Context and Motivation

It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World is one of James Brown’s best known songs. And maybe one of the most sexist songs ever written.

I was talking about this song with my boyfriend, and he said that the second verse especially reminded him of the way the church talks about women, the second verse in particular:

Man thinks about a little baby girls and a baby boys

Man makes then happy, ’cause man make them toys

And after man make everything, everything he can

You know that man makes money, to buy from other man

The lyrics emphasize the role of the man as the provider; his job is to make money and buy things for his family. The song is benevolent; life, after all, “wouldn’t be nothing, nothing, not one little thing, without a woman or a girl.” But it refuses to acknowledge the contributions that women have made to the world, and relegates them to the role of more or less an object. Women are not described as having any thoughts, beliefs, or feelings of their own. Instead they are put on a pedestal.

It may be surprising, then, to note that the song was written by a woman, Betty Jean Newsome. Betty Jean Newsome was an ex-girlfriend of James Brown. The lyrics to the song were based on her experience with relationships between men and women, including her relationship with Brown.

Once I learned that, it made me wonder. Does the fact that this song, in all it’s chauvinistic glory, was written by a woman change the meaning?

I think it does. Coming from a woman, these lyrics could be a lament that this is how life is. It could be satire. It could be an homage to the way things are; she could be perfectly content being the object of meaning in a man’s life. She may be repeating the beliefs of the cultural context she is in.

This relates so strongly to Mormon feminism. How often do those of us who identify with feminism have to defend our positions to other women, like those involved in Mormon Women Stand? How often do we hear talks from female church leaders that endorse traditional gender roles, like “The Moral Force of Women”? Or talks that glorify motherhood, like “Mothers Who Know,” in spite of the fact that many women cannot or choose not to have children? Should the fact that women are saying these things make a difference in how we interpret them?

It is so frustrating to me when the very people Feminism is meant to help reject it, often violently. Talking and thinking about the song got me thinking about the intersection of context and motivation. In thinking about talks we hear from women in conference one thought kept coming back to me over and over. A girl gives a talk in sacrament meeting about motherhood; she is reinforced with praise for her faithfulness. Later, she is called to be the relief society president in her singles branch and encourages those in her stewardship to prepare to be wives and mothers; again, those behaviors are reinforced with praise and greater responsibility. In a few decades she ends up in a position of real influence in the church, a rare opportunity for a woman. But nothing or no one has challenged her previous thinking about gender roles, at least not enough to shake them; in fact most people in her life have told her that they are correct. Why risk her position by challenging the accepted wisdom?

I don’t think this is necessarily a conscious process, and I am in no way trying to denigrate my Sisters who think differently than I do. On the contrary, I am trying to understand. When I put myself in their shoes, their talks and ideals and beliefs make sense. I may still disagree, but I no longer have the impulse to disregard. In order to understand the words of others, especially our fellow women, that seem antifeminist, we need to take context in to account. Hopefully that understanding will help us communicate in a more effective way.

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9 Responses

  1. EFH says:

    I am so glad you spoke about context and intentions. Because when I first read the beginning of your post on how this is a sexist song, I got surprised because to me it is the song that awoke the feminist in me. It doesn’t talk about the contributions that women bring to society but it leaves the singer with the feeling that 1. women are important 2. women are invisible and 3. that the listener has to find out how women are important and make the visible.

    What is interesting to me is that how easy it is to interpret the same thing in so many ways at different times. I do notice that when I or other people are feeling very sensitive about a matter, it is easier to get insulted or feel rejected by other people’s comments or disagreements. People more often than not discuss with the intention of convincing others rather than to listen and learn more about the context of a particular issue. The way we perceive and interpret reality and others is definitely a matter of internal sensitivity and attitude.

  2. Rachel says:

    So many interesting things to think about. I think because of the dearth of female voices in church publications and meetings (especially at the general level), I am just so grateful to hear their voices and experiences, even when they diverge from mine. And I do think it makes a difference that something be said my a woman rather than a man, even if the idea be the same, it could carry a different weight or connotation, and be more generous, kind, or empathetic. Thank you again for your thought provoking post.

  3. Liz says:

    This is really fascinating – it will definitely change the way I hear that song.

    I recently had a friend defend patriarchy as a system, because it protects women – women haven’t had to fight in countless wars over the years, women are protected from workplace injuries (and many jobs have been historically dangerous, like mining or construction or law enforcement). And I found this so interesting, because she genuinely appreciated being protected and shielded from those things, whereas I violently rejected being protected (because it stripped away my agency, in my opinion). And it makes me wonder – how much of our resistance to feminism is based on how safe we see the world, and how much we feel protected by the current system?

  4. Anarene Holt Yim says:

    Jess, I don’t know if this is where you meant to go with your post, but I’ve been thinking about all this since I read it yesterday. I’ve been trying to understand Mormon women who say they don’t like feminism. To go along with what Liz said about some women feeling protected by patriarchy, here are some of my guesses on anti-feminist LDS women. (Sorry for the huge stereotypes, but I don’t know another way to express the ideas):

    1. They feel overworked and really really don’t want any more work to do. I think they are genuinely (and perhaps with good reason) afraid that if women are ordained, then women will have to do even more work while the men do even less.

    2. They don’t want to give up the influence they have. I call it more manipulation/ feminine wiles than true influence, but there’s something to be said for, “I have a way to get some of what I want through my role as ‘neck turning the head’ and I don’t want to lose it. I might not have any more power if I lose that, and I don’t know how to get what I want in any other way.”

    3. They think males and females are completely different species, Mars and Venus, and never the twain shall meet. They don’t see similarities and differences between humans, but see everything in male/female terms, and often in a competitive sense.

    4. Along those lines, I know a distressing (to me) number of married women who seem to truly believe that their husbands are smarter and more spiritual than they are. They don’t know that spiritual power is available to them too, that God will speak to them directly. They bought what was taught at church and in the temple, and put themselves underneath the man in their life, and seem to find that position of non-decision-making to be comfortable. I don’t find single women doing this–they take care of themselves and they know they are capable.

    5. Mothers don’t want to feel devalued. They need and want to hear some validation for the hard work of mothering, and they think feminists look down on them. This may be their biggest–and most emotional–disagreement with feminism (as they understand it).

    6. Some women are in good, generally non-patriarchal families, and assume that everyone else has that too. They are happy and comfortable in their marriages with responsibilities divided up based on sex, and don’t understand why everyone else isn’t just as happy as they are.

    Some solutions I’ve thought of in trying to show how feminism helps everyone:

    Get out there and openly model women working together with men in true equal partnerships so that people can see that it’s possible–that men and women aren’t so different that they can’t work together. The church organization could do this if it wanted to, but since that’s not happening, we feminists and our allies will probably have to do it ourselves. The church has no models in this, and it’s a big open spot that we could step into and demonstrate what we envision. (I’m not exactly sure *how* to model it, but I believe it has to be done somehow. Toning down gender roles would be a huge change for the church, and most people can’t imagine what it would look like if the sexes were truly equal and not separate.)

    It has to be clear that women having more power in the church means more people will share the load together, and that women will have real decision-making power, not just more cooking and cleaning to do. Fathers may have easier church loads, and we can talk more about fathers stepping up to be more family-oriented, so women know they won’t be left with all the dirty work.

    Also, let the single women sing their song of independence without giving a message that they’re lovely people, but poor them, they don’t have a husband to be their head. Just let them be smart and show that women are capable. This is one reason I think Sheri Dew was a real asset in the RS presidency. She’s smart and self-assured, and she spoke with confidence. Where I lived, she completely blew people away, because they didn’t know LDS women who spoke like that.

    We can model speaking to men on equal terms. Let women see us talking to church leaders and about church leaders in non-deferential tones. I’m not saying to be rude, which only turns off traditional LDS women, but just speak to men as if they were our younger brothers instead of as if they were above us in a hierarchy. People have to see it to believe that it’s possible, and see that, guess what, the world won’t end if women have opinions!

    There’s probably no way around this, but I think in order to show our sisters that feminism could make their life better, we probably have to talk up motherhood. I know there are huge problems with this, but maybe if we do it in the sense of respecting “our mothers” or “the mothers of the world,” instead of “all women should be mothers and that’s where their worth lies,” it might be a net positive. Do non-feminists know that many of us have children and grandchildren, and love being mothers? Sorry for not being more clear here–I don’t have a great solution to this part of the issue, but I think we have to understand that women in the church have been taught that motherhood is all there is for them, and we somehow need to demonstrate that we’re not taking away from motherhood–we’re trying to add opportunities and blessings to it.

    And for #6, women at church have to hear other people’s stories of being hurt by patriarchy. They have to really understand that even if they are in an equal and happy marriage and even if their bishop is a good guy, abuse and unrighteous dominion are happening right now to other people, both in the church, and in families because of the church. They won’t read Mormon Stories to see the collection of stories that John Dehlin is putting together this week, so we will have to openly share those stories when we can.

    • Shelley says:

      Seriously? Since a couple of you here are so interested in why there is animosity towards feminists from so-called “anti-feminists” (your term, not mine), let me enlighten you from my point of view. I started looking at the feminist perspective quite a while ago, quietly reading blogs, including this one, in an effort to understand. Recently, I have come to the conclusion that militant feminism is not for me. I have no desire to take offense at every tiny comment, no desire to spend my worship time counting how many speakers from which gender are speaking, or how many non-references to women there are in the lessons and scriptures, no desire to* belittle and demean a man’s contribution to society or the family in an effort to make myself “equal” (especially when I don’t believe there is inequality…different, but equal)

      *(see Kate Kelly’s offensive and mean spirited contribution a while ago about male “allies”…were I an ally, I wouldn’t be one anymore after reading that).

      I don’t want your “help”. I do not need your help; and I daresay the mainstream LDS woman doesn’t want it either. Don’t portray me as some shrinking violet who doesn’t dare speak out. I am a healthcare executive, I have influence at work and a valued opinion. I am a Primary president, I speak up at ward council and have had two bishops who seek my opinion regularly. I have two amazing daughters who know that they have no limits due to their gender…they can achieve anything, anything they want to. I have a husband who I am an equal partner with as we care for and support our four children together.

      Animosity is born when you feminists tell me that I am brainwashed (I most definitely am not); that I don’t realize what an equal partnership looks like (how do you know that, you are not ME); that I am happy with the little influence I have but too dumb to realize I could be happier with so much more influence (not true, I have all the influence I need to do what I need to do); that I need validation for being a mother (speechless at that one, are you kidding me? I don’t need validation from anybody); or that I am too stupid and brainwashed (again) to recognize that I am a member of a patriarchal organization (guess what, I know exactly what patriarchy is, and yes, in the world it is generally a bad thing…guess what, monarchy is generally considered a bad thing too, but when Christ returns to earth, that is exactly what we will have, right? So it looks like God can take something that humans mess up and do it right…guess who leads the LDS church, oh that’s right, God).

      I was going to take my view on militant feminism quietly with me into the sunset until I read this post. I think it’s ridiculous to whine (yes, whine) about holding a baby during a blessing. You realize the blessing is from God, right? So what if it’s only male priesthood holders who are holding the baby? It seems to me if that is what you are focusing on, you are missing the big picture.

      I think it stunning that you are surprised when your bishop or stake president expresses concern with your alliance with OW. I read the OW “materials” and found them to be chock full of half truths and quotes taken out of context and deliberately meant to lead women AWAY from the gospel. No, the prophet is not infallible, but the prophet, the First Presidency, and the Quorum of the Twelve all saying the SAME thing about ordination for women, that is infallible. Infallible.

      So, I will choose to follow the prophet. Who, Kate, will ALWAYS be on the right side of history. I believe in a perfect God who knows way more than I do, and if He wants men to hold the priesthood, that is fine by me (I have theories about why this is the case, not sharing them here) because He is perfect and is very capable of taking care of His daughters.

      • Liz says:

        I find this tremendously interesting, because while you might be fine where you are and feel no further use for feminism in your life, it has clearly benefited you – you’re a healthcare executive! That’s huge! Your daughters get to go to school and choose their own paths! And even serving as a Primary President – you wouldn’t be serving as Primary President if women in the church hadn’t seen a need for a children’s organization and petitioned the prophet for one! So while you might see no further change (and really, that’s totally fine), I think it’s worth realizing that many feminists and agitators made all of these amazing things in your life possible. And I’m guessing we would probably agree (although you can correct me if I’m wrong) that feminism is still needed on a global scale, as many of our sisters in other countries don’t enjoy the same privileges we do on many, many levels.

    • Ziff says:

      I liked your comment, Anarene.

    • EmilyCC says:

      Anarene, I really appreciate your thoughts on how to make feminism more inclusive and applicable here.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    Shelley, thank you for reading and discussing here. I’m glad to know more about you, your family, and the good you do. The Church and Mormon feminism needs more women like you. Could you help me see the animosity in Anarene’s and Jess R’s words? I see their attempts to understand perspectives different from their own, and I feel much the same way.

    I’m glad you see things as fine. I have family and friends who agree with you. I don’t want to take that away from anyone, but I also don’t want to negate the pain and loss that some are feeling with the current structure. It takes all different ways of thinking to come up with effective solutions and it takes patience and grace on all our parts.

    And, it’s hard when I feel like the lone voice in a difficult conversation, so I particularly appreciate your efforts to engage and hope you won’t ride off into the sunset just yet.

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