By Jen “The Wife” Jackson Quintano
A few days ago, my husband and I pulled up to a job site to assess the work to be done. Tyler emerged from the vehicle first and introduced himself to the waiting client. After replying to an email on my phone, I followed him out of the vehicle.
“You must be the wife,” said our client in greeting.
“Among many other things,” I responded, perhaps a little snippily.
Who still says that?
At the dentist several weeks ago, the dental hygienist and I made conversation in that awkward way that is particular to such spaces. She asked what the rest of my day held. I told her I planned to bid on jobs.
“Wow, your husband trusts you to give quotes? That’s cool.”
We sold our old chipper recently, and I was the one to greet the prospective buyer when he arrived on our property. After introductions, I mentioned idly, “I’m going to miss this chipper.”
“Your husband lets you use the equipment?”
All of these conversations — in such a short span of time, no less — leave me feeling slightly off-kilter, as if a voice has piped up in the background announcing my arrival in the Twilight Zone. As if I’ve time traveled to the 1950s, where husbands reign supreme as heads of nuclear families. Except, no, it’s really the 2020s, replete with repeated reminders that we’re still making assumptions about men and their defining role in women’s lives.
Old habits die hard.
In college, I did a survey of women’s magazine ads over the years. I saw everything from depictions of husbands spanking wives for not buying the right coffee, a simple guide for measuring one’s wife for the appropriate ironing board, and multiple admonishments for women to clean the house more vigorously so as to stay fit and trim for their husbands. (Who knew Windex offered a workout regimen?)
One showed a man dragging his smiling wife — in her underwear — by the hair. One told women their body odor was to blame if their husbands strayed. One read, “Your guy: Your No. 1 reason for Midol,” going on to exhort women to stop being such a pain in the ass when they’ve got cramps. It’s not fun for your guy, after all.
These depictions may now seem startling, but we haven’t quite abandoned the assumptions that underpin them (primarily that men are in control and women are meant to please them). Now that I’m tuned in, I see them everywhere. Including within myself.
For years, I did not believe that I was at all vital to our business. For years, I tried to augment my worth by doing more — house cleaning, accounting, child care — to prove that what I lacked as a business partner, I made up for elsewhere. For years, I felt like this was Tyler’s business, and I was along for the ride.
For years, I was like, Thanks for trusting the wife with the equipment. For years, I was like, I hope my existence pleases you.
So, when all of these comments arose recently, they weren’t new to me. They were more like the Ghosts of Self-Doubt’s Not-So-Distant-Past. I bristled at those words because the only consciousness they’re allowed to arise from is mine.
We’ve all grown up enmeshed in the unseen filaments of male primacy. It’s so ubiquitous — both surrounding and permeating us — we don’t even know it’s there.
An author I admire — a Black woman — writes about how her colleagues and readers all seem to understand the insidiousness of racism but not sexism. They want her to “prove” sexism’s existence, whereas racism is a given. Racism is largely visible, in all its overt ugliness, whereas the patriarchy is simply the air we breathe. Thus, to attack it is to be seen as tilting at windmills.
I recently used the word feminist to describe myself in an essay. Tyler, my designated editor of first drafts, asked, “Are you sure you want to use that word? It’s kind of loaded.”
He is right. But, yes, I want to use that word, freighted though it may be with cultural assumptions and aversions. Feminism is a loaded word, but I know how to use it <bang, bang>.
Or I’m learning, anyway. As with any big idea that threatens to shake the foundations of the status quo — whether in one’s own awareness or in society at large — it takes a lifetime or two to wrap one’s head around it.
I desperately want to wrap my head around it, though, because I want that foundational work done for my daughter so she can springboard into even greater levels of critical thinking about gender roles and equality. I want her to inhabit a world in which she isn’t a de facto laundress and lunch-maker (unless she wants to be). Where she doesn’t feel defined by her mate. Where no one allows her to act. She simply acts.
As several before me have said, feminism is the radical idea that women are human beings. All I want is for my daughter to be treated like an autonomous human being. Is that too much to ask? Does that make me a Femi-Nazi? Or a “nasty woman”?
Tyler is right. Feminism is a loaded word. Though I’ve been comfortable being outspoken in this column in the past, this topic gives me pause. What if I come across as too strident? Overly sensitive? A wet blanket on all the fun we could otherwise be having in this space?
Why is it so uncomfortable to speak up for women’s agency and equality?
Probably because our gendered existence asks women to be nice. To not rock the boat. And smashing the patriarchy is not so much rocking the boat as it is sinking it.
What I’m struck with in all my interactions as of late is the deeply ingrained notion that women exist and act within the container of men’s benign allowing. Our identities, our worth, our actions, are a matter of his letting, liking, trusting. Benign though it may be, it’s also bullshit. Because if we can be benignly allowed — to bid on jobs, to run the chipper or what have you — we can also be cruelly cut-off. One half of society becomes the gatekeeper for the other half’s autonomy.
Need me to prove it?
Exhibit A: The Idaho GOP’s official stance that abortion should not be allowed in instances of rape or incest. The woman didn’t choose her pregnancy, and now she can’t choose its outcome.
Exhibit B: The male Idaho lawmaker last year who said, “[A]ny bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let others raise their child, I don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going.”
Exhibit C: The young Idaho legislative intern who accused her boss of rape and then became the subject of vicious harassment, intimidation and doxxing in an effort to silence her.
The gatekeepers are saying, Stay in the home. Bear children. And don’t speak out. Still. In 2022. They are saying this.
The interactions I’ve had lately have been minor and mostly amusing. These interactions are with people no different than you or me. They are good and kind people. People simply giving voice to age-old sentiments about women and what is expected of them. But crueler elements of male superiority are afoot.
So, ladies, here’s a proposition: Do something unexpected. Astonish a bystander with what the men in your life “allowed” or “trusted” you to do. And then inform that astonished witness that your actions sprang not from any Y chromosome in the room, but from your own goddamn, agency-loving, spirited and inspired self. Your first stop should be the voting booth. Move outward from there.
Let me know how the experiment goes.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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