Who Do You Say You Are?

This post at the Statistician to the Stars’s blog reminded me of a conversation I had with a brother-in-law a while back. He could not get his head around how it was possible that the Founding Fathers, and the country as a whole for the next 100+ years, did not allow women to vote. He used the dominant mode of understanding employed these days: that one’s place in the world is most fundamentally determined by one’s place in political society. In other words, a woman’s role as a daughter, sister, wife, mother in whatever combination pales to insignificance next to her role – or lack of one – as a voter.

I tried to explain that, while I support women having the vote, it seemed simple enough to me to imagine a world where the value of one’s family and community ties far outstrip the value of any one family member’s duty to vote. I can imagine putting the duty to vote only on property-owning adult males, on the assumption that politics is a dirty business that should never be allowed to insert itself into the sanctity of family life, and, if someone has to do it, best it be the patriarch.

The preceding doesn’t require imagining that women are somehow less able to vote, even if some people made that assertion at the time.  I, for one, would have been fairly happy to leave the voting, or even the presidency, to Abigail Adams. But it is easy to imagine a society that believes that her contributions as a wife and mother were greater than any contributions she may have made in politics. In all cases, getting to vote or not would be seen as relatively trivial compared to one’s duties to God and family.

I also imagine that this view is incomprehensible to most Americans, especially the well-educated. Their imaginations are filled with oppressive men and oppressed women. They imagine that, prior to women getting the vote, the world was peopled by men who were free and women who were not. I assert that, to the contrary, the difference in freedom between an honorable working man and his wife has never been more than an illusion: that a husband, in times past, was bound by great social and family expectations to honor and support his wife. To do otherwise would be to cast himself out from his family and society. A husband surrendered a great deal of what is now called freedom in order to have and hold his wife – just as his wife surrendered her self to him. The glaring disproportion just isn’t there.

A potential husband typically had little of what we would call freedom. His duty – and, most likely, his heart – we committed to making enough of a life for himself so that some father of a daughter would see fit to ‘give’ him his daughter. What the new husband ‘got’ was the duty to care for his new wife – so that she could fulfill her duties. Love, sex and children are among the duties the couple owe to each other – and are the principle joys of married life.

Duty and joy are not opposites.  We live in a time where lust is mistaken for love. In such a world, the idea of love as an act of will, as a fulfillment of duty, and thereby a source of joy is incomprehensible.

Now, of course, all this is wide open to abuse. But it is important to see that Bad Things that happen in marriage are, in fact, abuse – they are a bug, not a feature. The flip side of Paul’s equation also holds: where grace abounds, sin also abounds. (The unequal part: in the long run, grace abounds more.)

So I have spent the last 25 years working to support a family – a wife and 5 kids. My beloved wife has spent the last 21 years raising children. If ‘freedom’ is taken to mean ‘ability to stop supporting and raising a family’ then we were and remain un-free.  And it has nothing to do with political laws or the right to vote or equality. We both recognize a duty not just to the family, but to each other. We try, imperfectly for sure, to help the other be happy. This is also a source of great joy.

And what we get out of it is love. We have children who love us and love each other. We love our children and each other.  To put the right to vote on the same plane – let alone a higher plane – than this family love is worse than insane.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Who Do You Say You Are?”

  1. In medieval manorial elections voting was by household. Whoever held the house cast the formal vote. Usually it was the husband, but this was done in a managerial sense, not a proprietary sense. Widowers and spinsters cast their own votes. There are a couple of books by Regine Pernoud that touch on this.

    1. That seems more like it. This idea that our role under government has primacy over our roles as part of a community and family – what craziness!

      Very interesting. I have little knowledge of day-to-day life in the Middle Ages. Pernoud wrote a lot of books – can you suggest ones to start with? Although at the moment this Greek class is leaving me little time for any other ‘scholarly’ hobbies.

      1. “Those Terrible Middle Ages” has a chapter on the status of women.
        “Women in the Age of the Cathedrals” is entirely on the subject.

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