To Be A Woman

For the past few weeks, I haven't been able to shut up about the show Sister Wives. I love it. I think it's interesting and heartwarming, but most of all, I love the wives. Far from the underage, docile slave-wives of Warren Jeffs' ilk, these women are out-spoken, professional (two work outside the home), and smart. They made the decision to live in a polygamous family, but they have no intention of forcing it on their children. I have a lot of respect for their live-and-let live attitude when it comes to other "alternative" lifestyles.

Seeing the Sister Wives together, shopping, eating out, playing with their (adorable) kids, and joking around, I sometimes think, "Hey, this life wouldn't be so bad. Take out the fundamentalist Mormon part and I might even like it. It would be like living in your own fun little village." What disturbs me, though (besides the obvious sexist double standard of Kody being able to have multiple wives while the wives can't have multiple husbands), is the rhetoric of suffering with which Meri, Janelle, and Christine talk about polygamy. Meri, in particular, and to a lesser extent Janelle, consider the understandable jealousy they experience a sort of test of faith. As Janelle put it, "It makes us better people. We overcome ourselves." They express anger at Kody for playing favorites with his newest wife, Robyn, but temper it with a sort of "Well, I'll learn to get over it" attitude. They dismiss their jealousy as selfishness, a hurdle to conquer.

Suffering is a big part of many religions. From fasting during Yom Kippur to self-flagellation, denying oneself pleasure or inflicting pain on oneself is seen as an act of holiness. It is a testament to one's faith. Both men and women participate in these types of activities. But the type of suffering that comes with polygamy is reserved for women only. Ultimately, it is the wives, not Kody, who have to overcome themselves, suck it up, be happy.

The obvious difference between, say, self-flagellation and the Sister Wives' struggle is that the former is done with the explicit intention of hurting oneself, whereas jealousy and heartache are just bi-products of polygamy. And yet, these bi-products become in themselves a means of proving one's faith, such that discontent within a polygamous marriage (at least the Browns') is framed as simultaneously an undesirable outcome and, when conquered, a good thing. It makes the wives "better people." It is almost solely the wives' responsibility to do the conquering. To be a woman is to suffer.

This idea-- that it is a woman's lot in life to endure pain, to sacrifice her needs for the sake of others--persists in secular society, as well. Extreme proponents (and I emphasize extreme) of the recent obsession with homebirth and breastfeeding, which they tote as some kind of radical eco-feminist takeover of the medical industry, feed off of the idea that a woman must completely give up her comfort and independence in order to be a good mother, a "real" woman. Take this cartoon by "lactivist" Heather Cushman-Dowdee. "You can do it!" it reads. "You are strong! Your body was made to give birth! You aren't incapable, and you aren't special! Your grandmother did it! Your great, great, great grandmother did it, and now you can too!" Yeah, and my great-great-great-grandmother was probably some overburdened Catholic woman who didn't know what an epidural was. My great-great-great grandmother probably did a lot of things that she wouldn't have done if she didn't have to. And take the reponses Hanna Rosin elicited with her 2009 article, "The Case Against Breastfeeding." Lactivists and mom bloggers all over the internet couldn't fathom what they perceived as inexcusable selfishness on Rosin's part for daring to question breastfeeding.

My point here isn't that there’s anything wrong with homebirth or breastfeeding. Breastfeeding is obviously good for babies and as for homebirth, well, whatever floats your boat. I’m all for people being able to make decisions about their own bodies.

Completely natural childbirth is described as a "euphoric," "beautiful," "empowering" experience. I'm sure it is for many, many women. I'm sure breastfeeding your kids 'til they self-wean at age three is wonderful for many women, too. But for others, the pain and inconvenience of these things makes them not worth doing. No, they won't "learn to love it." No, they're not less of women.

I understand that the parallel I'm drawing between polygamy and "natural motherhood" isn't completely accurate, for a few reasons: the inconvenience of, say, breastfeeding isn't a universal feeling, whereas sexism is deeply embedded in polygamy; furthermore, it's probably safe to say that inconvenience isn't as emotionally difficult as heartache; and finally, while the Sister Wives view their suffering as means of bettering themselves, lactivists and home birthers seem to assume that making their choices will make women happier. Still, there are some similarities between the self-sacrifice demanded of women in mainstream society and of the Sister Wives. Hearing Meri, Janelle, and talk about how they need to suck it up and get over their jealousy makes me sad. Life is so hard already. Why make it even harder? I'm not denouncing their lifestyle, but I reject the notion that people-- especially women-- need to suffer in order to perfect themselves. I reject the notion that it would be better for all women to go back to agonizing, long childbirth. To be human is to suffer, yes. But why should this be any more so for women?


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