How Do You Change Oppressive Gender Dynamics in Your Own Family?

I am currently visiting my family in Utah. I love my family, but the gender dynamics in their household have really got me down. My stepmom works a full time job, then comes home to cook dinner, water the garden, and clean up after my dad and brother. My dad and brother both work full time, but that shouldn’t excuse them from contributing to the household chores. It’s easy to dismiss the dynamics as being part of the Mormon culture, but that is simply unacceptable in my opinion.

I was really angry about this last week, but I decided not to run my mouth about the patriarchy. I have found that my family members just roll their eyes when I say things in anger. But this week I’ve spoken up. I’ve asked my dad to give my stepmom a night off from doing the dishes. I’ve suggested that my brother should be responsible for his share of the household work. And I’ve offered to help teach the men folk how to cook a simple meal so that my stepmom doesn’t have to cook on Sundays. All of this has fallen on deaf ears.

How do you change oppressive gender dynamics in your own family? It’s far easier to petition voters to protect reproductive rights than it is to talk about the patriarchy within our daily interactions with family members. Part of that is that familiarity breeds contempt. If a stranger slams the door in my face when I ask them to vote for a pro-choice candidate, it doesn’t hurt as much as a family member telling me that I’m “just a feminazi” when I ask them to pick their shit up off the floor. I don’t think that my dad or brother intend to be sexist. But they just assume that it is women’s work to clean the house and cook the meals. Boy wouldn’t they be surprised if my stepmom ever decided to go on strike?

My partner and I divide up the housework. I cook, so he does the dishes. We take turns with the laundry, cleaning the bathroom, and mopping the floor. I hate cat poop, so he generously cleans the litter box every day. There’s no fairness in the division of poop scoop labor, but what can I say? I’m spoiled.

When my partner and I decided to move in together, we had a very frank conversation about how we would divide up the housework, and we also talked about our finances. We sit down and balance the checkbook together every week. It’s not the responsibility of either one of us – it is a shared responsibility. He makes more money than I do, but he has never lorded that over me. I feel like we have a very egalitarian relationship. And it just amazes me that we do, since I obviously have a very uneven blueprint in my own family.

What has your experience with patriarchy been like? Does your family have an antiquated gender dynamic, like mine does? Or do your parents and siblings embrace a feminist ethic of housework? Did your family’s division of labor influence your decision to call yourself a feminist? How have you been able to influence the gender dynamics in your family? I’d love to hear from you.

Comments

  1. One thing that helped my mom, in a difficult family situation,was a discussion of the social construction of gender roles. It didn’t change the insidious dogma in my family that males are better BUT it did help her think about why she was being mistreated AND it helped her stand-up for herself.

    I think finding everyday “ins” to conversations about gender roles and expectations can be useful. Small changes can happen quickly but the big changes can take a long time, at least in my experience.

  2. I totally empathize. Since I was 14/15 I have done all my own laundry because I’m physically capable of it and I am an adult. In my house my mom does ALL of the laundry for herself, my dad, and my 27 year old brother. She sorts, washes, and dries all of their clothes and sheets and towels. I find it repugnant and totally backwards. My father works a physically exhausting full time blue collar job, so perhaps having his stay-at-home partner do the laundry is equitable division of labor. But I have no such sympathy for my brother, a grown man who takes advantage of my mother’s self-effacing niceness. Sometimes I try to politely start a conversation about it by asking my brother why his 62-year old mother should break her back taking care of his laundry. Sometimes I am mean and factious and ask him if his legs are broken. Sometimes I throw up my hands and temporarily give up. I know some day he will painfully learn the lesson of how to take care of himself. Until that day I will consider him a child.

    I know I’m supposed to think global, act local, but sometimes, in a dysfunctional backwards family, you just have to content yourself with being the one normal who gets out alive.

  3. freewomyn says:

    Thanks for both of your comments. This has been a frustrating visit for me. It’s not like the patriarchy hasn’t been visible before now, but for some reason it has really frustrated me on this trip.

  4. Hetero relationships are hard. There are so many societal expectations and norms that we take on. I’ve always been in relationships with other feminist but b/c they are often men it’s had to avoid the normal patterns of patriarchy we’ve sometimes fell into.

    As far as your family…it’s a process…goodluck :)

  5. freewomyn says:

    Reconstructing – it is definitely a process. One positive update: when I left Utah on Saturday, I had actually witnessed my dad running a vacuum and mopping the floor. I convinced my brother that washing the dishes were in his best interest, because “chicks dig a guy who does the dishes.” We’ll see if they keep up the changes.

  6. I didn’t grow up with specific work for genders. My mom worked 12 hour shifts in the ER as a nurse and my dad was a handy man. My step dad was a Paramedic who worked 72 hour shifts at a time. Most of my time was spent with my friends and the Housekeeper. Most of my friends were boys so I grew up paying street football, riding bikes with cards in the spokes, and playing in the muddy cannals. The only voice on gender in my life was the housekeeper. She would say things like, “I see you hanging out with those boys” or “that I shouldn’t hang out with boys when I was on my period.” I brushed it off and didn’t take her seriously.
    Since my mom worked I thought housewives were in the minority. A rare thing to be able to stay at home to care for the children and not work. To me, being a housewife is a luxury, something only rich people could do because both parents didn’t have to work.
    I always grew up knowing that I would go to school and work. That’s what everyone is suppose to do, right?
    So, my partner and I don’t have “traditional” gender roles. I work and while he looks for a job (since he quit his last job to move 120 miles away with me) he takes care of a LOT of cleaning. I am grateful that he does much of the domestic work and I make it clear that I am. I think its important that if anyone is doing work they should be appreciated for it. Even when he has a job, we will split the domestic gig because its only fair. I know I don’t do much of the domestic work right now, but that’s also because my back is herniated so I do what I can and he understands.
    As for changing a traditional role- I think the best thing we can do is educate and make sure all children grow up knowing that they have a choice.

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