Copyright 2011 Kelsey Hough. All rights reserved.
I grew up in a quiet little working-class neighborhood in suburbia where the houses, just like the people, where predominately white. While growing up my family attended church every Sunday where I became socialized to the idea that gender roles were part of the glue that held society together. Men built houses, women kept house.
As my height and curiosity grew, well-meaning women from my church warned me of becoming “too smart” or “too educated” because it could seriously reduce my potential for landing a guy—words like “Bachelor of Arts” or “systematic theology” or “I read for fun” were surefire ways I was informed to send any man packing. As a result, a lot of gals I knew from church, unless they were trying to get their MRS, didn’t go to college or wouldn’t finish their degrees. Smart men made good husbands, smart women became old maids.
When I showed an academic interest in theology, and began reading what one woman referred to as “pastor books,” I was encouraged by church-going men and women alike to pursue my academic and spiritual curiosity, to live up to my full potential, by becoming … drumroll please … a church secretary. Men were orators and leaders, women answered the phone.
Not Exactly “Leave it to Beaver”:
It wasn’t the 1950’s, but feeling trapped under the stained-glass ceiling of my local church’s ideology, it may as well have been. Predominantly out of fear of being labeled with the “f-word” (feminist) or the “b-word” (backslidden), I didn’t publically admit to the frustration I sometimes felt regarding things like gendered career and educational expectations. But the aggravation and pain were there, nevertheless.
Much like the actual 1950’s for many housewives, my own life didn’t always mirror the harmony and simplicity of “Leave it to Beaver.” In high school my dad was diagnosed with a fatal degenerative brain disorder. His brain was dying. Slowly but surely the kind and involved dad I had known was fading from view; he was dying slowly, one piece at a time. And it wasn’t long before an irrational, angry, and violent stranger had completely engulfed him. My loving daddy was gone.
Like many housewives in the 1950’s facing verbal or physical abuse from their husbands, instead of finding support and protection, my mom was told to “submit” and “be a better wife.” It was literally a dangerous situation, we were emotionally and physically unsafe, but church folks we knew told us it was “God’s will” for us to stay exactly where we were. Sadly, way too many church goers assumed the reason my dad was distant and verbally abusive was either my mom’s fault for not being a “good wife” or my fault for being a lousy daughter. We were the victims in the situation; my mom had lost her husband and I’d lost my dad, and we’d all lost the safe home we’d once had. Despite being the victims, due to our gender alone, we were too often the ones who were blamed for my dad’s behavior.
Thankfully, though, my mom had the courage and strength to go completely against what hegemony (the dominant ideology) was insisting was the morally correct way to handle the situation, by getting us out. I believe with all my heart that my mom did the right thing. She protected her kids and herself, but afterwards she still had church people telling her she’d gone “against God’s will” because she hadn’t just summited to the abuse. When it came to dealing with a woman’s husband or father, they believed the God-honoring solution was to roll with the punches … literally. But my mom had the guts to get us out. And she was criticized for it.
I once read a comment by a woman reflecting on her life during the 1950’s, she recalled feeling hopeless and trapped, but how in the mists of it she was saved by feminism—the idea the women should have equal rights and opportunities, and should never ever have to submit to abuse. I didn’t grow up in the 1950’s, but I feel like I was also saved by the same feminist ideals that resulted in laws relating to domestic abuse being changed in the 1950’s in order to protect women. I was saved from an unsafe and stressful environment, and mentally and emotionally saved from being “only a girl.”
This emotional and ideological salvation has provided me with the freedom to pursue my spiritual journey without anyone even mentioning the word “secretary.” The freedom to become educated without the fear of scaring off all the men (if they can’t handle a smart woman, I’m not interested in them anyway). And the freedom to be strong and, above all, safe.
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