A Nun, a Revolution, and the Diplomat’s Wife

PavlovaMud sweetened MotherSugar just a couple of days ago with a great post about first kisses. I’d been cooking a few ideas myself so am offering a savoury alternative for anyone who still has appetite for it.

While baking a cake last Thursday (yes, a cake) I heard a couple of stories on the radio about women and politics. Not women running for office, although I could definitely spend time talking about that right now, but women publically leveraging their roles as wives and nuns to advocate for gender equality. Forgive me but that was just too juicy to pass up!

The first story was about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) which represents about 80% of all Catholic Nuns in the United States. This week they were openly praised by the Vatican for their work with schools, hospitals and institutions that support the poor. But they were also criticised for being conspicuously silent on issues such as contraception, abortion and homosexuality, and for facilitating conversations internally about patriarchal practices and the ordination of women.

For an understanding of both sides of the story watch this great PBS interview of a feminist theologian and a Catholic nun. And here is an example of how it is being reported in mainstream media:

The second story was about a YouTube video, produced by the wives of two prominent UN diplomats, intended to shame the wife of a prominent politician into pressuring her husband to change an unpopular policy. (Whoa!) Specifically it asks Asma Al-Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, to compel her husband to stop the violence in that country. But what was most compelling for me was not the video itself but an interview with Huberta von Voss-Wittig, wife of the German Ambassador to the UN and one of the people who produced the video. She argues that the impact of the violence in Syria is borne disproportionately by women and children and that Ms. Al-Assad has a responsibility to speak up for them not only as a political figure – but as a woman, a mother, and a wife. Furthermore, Ms. von Voss-Wittig  argues that she is not asking Asma Al-Assad to be “disloyal to her husband” but expects him to be loyal to his wife and by extension to all women, mothers, and wives.

To hear the full interview look for it under “The Thursday Edition” (main body or right hand column) broadcast on CBC’s “As It Happens” Thursday, April 19, 2012.

It was fascinating to me that both stories talked about women who had overstepped the bounds of what was expected of them. As wives (and wives of a sort) they were expected to support but not influence and definitely not instigate political dialogue. But they did so anyway, not only because they believe that women are entitled to be politically active but (I assume) because they believe that women are also entitled to assume their traditional roles, as wives and mothers, safely and of their own free will.

I have no tidy conclusions but these two stories definitely made me think. Among the questions they raise for me: Do I have a responsibility to stand up for other women? When I do that, what exactly am I standing up for? Our right to assume traditionally male roles or professions? Our right to be respected for the roles and professions we’ve traditionally occupied? Do I really (really) hold the space of a peer and an equal at work and in my personal relationships? How much of my identity is predicated upon my gender? Would I defy a lover, partner, husband, or friend because I felt I had a responsibility to stand up for other women or what I believe we represent?

Always curious to hear what you think!

10 thoughts on “A Nun, a Revolution, and the Diplomat’s Wife

  1. I know that is absolutely not at all where you were going, so forgive me for the dalliance, but…

    Baking a cake and listening to the radio… isn’t it strange to think that what was considered by our grandmothers to be a mundane wifely chore, a necessity; is for us a welcome respite from today’s own wifely chores…

    Have we really evolved at all? Collective sighs in to the bottom of the bowl they go…

  2. It was kind of mundane actually because I was cooking dinner at the same time. I don’t always enjoy it but I will admit to enjoying baking a lot and fresh food in general. For me anyway, I don’t think evolution means not doing those chores. It just means that I don’t have to do them because I’m a woman. (Interesting echoes of that radio interview.) Though in my case if I don’t cook I don’t eat, so be it chore or welcome respite I guess it’s gonna happen either way! LOL…

    • I think often about these questions of ‘domestic chores’ and how they relate to being a woman, a wife and also a satisfied human being. My husband and I share most responsibilities around the house — cooking, washing dishes, vacuuming. We have separate laundry baskets. If his shirt needs ironing, he unfolds the ironing board and takes care of it himself. I do have moments when baking cookies or chopping carrots for a big pot of soup feels like (as you say, PM) ‘welcome respite,’ but not nearly as much as it once did. Earlier on in our relationship and marriage, I wanted to become a brilliant cook, I wanted to be inspired to try new, challenging recipes and prepare delicious meals nightly. Then I worried: perhaps my dishing up of elaborate dinners meant that I wasn’t ‘evolved,’ modern, treating myself fairly in my relationship. More and more I seem to be in LT’s camp: if one of us doesn’t cook, we don’t eat, so it must happen either way! I try to go easy on myself: it’s not a failure to not love being in my kitchen, tossing things into pans on the stove, nor is it a shameful thing to also sometimes adore and crave it.

      • Oi! This topic is sooo worth of a post unto itself! I still have the ‘I should make fabulous gourmet meals for me and my hubby, and is mother while I’m at it.’ It comes and goes in spurts. Veau Blanquette one night; fish finger sandwiches the next… (and before anyone gets too feminist over this, it’s husband who actually does most of the cooking…)

      • I can’t seem to reply to B’s latest reply to this subtopic, so I’ll add thoughts in here. What is interesting in the replies to my initial somewhat throwaway comment is how much we’ve all thought about the topic of gender and household management. Maybe because we are “equalitarians”, we do give thought to the topic in a more conscious way? I don’t know. Do all married women struggle with the household division of labor as much as we around this MotherSugar table seem to? It’s not something I talk to other women about very much.

        But I do remember reading some research that reflected that despite ongoing upward trends about women in the workforce, they still do the majority of the housework (or at least perceive themselves to do so).


        Now I don’t want to get too distracted here but on an extremely personal level, I have three observations to make: 1) I earn more than my husband (I’ve been in the workforce longer). I know this will probably not always be the case, but for that reason alone, I don’t think I should do more than he does around the house, and that includes cooking. He cooks for himself occasionally, and sometimes I’ll have some of what he cooks; 2) I hate housework, and although I once used to, now I don’t enjoy cooking very much…. It takes too long and then there’s the cleaning up bit. It is often cheaper (and definitely faster) to get dinner delivered than to make it from scratch, and mostly I get home too late and too tired to be bothered cooking. And 3) even though occasionally I do enjoy baking, my disproportionately high expectations for praise and adoration over the whole thing far outweigh the deliciousness of the cake/cookies/candy, and so I’m really much more of a pain in the ass about it than it’s worth.
        I’m sure my husband misses my cooking and domesticity (as I used to do much more of it). But he’s never made a fuss over it and I’ve never made a fuss over the fact that he doesn’t clean the yard. I guess that makes us equally good at both procrastinating and living with a messy yard and takeout containers all over the place…

  3. I can only answer your questions as it relates to myself, which I think is the point. It is so problematic to say ‘all women should’… in and of itself, whatever it is. I don’t think I’ve ever heard: ‘all men should…’ without it losing automatic credibility. If I believe in the equality of all, than a woman has a choice, as an individual. Her responsbility is to humankind, to individuals, which includes women, children, family, and that kind but odd neighbor. In general, I’m rather opposed to ‘essentialist’ notions when it dictates action.

    With respect to the Syrian example, it seemed there was a particularily sinister essentialist feminine (guilt as lever) strategy at work. I didn’t like it one bit. Never mind that it will probably not be effective. If you really wanted to influence someone, would you ‘out’ them in front of everyone and make them lose face?

    As to the questions themselves (which I answer more for myself than anything else, as an exercise, I suppose):

    Do I have a responsibility to stand up for other women? Yes, in the same way I have a responsbility to stand up for anyone when I believe it must be done.

    When I do that, what exactly am I standing up for? Our right to assume traditionally male roles or professions? Our right to be respected for the roles and professions we’ve traditionally occupied? Both. I’m grand enough for the contradictions. It is easy enough to stand up for the right itself: choice, freedom, peace. I think in the Syrian case, it’s a little naughty to harp on her role as mother (emotionally effective, good PR) for why she should speak up; but to ask her to speak up because she is perceived and expected to have influence, that would be something else. Foucault brought gender down to power- and I’m right there with him.

    Do I really (really) hold the space of a peer and an equal at work and in my personal relationships? That depends on the place and the work and the relationship. Maybe even the day. Hopefully, net equal. Give or take.

    How much of my identity is predicated upon my gender? All of it. And not a heck of a lot I can do about it (and yet infinitely so much).

    Would I defy a lover, partner, husband, or friend because I felt I had a responsibility to stand up for other women or what I believe we represent? I think I would. I hope I would be that brave.

    Thanks for the brainwork- it’s too easy to have feelings that make me feel emancipated, but nice to have to flex the muscle!

  4. Aside from the above distraction from the topic at hand (as is our wont), I have spent the entire week thinking about just one aspect of your very profound questions, LT. Not that the others weren’t as equally compelling, I just didn’t get that far. I was trying to think of an example of the wife of a public figure who has a) been given the opportunity while in role as wife, to create change for the good for other women (or even society in general)’ b) has done it successfully; c) maintained a positive perception by the media throughout; and d) in doing so, has boosted her husband’s popularity (or at least not damaged it). Unfortunately, and this is a sad reflection on my recent dearth of global travel, all of my examples were limited to either First Ladies (wives of Presidents) or Ladies of the Monarchy (wives of Princes). Here’s what I came up with:

    1) Hillary Clinton, while married to Bill, tried to pass the healthcare reform bill (for all Americans, not just women). This is back in 1993. It failed miserably. She was vilified as having her own agenda (and, at the same time, not being supportive enough of her husband, who had the more important job). I even remember reading some reports that if only Hillary had “stood by her man” more, he wouldn’t have been tempted to do insert a cigar in to another woman’s vagina etc etc.
    2) Michelle Obama, current first lady, is a well-educated, successful lawyer, and was an was assigned to mentor Barack when he joined the firm as summer associate (that’s how they met). One would think all this experience and education (and having come as far as she had), she would have used the platform of First Lady as a springpad for really having an historic impact on… well… anything. Instead, she’s been focusing on growing vegetables in the white house back yard and promoting healthy eating. She is pictured entertaining dignitaries and introducing diplomats to Bo, the family dog. At best, she’s a organic-pushing socialite with great upper arms. At worst, she’s labeled as being “secretly jealous, resentful and bitter” of her own husband’s success.
    3) Lady Di, who will be forever remembered (conveniently) as “the people’s princess”, shed her label of trophy wife in favor for really making a difference and standing up what she actually believed in. Although she didn’t really ever do anything too controversial, she did end up dead. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but it’s just too weird an accident for no questions to be asked.
    4) Others, like Sarkozy’s wife and William’s wife, are just that, wives. They make their husbands look good. There’s no way they rock any boats, they just break champagne bottles over the sterns of them and cut ribbons and bow politely.

    So in reflecting on all these (probably banal, flawed) examples, it got me thinking, and I hope it’s prematurely conclusive. But I think there is a structural and immovable challenge here that is generations-long and almost subconscious. The wife of a public figure (especially a politician) has a narrow and specific job description: be presentable, be charming, be quiet. Nothing outside of those boundaries will be tolerated.

    Sometimes my own husband talks about going in to public office. I’m biased of course; I think he’d be a great congressman. Problem is, he has one major handicap… his wife won’t shut up.

    • I’m not sure it’s that problematic that the spouse of a public figure is not trying to effect change on a grand scale. I think the role of the spouse is one of partnership and support, and while that support may have spillover effects on the job, they have not been hired to do the same job. And I think the world would feel the same way about a male spouse. I can’t tell if these examples/views are yours or a reflection of what you hear, and I know you openly qualified them. Still, I worry with these examples that the spouse can’t ever win. Did we just reduce Michelle Obama to her upper arms? Did we just reduce child obesity to a little gardening hobby? We might have vilified Hilary once, but she’s secretary of state now. I know that the media never gives anybody straight A’s these days, and I’m often guilty of being very very critical of, well, everyone. But I can’t help but think given how much we talk here at Mother Sugar about checking our assumptions, maybe we have to offer that same courtesy even here? For me, there is no doubt as to Mrs. Obama’s real influence on her husband, yesterday and today. Do I care that it’s behind closed doors? Not really. Do I think it’s important her actions don’t alienate women, that she treads carefully between tradition and expectation and leadership? Absolutely. You see, I just can’t bring myself to be quite so severe with these women, most of whom are basically living in a no-can-win minefield. They’re always either going to be too rich, too bossy, too quiet, too traditional, too modern for somebody’s taste. But if Mother Sugar has taught me anything so far it’s that there’s a lot more going on of value than what we’re often prepared to see.

  5. Pingback: Piece of Mind? Peace of Cake. | Mother Sugar

  6. So much, as always, to say here! I did love the discussion on the division of housework – to me, like others here, it depends on the individual, and their specific strengths and desires. And as long as people feel the split is fair, then that’s good. I truly enjoy cooking for people I love. It feels to me like a wonderful way to demonstrate love – to literally nourish someone else, but I like to have the choice.

    In terms of your questions, Lemon, I guess I may feel compelled to speak up for other women because I tend to empathize with them. So on that level, I do feel perhaps a responsibility to be vocal because I am a woman, I belong to that club. But I also belong to a human club, and would hope that I would stand up for someone being repressed or disenfranchised, whatever their sex. I don’t think though, that one should be held responsible for acting based on their sex. These choices, of when to speak, to stand up for a cause are very individual. I think it would be as limiting for someone I expect me to speak because I am a woman as it would be if someone expected me to remain silent.

    Loved all the political spouse discussions too, by the way.

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