Growing up, Briony (name has been changed), the youngest of the spawned-in-the-90s half of my family, was the funny kid. Even though my older siblings had more interesting things to say, I preferred to hang out with Bri. We could play much sillier games and talk about much sillier things. She was a much-welcomed distraction from the oh-so-serious academic pursuits of us Senior Primary kids. Early on it was decided my older sister was the biology kid and that I should pursue history: we effectively had our college majors picked out before we were ten. I never thought of Briony having a place in all that; I guess I just assumed she was too young.
Years passed. When I took some time to renew my connection with Bri the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I hardly recognized her. This was a Briony who couldn’t spell “embarrassing,” who’d replaced the noun in our oh-so-clever childhood insult “you’re such a papoose” with “nerd,” who (gasp) wanted to be a cheerleader. She didn’t even seem to belong to my family. She began to make an identity out of (what I saw as) her hobbies of gymnastics and volleyball. I remember one time, when I mentioned I might go out for track, she laughed and said, “I’m the athlete in the family.” I was hurt and confused by her anti-intellectualism; her values and priorities, in general, seemed antithetical to my own, and yet we’d grown up in the same house. I blamed her friends (for her absorption of high school stereotypes), her young women’s leaders (for relentlessly teaching the pursuit of boys over creative or academic interests), and my mom (for raising her, unlike my older sister, to be a homemaker instead of a careerwoman).
It was only years afterward I learned she had a learning disorder. That doesn’t explain everything, but I think it does help account for her antipathy toward, say, my family’s late-night discussions of obscure doctrine, abstract philosophy, and The Silmarillion. I had mistakenly assumed that her cultural choices and beliefs had nothing to do with comfort level, (perceived) ability, or acquired preference.
I think feminists sometimes make the same mistake with gender traditionalists. The traditionalists, too, claim that they’re the athlete, in effect, reserving for themselves an exclusive domain in life (read: provider/nurturer) as a way of claiming an easy identity–one distinct from personality. After a lifetime of not only being taught gender roles, but training to live up to them, people become to some extent defined by them. They embody the stereotypes of the mother devoted to her husband and children, without many outside interests; or the “tough guy” father who works two jobs to pay for his kids’ music lessons but has never told them “I love you.”
It’s easy (and right) to decry the philosophy that teaches this is how it should be, and that no other choices are viable for you than the ones appointed your gender. But the people who live it may be extremely uncomfortable stepping outside of the bounds set for them. They may not think they’re capable of expressing affection and preparing a gourmet meal (for men), or of bringing home the bacon and managing a pocketbook (for women). And in some ways they’re right to think so: for instance, most stay-at-home husbands don’t actually contribute to the household like their female counterpart; for them, staying home means leisure activities like video games and television.
Because gender roles are human roles, anyone who believes in any variant of “anatomy is destiny” will likely be very attached to that belief. So, although I firmly believe that the way gender is taught to youth in the Church needs to be changed, it’s important to advocate for this in a way that doesn’t make the 50-year-old housewife feel like she wasted her life, even if she isn’t as generous to women who aren’t housewives. Even to her, far after she’s made her choice, the debate over women’s roles means far more than scoring a doctrinal point. We need to realize that she may feel her lifestyle being threatened. We need to let her know that greater gender equality doesn’t threaten her personal preference for the traditional role.