One of my first posts at ZD was about what I called my “feminist awakening.” I pinpointed it to a particular summer, the first of my graduate studies. But, I don’t think it really explained the bigger picture of what really was happening. That summer wasn’t the beginning of my discomfort with gender inequality, it was just the first time I named it. And, it was the first time I really dealt with something I came to term “gender coercion.” And by gender coercion, I mean:
The forcing of another party to act out gendered expectations in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation, or some other form of pressure or force.
Going back, I can’t remember the first time I realized that being a “girl” meant that most people saw me as less-than. It seems I was always aware of it. I come from a family of all sisters, me being the oldest. I remember very seriously and solemnly apologizing to my dad one night when I was eight years old, tears running down my face, for not being the boy he deserved and being part of the burden of only-daughters. Regardless of his loving response, the point is that I had internalized the idea from somewhere that I wasn’t enough.
Being in a family of sisters had its distinct advantages, though. For example, there were no brothers to do “manly chores” that I wouldn’t get to do–we all shared in the weeding, lawn mowing, bathroom cleaning, and laundry equally. Though, of course, I noticed that boys got to pass the sacrament and go to boy scouts, at least I never had to hear about it more than once a week and even then, indirectly. I never saw my parents treat any of my siblings differently than they treated me. I acknowledge that I internalized ideas from culture that discouraged me from becoming the engineer I thought I wanted to be as a ten year old, but I also was very openly (and persistently) encouraged throughout high school by my parents to work hard in school so I could get college scholarships.
All of this is to say that, through luck, my sisters, and my parents’ encouragement of our intellects and talents, I think I may have developed a much more egalitarian worldview in my childhood and teen years than many of my friends.
Because of this, I dealt pretty well with Young Women’s because I had internalized, somewhere along the way, that my life had a great deal of agency. I knew that the lessons may be beating me over the head with “someday my prince will come” metaphors and bread-making activity nights, but I didn’t have to be threatened by them. “I can get a PhD, no problem,” I would think, “And these other girls can choose to get married at 19 and not get PhDs if they want. Also, not a problem.” Or “Sure, maybe they like doing cross-stitch, but I don’t have to.”
This continued on through college, with some small challenges that I simply shrugged off as anomalies.
Essentially, I had a kind of live and let live attitude. Your choice. My choice. They can be different. And I didn’t feel like anyone (normal) had any real problem with that.
Until that first summer of graduate school.
As I alluded to in that first post, the Joseph Smith Seminar was the first time I was professionally involved with other mostly-Mormon men (and one or two women). And all of the sudden, I wasn’t allowed to be “my choice”–I found myself shoved into the stereotypical Mormon paradigms of womanhood, without my consent.
I felt…I didn’t know what to feel! Shocked? Hurt? Confused? Violated? Betrayed?
One year later, I was engaged to be married and I dealt with an even more violent sense of coercion within the covenants, symbolism, and words of the temple. Feeling coerced by my parents and extended family to attend regardless of my serious reservations and pain didn’t help…
I had always cherished that supremely Mormon value of free agency, the knowledge that we had a Heavenly Mother, the sense of divine worth I’d carefully developed in my family and on my own, the peaceful and equal relationship I had with my fiance…but they all were threatened–no, more than threatened–by this experience that seemed to be cruelly fine-tuned to force me to accept a worldview, suddenly and without prior explanation, that went against my greatest truths. I thought and still think it is horrific that my wedding day to such a wonderful person and my best friend was also the day my soul was ritually marginalized…through my own spoken words coerced from my mouth by social pressure, fear, and confusion.
If that sounds violent and dramatic, it’s because it was.
A month later, I found that life in a family ward was, in many ways, much more restrictive than my Boston singles ward ever was. Because I was someone’s wife now I wasn’t allowed to be me anymore–I felt coerced to play a role others expected me to suddenly perform in a way I never felt as a child, teen, or single adult.
Over the years, I’ve tried to identify various methods and iterations of this gender coercion I’ve regularly experienced from both men and women, and actually naming them has helped…
- Ignoring or belittling any of my achievements that are not part of the approved list of womanly talents (stay-at-home parenting, housework, crafting, food preparation)
- Addressing only my husband when discussing decisions for our family
- Comparing me (favorably or un-) to other, more “gender-acceptable” women in the ward
- Instructing me that I need approval from a male leader for very small decisions (e.g. book club selections)
- Refusing to let me keep my last name on any church-related records
- Verbally indicating an expectation for me to perform woman-associated work (babysitting, cooking, cleaning) in any setting, regardless of my assigned responsibilities
- Heck, simply not making eye contact or speaking to me at all
- Being the subject of jokes about my female mind/stereotypes.
- Assigning my life choices as simply, obediently trailing along behind my husband
- Being told, with a tone of surprise, “That was a very smart comment!”
- Never being asked any questions about my personal or intellectual interests by most male church members and many female members
- Addressing my husband first in, and for the majority of, any conversation
- Threatened with eternal separation from my family if I do not participate in ritual that contradicts my sense of divine worth
Have you ever felt this way–coerced into a stereotypical gender role against your will? What are some ways this exhibits itself? I feel like the more we can identify the mechanisms, the less helpless we feel when confronted with them again.