I, like many, dread the weeks we talk about gender roles at church. These conversations are often trite and repetitive and serve to alienate those who fall outside the prescribed ideals for men and women. My Relief Society had one of these lessons several weeks ago and I was pleasantly surprised that the class actively engaged with the topic and sometimes critically pushed against some of the more restrictive ideas. For example, the class had compiled a list female roles, a typical list that included things like women are nurturers. At one point one of the counselors in Relief Society presidency pointed out that there was not one role on the list that men could not fulfill except for the physical act of giving birth.
There were several comments along this line that filled my little feminist heart with joy. And just as I was basking in the glory of having a lesson on gender roles that didn’t make me want gouge my eyes out, a dear sister raised her hand and expressed her concern that men are losing their identity. She felt that with the advent of feminism men are no longer sure what their place is in the world.
This is an argument that gets played out quite a bit. There are a multitude of books, articles, academic studies, advocacy movements, etc. that deal with the question of “what about the men?” A lot of feminists dismiss this question as ridiculous because it’s not like the power structures have radically changed. Men are still mostly in power and women are still systematically discriminated against. The feminist movement hasn’t changed this. However, “what about the men” is a valid question.
Maybe I say this because I am the mother of two little boys and I worry about them finding their way in this world. In many respects they won the genetic lottery by getting a Y chromosome, there are lots of privileges that come along with that Y. But on the other hand, it’s not always a picnic either, there are many restrictions and expectations that our society places on men that are downright abusive. As a mother, I worry about the day when my sweet little boys have to contort and change themselves so they can fit some preconceived notion of what it means to be a man.
Feminists have always argued that patriarchy is just as damaging to men as it is to women. And recently anti-male violence activists such as Jackson Katz and Tony Porter have been making this same argument. There is this wonderful TED talk that Tony Porter recently gave that discusses this very issue. I recommend watching the whole video (trigger warning for sexual violence) but there is one part in particular that has really stuck with me. Porter says:
I need you working with me and me working with you on how we raise our sons and teach them to be men. That it’s okay to not be dominating. That it’s okay to have feelings and emotions. That it’s okay to promote equality. That it’s okay to have women that are just friends and that’s it. That it’s okay to be whole.
That my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.
That last line is exceptionally profound and speaks to me as a Latter-day Saint. If there is anything that the restored gospel teaches us it is that we are inextricably linked. Women and men need each other to liberate themselves from the evils of mortality and receive exaltation. But we have botched this doctrine by clinging to patriarchy. Even in its most benign form, patriarchy negates any efforts of women on behalf of men and makes men’s efforts to liberate women heretical. Women are to be “led, persuaded and gently guided.” Where is the liberation for anybody in this?
I understand that some men will feel that they no longer have a place if we do away with the patriarchal order, but male identity and a world without patriarchy are not mutually exclusive. Male identity can still be found in service and equal partnership with women; in fact, that’s where it has always truly been. To understand that our liberation, our happiness and eventual exaltation is tied together should be enough to give all of us purpose. So I don’t worry for the future of my sons in a world without patriarchy as long as they find purpose in advancing the cause of equality for their sisters. But a future that requires them to mold themselves into patriarchs, well, that is immensely more terrifying.