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The Feminist Wife

The day I got engaged, I was given a gift by two women. Jared and I, plus parents and friends, spit olive pits and poured out champagne, dazedly staring toward Lake George. Bolognese appeared and then cake, our two names calcified in curly frosting. It was all so much—candlelit, glamorous—and yet still not enough to mark that moment of asking: private, undocumented on a dusty bluff. Those hours post-engagement had been punctuated by shocks of sudden remembering. I brushed my teeth and thought; we’ll have children. I zipped my dress; we’ll renovate a kitchen. Looked at the lake; one of us will grieve the other.

I tore the paper; my ring made rainbows from light. The gift, from two mothers of two friends from college, was a squat purple book called The Bride’s Book of Lists. One massive to-do: steak and potatoes, gardenias, buttercream, contracts, hotel blocks, Rolls Royce rentals. 

I paged through the lists. “Gather family and friends to celebrate your engagement!” I rooted in my purse for a pen, found one, and placed a check next to the item.

Meanwhile, Jared opened his gift. The Husband’s Handbook: slim, black, simple. How to make breakfast. How to fold a shirt. Seriously?

As we forked at the cake, I read the Book of Lists beneath the table. So many tasks. A veil: tulle or lace? A first dance: which tempo? Lines to record phone numbers on. A pocket to keep business cards in. 

“Look at her,” said my mother. “She can’t stop reading.”

*

I’ve always loved what used to be called “women’s work.” At sixteen, I planned my high school prom, themed “A Walk in The Park.” I complained of the burden, but really I relished it: matching shades of green, cultivating centerpieces, ordering Italian sodas. I enjoy throwing parties, and baking peanut butter cookies; I like making dinner reservations, and vacuuming. I get visceral pleasure from spraying countertops with grapefruit-scented cleaning spray.

My mother stayed home from when I was born until my younger brother left for college. She taught me everything I know. How to theme a birthday party. How to wash fruit. How to dust. How to write a thank-you note. She also taught me to read and how to subtract, using dried pasta for counters. She took me to libraries and science museums. She made me smarter. And she did it all brilliantly, seemingly (but not actually) without effort, the smooth-sailing duck with flapping feet underneath. Home for Thanksgiving: my great-aunt peers at the sweet potatoes, and studies the autumnal flatware. “Someday this will be your job,” she says, and I don’t feel annoyed, just proud.

After Thanksgivings, I went back to Cambridge, to a school rather newly allowed to my kind. Harvard didn’t go co-ed until 1977. The library I worked shifts in was built in the ’40s, men only. Girls from Radcliffe (the affiliated women’s college just up Garden Street) would send boys to get their course books, call numbers penciled on paper scraps. According to legend, Harvard men liked to study with their shoes off; the stench might have offended the fairer sex, and so women were kept from the stacks. Interestingly, Radcliffe was printed on Harvard women’s degrees until 1999; female alumni wanted their hard-won legacies acknowledged.

My homemaker skills were no longer of value—not in this place.

I made mac n’ cheese for freshmen advisees, and bought tinsel for the ministry Christmas party. I did statistics, read Kant, and went abroad. I thought of my mother, and missed her. Her tutelage, I knew, had prepared me to think and thrive in this place. I wouldn’t be here without her. And yet, for me to stay home as she did would be wasteful. Wouldn’t it? A waste of tuition and airfare, a waste of educational capital. My homemaker skills were no longer of value—not in this place. Indeed, they were skills no woman could flaunt if she wanted to be taken seriously.

My roommate worked summers selling cupcakes, making espressos and wiping frosting off the counter. On her resume, under Interests: “cupcakes.” A talking point; a truth. She’d also worked for Liberty Mutual. But our college advisor told her to cut it. No cupcakes. Too girly for Wall Street. Sad but true, she said. You’ll be stereotyped immediately.

I worked at a legal think tank that studied parental leave policy. One of the tank’s Top Five Tips for working women: “Don’t be the office party planner.” Lean in. No cupcakes. One weekend, the think tank hosted a conference. I was sent across the street to buy more yogurt for guests, checked the microphone batteries, and arranged napkins.

I worked at a publishing house. I went outside to get lunch. It was raining, so I opened my umbrella. Another employee laughed. “Only a woman would have an umbrella.” This was the man that frequented my cubicle to ask for almonds (he was hungry), a phone charger (he’d left his at home), an aspirin (headache). At first, I was offended. And then, I was pleased. Yes. Perhaps only a woman would be so prepared—a woman who’d learned how to pack a purse with everything she and her people would need.

And yet, I kept my fears close. I told myself the Ivy League story of the independent, professional woman, a woman who succeeds by particular metrics (money, position, influence). “My mom could never have stayed at home,” proclaims one friend. “She was just too ambitious.” “My parents have separate bank accounts,” says another. “My mom could never be dependent on my dad.” I share the news with a classmate. “Congrats!” she says. Then, immediately: “My mom says not to get married before thirty.” Do what you want. Don’t be held back. Don’t settle, and don’t sacrifice. The risks are too great. What if Jared gets tenure in Texas? What if having children means no time to write? How can I entirely trust this person? Don’t all husbands reassure their wives just before plastering up yellow wallpaper? I fear squandering my expensive education, taking the library for granted, letting my feminist forebears down. The story goes that once you give him an inch, he’ll take a mile; and your life will be over. The story is about solidarity: we women must stick together, hold out. We’ve come too far. 

When I tell other women the news, I’m embarrassed. I make excuses. Twenty-five (Jared’s age) is almost thirty! Twenty-four (my age) will soon be twenty-five. It’s actually about career; Jared’s salary will free me up to write more. It’s actually about money, tax breaks and shared rent. It’s all practical, I promise. It’s all selfish, really. I make excuses. I rationalize. I play it cool. I implicitly beg. Don’t think that I’m out of the game. Don’t think that I’ll never publish my book. Don’t think I’m not a feminist. Please still take me seriously. Don’t think I’m done.

My story honors those less privileged women more than it honors me

*

But this isn’t really my story. My story is sappy, cliched, about love. My story is also Jared’s—a person who might ask for sacrifice, but will sacrifice in turn. And fundamentally (the fact I too often forget) my story is a Christian one. It finds flourishing in selflessness, and forbids worry about a God-fashioned future. It creates a dignified womanhood defined by His love, not by where I work or, for that matter, how many children I have. It honors women who are educated and women who are not, women who have the resources to make these choices and women who do not, the women who must work, and the women who must stay home, women who work as maids and nannies so other women can work in offices. In fact, my story honors those less privileged women more than it honors me. It is flexible and dynamic.

Staying home is what my mom’s love looked like; it is not the only way to give, but it was her way, and it may or may not be my way. When my friends say their moms couldn’t stay home (they were too smart, and too driven) I flare with defensiveness for my mother, also smart and driven. For the validity of her vocation. The dignity of her choice. A choice that, for twenty-two years, her own friends subtly belittled: told her how lucky she was to not have a ‘real job,’ told her how great it must be to stay home. Yeah right. I witnessed her work—it was real and holy.

*

I spend hours on Pinterest instead of writing. I contemplate the color “dusty sage.” I schedule a cake tasting. I adore this stuff. It’s good that I do—for although I’m not thirty, I’m still expected to plan a perfect wedding. That’s one thing that hasn’t really changed. Radcliffe girls had their lists: the calligrapher, the florist, the baker. We Harvard girls have them too; in the hours after all our accomplishments, we are also expected to buy pizza and tinsel.

I still get my work done, and yet feel guilty for the hours I spend otherwise. The guilt of the working mother, away from her children. The guilt of the young bride, away from her ‘ambition.’ The guilt of the woman who hates entertaining, the guilt of the woman who craves it. The guilt of my mother, so long ‘unemployed.’ The guilt of the single woman at a school that says“ring by spring.” The guilt of the married woman at a graduate school in New York. From our guilt, we criticize each others’ choices, thereby making our own more palatable. Christian women shame our secular friends, quietly, to ourselves; we are the “good girls.” Secular women turn around and shame us. You’re a virgin? They’ve convinced you your body is dirty. You’re pro-life? They’ve told you that cells are worth more than your success, health, and autonomy. You struggle with those verses that say only men should teach? Your Bible actually says that? They’ve made you a slave. Poor dear. You’ve been hoodwinked by the patriarchy—a God called father, a husband named master.

And yet, it’s all more complex than this judgment implies; for we are each more complex than all that, as are the roles we will feel compelled to play. A call for grace, women—a solidarity that affirms and interrogates our own decisions while also affirming opposites, compromises, changes of mind. A feminism that isn’t afraid of what it might lose, but awed by all it can contain.

Katherine Lucky is the Managing Editor at Commonweal. Follow her on Twitter @katherinejlucky.

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