsibilities were God-given. And there was a major second wave of feminism and egalitarianism within the Church as well in the 70s and 80s that deeply influenced me and the women who pastored me.

(Every time someone asks me about this "Crazy New Thing of Christian Feminism," it takes every polite Canadian bone in my body to not howl with laughter.)

One of the reasons I was so drawn to feminism as a young woman was because I saw so much of what I had learned from Jesus there. I saw the Gospel truth that we are all made in the image of God, that the incarnation matters, that God is as much female as male and all points between, that the spaces of the oppressed and marginalized and silenced were the exact places Jesus liked to hang out the most, that women's rights mattered to God because when the flourishing of women mattered, that Jesus thought women were people, that telling the truth was a way to be set free. I saw so much of our full humanity, long affirmed by God, finally being affirmed in a social movement. And I loved it. I still do. That's not to paint a rose-coloured brush over a complex and imperfect movement or pretend I don't have critiques but we’re deeply indebted to second wave and third wave feminism. Their radical, disruptive, counter-cultural, scary-to-the-establishment, imperfect feminism meant that girls like me - born in the 70s and raised in the 80s and coming into adulthood in the 90s - were the recipients of their labour …. one of which is choice.

We were allowed to choose. We had achieved a measure of agency for our own lives at last. We could choose to get married - or not. We could choose to have a credit card, to go to work, to stay home, to travel alone, to have sex, to have children, to talk about pleasure, to garden, to move, to read books, to go to school, to live alone, to preach, to run for office - or not. We could choose. We were not shackled to a particular path simply because of our gender.  That is not to say that it was easy: those paths were still filled with struggle and pain and effort and disruption.

But the more women walked the path and cleared the path for other women coming up behind them, the further we could walk together. (There is still a lot of road ahead here, too, because a whole other conversation I haven’t even touched on here is how that freedom from domestic drudgery was mainly a straight white women’s conversation, lacking intersectionality.) Even the women who claim to eschew feminism now benefit from the choice to do so.

We are still walking those paths, cleared for us by the women who came before us. We have been given so many gifts. Or as Eliza Hamilton might sing, “How lucky we are to be alive right now.”
All of which brings me back to the jam. (You know I’d get here eventually.)

When I post things on social media from my personal life - whether that is making jam or knitting sweaters (I'm an avid knitter) or family life with my kids - I often hear from well-meaning fellow feminists who want to correct me for my choices. They caution that I'm reinforcing heteronormative behaviour for women, that I'm not a good feminist because I am a straight married mother of four who likes to bake bread sometimes, that I’m somehow less of a feminist because now my life is perceived as palatable to the patriarchy.

Oh, there goes that "Jesus Feminist" talking about knitting and baking and her kids - again.

And I, an intellectual and deeply spiritual being with depth and maturity, respond as such: That entirely misses the point. And it is actually evidence of the powers and principalities of patriarchy we seek to dismantle actively still at work.

Because here's the thing: When I post pictures of myself preaching, I get a lot of "yaaassss, girl!" comments. And if I were to post pictures of myself doing other work that people have traditionally viewed as "men's work" such as wood-working or boxing or mowing the lawn, I'd probably also get a lot of "yes, girl, get it!"

But because I also enjoy and find meaningful work that has been traditionally viewed as "women's work" .... somehow this lacks value? These practices aren’t feminist enough? Is that what we're saying? Are we really truly free and egalitarian if we all elevate and amplify only traditionally male practices and hobbies and roles? Just as we get to choose not to do certain things or to hire them out or to purchase them, we get to choose the alternative.

Gracious, the system of patriarchy does ruin everything. Even the simple joy of making jam or knitting a sweater.

Debbie Stoller, founder of the feminist magazine BUST, wrote about reclaiming knitting as a feminist act in her book Stitch n' Bitch: "All the people who looked down on knitting - and housework, and housewives - were not being feminist at all. In fact, they were being anti-feminist, since they seemed to think that only those things that men did, or had done, were worthwhile. Sure, feminism had changed the world, and young girls all across the country had formed soccer leagues, and were growing up to become doctors and astronauts and senators. But why weren't boys learning to knit and sew? Why couldn't we all - women and men alike - take the same kind of pride in the work our mothers had always done as we did in the work of our fathers?"

It can be a profoundly feminist act to reclaim the work of our grandmothers or mothers. In fact, one of my biggest pet peeves is the colloquialism "this ain't your grandmother's _______!" I always want to ask, “What's the matter with our grandmothers?! Our grandmothers paid a price for us to stand where we stand now. Show some respect!” One of my favourite church manifestos ever includes the phrase "We ARE your grandmother's church. And your great-grandmother's church. And your great-great-grandmother's church."

That's more like it.

The notion that “real feminists don’t knit” or “real feminists don’t make jam” or “real feminists don’t stay home with their kids for a while” is inherently patriarchal because it is erasing the agency of the women who make those choices. That’s the thing, right? Choice. You get to choose now. I may not choose the same thing - I mean, I am personally not geared to be a stay-at-home-mum myself - but I sure don’t think another woman is less of a feminist for choosing that path.

This response also denigrates the work we have traditionally seen as women's work as somehow having less value. It tips our hand that we don't value domestic work or craft work, that we don't see it as valuable and meaningful.

We can find God spoken about in Scripture over and over with diverse metaphors and paradoxical phrases: God as a mother hen, God as lion, God as a shepherd, God as a great physician, and so much more. Paul speaks about himself as being a woman in labour (bless his heart). The Kingdom is like a seed, like a woman looking for a lost coin, like yeast in bread all domestic places of encounter. These are all our altars, all our ways of affirming life and joy and creation, the places of meeting with and recognizing and working with and playing with God. God is not and has never been above the incarnation, the goodness of work, the domain of women, so why are we acting like this?

And to be honest - while I"m on this soapbox, I might as well make it count -  I also find this response incredibly privileged because, hi, do you think I clean my house because I love patriarchy or am I cleaning my house because the house needs to be cleaned? It must be nice to live in a world where people clean your house for you and do your laundry and make you food but here in the Land of Grown-Ups on a Limited Income, we aren't even necessarily choosing all of the work as we are finding joy in the ordinary work of being a human being with a responsibilities to feed and house and care for others. I'm a mother of four - that requires more energy than almost anything else in my life and so of course that is a role where I meet with God. (For more this notion, you can read an essay of mine called Rice Krispies, Or My Greatest Spiritual Awakening from a few years ago.)

So I love to wear bright red lipstick and to preach. I love to read thick theology books and chick novels. I love big juicy conversations about the life of the mind and mildly gossipy chats with girlfriends. I love a sip of whiskey and a cup of tea. I love baking bread and I love McNuggets. I cook a family dinner almost every night and some nights that means buttered noodles and freezer meatballs with a can of tomato sauce while other nights are a from-scratch feast. I love women’s ministry and craft nights and I love dropping the word “patriarchy” with a smile in complementarian spaces who have invited me to "share." I love decolonization and I still read magazines about the royal family. I love choices and I love paradoxes. I love justice and I love making jam.

Work that women have traditionally done or enjoyed is not less worthy of praise or joy or meaning simply because women used to do it. In fact, that makes me love it more. I love the line that connects me to my grandmothers, to my great-grandmothers, to the women all the way back who - even without the privileges of our choices - found meaning and purpose, beauty and joy in their work. There is holiness in ordinary work - in creating order out of chaos, of feeding people, of bringing beauty, of creating beauty simply for its own sake.

Every time I pick raspberries, I remember my grandmother. I remember how she desperately wanted to go to school to be a teacher but she was required to leave school in grade 8 to work on the farm. I remember how she loved to hear what I was learning in school, how she loved to smuggle me dog-eared Jalna novels she borrowed from the mobile library that parked at the corner of 4th and McIntosh in Regina. I remember sweet peas on the chain link fence surrounding her garden, the tang and stain of raspberries in my mouth while she hummed Carter Family songs as she worked or muttered profanities at stubborn grandchildren under her breath. I think of her often when I am the only woman on stage at a church conference and when I tell an irate toddler that "No three-year-old is going to boss me" and when I stand in lecture halls before people much more educated than me and when I am the deciding vote on a matter for the board of directors and when I hear the satisfying *pop* of a perfectly sealed jam jar.

P.S. Two books I found very helpful years ago were The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work" by poet Kathleen Norris and In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose by noted novelist and womanist Alice Walker. I also wrote a bit about knitting in this blog post called "Knit One, Purl Joy.


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