A recent conversation with my girlfriend G has me thinking a lot about gender dynamics and relationships. She made an observation about many of the men she met experimenting with dating online, and stated that many claimed to be looking for a “good Christian woman” or a woman able to “submit as God instructs.”
G says these fellas are basically looking for Celie—the often-abused protagonist in The Color Purple who had great difficulty finding her way and her womanhood, but who diligently served her awful husband. We giggled as girlfriends do over good wine and good conversation, but our talk is still sticking with me.
I grew up in a traditional Southern, Christian home with a hard-working, hard-handed father and a quick-witted, hold-no-punches mom. Though my mother was, and still is, a great feminist example for me (I watched her actively make decisions about her life, and once she was determined, she could not be stopped), she still spent her entire adult life taking care of my father and us.
In many ways, their relationship was quite egalitarian—they both worked and contributed to ensuring that the house ran smoothly. My father handled the bills and fixed whatever needed fixin’, but he also cooked (occasionally) and chauffeured us active kids around when instructed to. But I realize now that, as amazing as he was and as much as I hung my world on him, he didn’t do enough.
When I married, I carried my mother with me, in action and behavior. I was the primary cook, shopper, housekeeper and childcare provider. As did my mother, I anticipated and took care of all my husband’s needs—down to buying his deodorant, his favorite soap and snacks.
When my daughter was born, I arranged for her care almost completely, whether it was finding a nanny or scheduling doctor’s appointments. I managed the household budget and business too, all while working full time and pursuing an advanced degree. Somehow I managed to do more than my mother, even as I realized she did too much. Needless to say, I ended up confessing to my therapist (in tears) that I felt enslaved.
I never contemplated what kind of wife I wanted to be, or why I felt obligated to take on so much responsibility. I just did what I’d seen all of the women I knew do all of their lives. I felt guilty when I (like Janie did in Their Eyes Were Watching God) began to feel unfulfilled, and wondered “where the singing bees were for [me]?” I wanted to be nurtured and cooked for, to share more of the parenting load.
We must begin contemplating how traditional gender roles play out in our love relationships, and if those performances make both involved healthy and happy.
All of these experiences resurfaced after my conversation with G. I realized that it wasn’t until I’d fully become a “traditional wife” that I found womanism, my voice, and an understanding that I own the license to choose the kind of wife or lover or mother I want to be—or if I wish to be one at all.
In All About Love, feminist thinker and author bell hooks considers where the second wave of feminism failed women of color. Their mistake then (and continues to be in large part today) was a lack of inclusion and recognition of the unique issues Black women faced. We’ve always worked outside the home and we weren’t interested in burning our bras. One of the primary goals of the time should have been helping Black women and men form equal partnerships, with roles in the relationship determined by strengths and experience as opposed to gender.
Regardless of what many think, Black feminists don’t hate men. Many of us want nothing more than to love them, join with them, and make gorgeous Black babies. If such building is to be, we must begin contemplating how traditional gender roles play out in our love relationships, and if those performances make both involved healthy and happy.
I understand many religions teach that men should lead their wives and their families. The Bible provides this lesson in Ephesians 5:23, 1 Peter 3:1, Colossians 3:18 and elsewhere. The Qu’ran also states—in Suras 4:34, 2:223 and 66:5—that men should head women. Even those who aren’t particularly religious, like me, find themselves following these traditional roles without thought.
Some say that patriarchy is a byproduct of organized religion; one has to judge that idea on one’s own. What I do know is, the weight of leading and the weight of following are heavy loads. And no dis, but many brothers aren’t adhering to traditional gendered “roles” and “responsibilities” themselves as they ask women to. When I hear some Black men say they’re looking for traditional, submissive mates, I can’t help but think they are, instead, looking for mules.
Zora Neale Hurston once wrote that Black women are the mules of the earth in 1937. In 2014, we’re onto something brighter, flyer and higher.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic, griot and soldier of love. Connect with her via Twitter @jonubian.