Marriage is at once the most public and the most private of institutions. On the private side, although we can both be incredibly stubborn, my husband has never treated me with the slightest hint of condescension or domineering. Even in the early days of our marriage when he was still a believer, it would never have so much as crossed his mind to pull priesthood rank, which is of course one of the reasons I married him. But as ECS’s excellent post about the cultural blind spots in which women reside recently reminded me, whatever private arrangements husband and wife make, for women, marriage can mean social invisibility.
My first intimations of my impending invisibility came during our engagement. We went together to make the security deposit on our apartment, and the older woman who took our money and wrote out the receipt would speak only to my husband. She refused to address me or so much as meet my eye, despite the fact that I was the one writing the check. (I’m older than my husband, and I was already out of school and working at the time.) I was completely taken aback. I’d been single and relatively independent for years, and I was used to people dealing with me directly for the simple reason that there was no one else to deal with. Now I suspect that the woman was simply doing what was proper a couple of generations ago–addressing the man of the house. But at the time her attitude made me profoundly uneasy about the public aspects of marriage. Would I continue to be regarded as a person after I married? What exactly was I getting myself into?
To my relief, over the past almost twelve years I’ve now been married, such experiences have been rare (and much rarer since we’ve left Utah, it must be said)–but every person who has ignored me to speak only to my husband has been, without exception, Mormon. People outside of the church generally take it for granted that I have my own interests and my own life. Even at the many social gatherings of psychology graduate students and psychologists I’ve endured over the years, my husband’s fellow students and colleagues, although they often can’t be restrained from the inevitable jargon-laden shop talk, address me as an individual, and generally inquire about my life, work, and education. At church, by contrast, I have sometimes experienced marriage as a profound demotion. For me, there have been two phases: when I’ve been pursuing my own education (particularly when I was at BYU) I’ve sometimes been regarded with suspicion and hostility. I was one of “those” women with embarrassingly evident ambitions of my own, and our lack of children played straight to stereotype. On the other hand, during the long years I was putting my husband through graduate school, I felt as if I were making a tremendous sacrifice that was completely invisible to the good men and women at church who were saturated in their cultural assumptions (as of course we all are). No one seemed to see the hopes, dreams, and life-sustaining intellectual pleasures I had given up to move to a remote rural area so that my husband could pursue his, because only “those” women had such hopes and dreams. Many of the other women in my situation seemed to regard their own educations and jobs as trifling or peripheral or as a means to the all-important end of getting a husband. For both men and women, my sacrifice of my formal education was nothing remarkable, just “natural” to women, who after all, if we’re good (not like “those” women of the world with ideas and ambitions of our own), don’t have any educational or career desires to give up. It was sometimes immensely frustrating to be demoted to M___’s wife precisely because the demoters seemed blithely unaware that I had ever been, or might ever desire to be, anything else.
When we were at BYU, there were the home teachers we had as a married couple, who, upon seeing my half-unpacked books all over the living room, asked my husband in tones of (truly frightening) awe if he had been a philosophy major, and when I told them that I had been the philosophy major, they were embarrassed and quickly changed the subject to figure out what my husband did, lines of inquiry about my life and interests evidently being irrelevant. There was the home teacher who, after listening to my husband analyze a gospel issue largely along the lines of a recent marital conversation to which I had substantially contributed, turned to me and asked me if I didn’t just love to sit at my husband’s feet and absorb his deep words of wisdom. Although we’ve been fortunate to have excellent home teachers for years now, a number of past pairs have talked only to my husband about his schooling, his work, and his life and have ignored me entirely, leaving me to wonder why I was there at all. And during my years at BYU, I encountered male students who seemed particularly uncomfortable that I had continued my education after marriage and were eager to put me in my place, who would tell me anxiously and repeatedly that their wives had no academic interests or read me sexist passages from nineteenth-century writers with evident relish. Although the Mormon men who indulge in these petty sexisms are a shrinking minority, I have never once encountered such blatant put-downs from non-Mormon men.
Most Mormon men I know are perfectly courteous and polite, and yet a significant minority continue to treat me as subtlely irrelevant, unable to contribute meaningfully to conversations about ideas, politics, social issues, or the gospel. What’s really alarming is the patronizing chivalry that sometimes thinly masks these attitudes–oh, you charming women who have the angelic patience to do jobs we could never do (read: can’t stand the thought of doing) like wiping dirty bums and quieting screaming children all day, you’re so much more naturally divine than we groveling beasts who because of our fallen nature must concern ourselves with law, business, science, deep doctrine, and generally running the world. To such men the marriage of dangerously intellectual or ambitious women sometimes appears an almost palpable relief; now she can be enveloped in her divine nature. (Of course, such men wouldn’t dream of marrying dangerously intellectual or ambitious women themselves; we’ve all seen the prevailing pattern of singles’ wards in which the male graduate students date–not the female graduate students, heavens no!–but the female undergraduates. But that’s already been exhaustively and exhaustingly covered in posts of years past.)
Demoted to Mrs. How exasperating, and how sad, that in the true and living Church of Jesus Christ, we continue to experience faint cultural pulsations emanating from the likes of the Taming of the Shrew, more than 400 years on.