There are a lot of people out there who need a lot of reality training. Take, for instance, this woman my mother met in the grocery store one day who said “What do we need farmers for? I get my food from the grocery store”. Or the women who constantly told my mother she was inferior because she was “just a housewife”. Or the….
Wait. Right there. I want to address a common phenomenon that occurs in our society. It is known as the informative anecdote. It is so ubiquitous, you have likely heard at least one. You have probably told at least one, even if you do not realize your complicity. The two stories above? They are informative anecdotes. They are also untrue.
The interesting thing about that “farmers” anecdote is that I have heard the exact same story, using the exact same words, from at least seven sources. These sources are widely separated in time and space, so likely did not hear the same person. They also likely did not hear anyone say that at all. They most likely heard the anecdote from someone else, someone who heard it from someone else, and everyone eventually internalized the anecdote and believed they had actually lived the experience. Most of the people I hear it from are showing scorn and contempt for “city” people or “coastal elites”. A few of them were “coastal elites” trying to show scorn and contempt for their own. It would be interesting to track down the first ever reported incident of this anecdote, but I suspect even then we would not be able to determine if it was actually true, since the reported encounter itself would be lost in the mists of time.
I would like to spend much more time on the other anecdote. In fact, that is the reason for writing this column. The farmer anecdote is an amusing little tale, but does little to harm real people. The other one, the one about the hateful feminists dismissing a large segment of female society, is harmful. It is harmful to the cause of feminism and equal rights, because it gets thrown out there whenever and wherever feminists show up, and even some feminists have been responsible for spreading this anecdote out of guilt and shame that their “sisters” could have been so blind.
My mother never experienced this; she imagined the whole thing. She would fume and rail about “feminists” (most of whom weren’t) calling her “just a housewife”. I was with her on most of these occasions, and no one said that. No one even implied that. She could be met with the utmost courtesy and decency, and if someone, say, a loan officer or a credit card application, asked her for her occupation, then wrote it on the form, she would hear them say “just a housewife” or read scorn and contempt into the mere action of writing a word on a form – the word she herself had just said in answer to a perfectly reasonable question.
I hear a lot about how feminists have scorned stay-home mothers and housewives. I have read a lot of feminist literature. I have personally spoken with and listened to a lot of feminists. I have actually never seen that phenomenon. Oh, I’m sure it’s out there, individual feminists who put down women who make different choices, but for the most part, it is not a prominent part of the movement. The only place I have ever seen this contempt addressed by feminists is by those feminists who are decrying it and distancing themselves from the feminists who allegedly engaged in this dismissive behavior.
What I have seen is the opposite – the dismissal of feminists by non-feminist women. My mother insulted feminists on a nearly daily basis, insisting they weren’t real women, they were destroying the world, and they were (excuse me, I’m going to use some nasty words for a minute; if you don’t like them, skip this part – they are her words, not mine) sluts. Whores. Bitches. Trash. (Fortunately, my mother would never have dreamed of using “the C word”. I’m not sure she even knew it). She insisted that these inhuman women, violating nature’s rules, were going to overthrow society, force her to get divorced and enter the workplace, and make her renounce her children. I suppose they were even going to force her to go back to her maiden name and have sex with multiple partners – every night. That was her vision of a feminist, and in her reality, all they wanted was to burn their bras and have sex. Oh, except for their overarching goal of destroying her marriage.
The common theme I have seen in the feminist literature I have read has been one of respect and concern for the stay-home mother, the housewife, the woman who had no property, no rights, and often not enough education or money to attempt to claim them for herself. Feminists have advocated for women who remain in the home to receive a salary so they don’t have to be dependent on a husband who might be brutal and abusive. It would also give women with kind, loving, decent husbands something – the recognition of the work they do and how hard they actually work. They have advocated for women to be paid for child rearing, for cooking and cleaning, and for in general taking care of the rest of society. This does not sound like contempt to me; in fact, it sounds like love. And feminist literature is often hard on the working women, subtly or not so subtly criticizing her choice to work outside the home, albeit probably not intentionally, but still buying in, at least in part, to the nurturing role required of women.
I suspect this anecdote comes from a place of doubt. Women who recognize that other women are doing things they are not, and maybe things that they would actually like to do, lash back in their own sense of inferiority and project their attitude onto the women that they envy. I have always suspected my mother wanted to be something else, but when she got married, she didn’t see that as an option. She was brought up in such a way that would preclude getting married and having a career, and having a career was seen as an evil action for a woman. She opted for peace of mind, and got unhappiness instead, so she hid her unhappiness by blaming other women for treating her as an inferior. She could look down on them before they looked down on her.
So when you hear this story, when you read it in the anti-feminist (or the feminist) literature, you should be skeptical. You should not accept it until you hear the incident yourself, and have independent verification from a neutral third party (because we tend to hear what we expect to hear, like my mother hearing all those men – and interpreting them later as feminist women – say “just a housewife”). Until that time, please, please, please, please, please stop spreading this story – especially if you consider yourself a feminist.