manifesto: a leave from maternity



I work as a tutor in my university’s Writing Center. We help with every part of the writing process, from editing to brainstorming to outlining. The freshman classes have their first paper due tomorrow (a universal deadline, the same assignment for all classes), and several of the profs have been offering extra credit if their students visit us, so we’ve been pretty busy for the last few days, as you can imagine.

That by itself isn’t the point. I had a girl come in today with a paper. The assignment was to analyze an image; she chose the Axe “Bow Chicka Wah Wah” commercial and analyzed it from what I recognized as a feminist perspective. She did a great job talking about how the female was animalized, how she was portrayed as an object of desire, how teen-boy fantasies are being validated by the advertising industry, and how sex became a savage mating ritual; there was some strong analysis going on. It was a good paper.

So imagine how disappointed I was when I learned that one of her premises was that women are naturally maternal (as in, protective, caregiving, motherly, defined by a uterus) and that the Axe commercial subverts this ideal by sexualizing women. No, not oversexualizing. Just sexualizing.

Tangentially, I know I have to be careful about how I instruct writers/students (as a feminist and a tutor) on a conservative, religious campus in the Bible Belt. There’s a different stream of discourse going on, and it takes a lot of patience and, honestly, an entirely different vocabulary in order to dialogue so that we understand each other (as well as a preparation for your own failure!). So I tried to gently point her in a few directions. For one thing, I tried (and I think I succeeded) to get her to realize the double expectations for women: that in our society, we are expected to be both the maternal, caring figure and the hot, young (or young-looking), sex object (and to enjoy it). Not one or the other, but both (in a curious twist of the saint/slut dichotomy)! Anyway, I pointed that out, and a couple of other things as well that I can’t remember much of very well (I advised the use of the word “dehumanization,” as I recall) and I think the session went well. I hope something stuck and she decides to think about this a little more.

I’m concerned in general with concepts like “masculinity” and “femininity” and what activities or qualities make a “real” woman or man, and especially about these implications for and manifestations in religious culture (I speak specifically of Christianity, which has been my faith tradition, but it could apply to Islam or Judaism, I think; I’m less knowledgeable about how – or whether – gender has traditionally played a role in Buddhist, Taoist, or Hindu communities).

“Masculine” characteristics generally include leadership (e.g., domination), taking action, initiating contact (romantic especially), a propensity for adventure, determination, assertiveness, rationality, and so on.

“Feminine” characteristics typically include a caring nature, passivity, receiving contact (romantic especially), a domestic paradigm, submissiveness, a propensity for compromise (in opposition to self-assertion), strong emotionalism, and so on.

As you can imagine, these premises undergird much of our cultural and social life in the Western world (and again, I assume elsewhere). They govern romantic relationships, marriage, the conception of the family, the job market, public roles, and religious practices, among many other things.

The problem is, I believe, that they are socially constructed. There are obviously people of both sexes that do not fit the mold (in fact, I think all of us don’t, to one extent or another), but then there are people who hardly fit them at all. What are we, as exceptions, to do?

I don’t know. All of this was really to say … I don’t want kids. Maybe that will change in the future, but I have sincere doubts. I’m not a mother-type.  I think I care about my friends deeply and try to take care of them, but it’s nothing more (or less, for that matter) than friendship, rather than maternal instinct.  A friend of mine gave birth to her third child, a girl named Storey, this summer. A few weeks ago, she brought Storey into the grad students’ office and we took turns holding her. What I realized: I like kids, but I don’t want them.

On the other hand, there are “feminine” traits that I do embody.  I love to cook, and especially to took for other people; I take great pleasure in practices of hospitality.  Which, frankly, is just confusing.  Thanks, God. (Or alternatively, Darwin).

Unfortunately, according to the society I live in, I have two life options: be a stay-at-home mom of four, or be a power-crazed executive bitch.



  1. Brian (Another) said


    First, you type like I do (“especially to took for other people”). I giggled. Second, given your background, please allow latitude for a not-so-well-spoken comment. Third, just to ask a question (I really don’t like the medium of comments and blogs, but sometimes it’s all we have!), do you truly feel it’s liberating and you (do?) should embrace feeling like a sex object (I realize that is rewriting what you said, but is it off the mark?)? That’s perplexing. Or, rather, in a Christian worldview, that seems perplexing. Could be that I’m not understanding your terminology in the manner in which you intend it, though.

    Hope all is well!

  2. Hi, Brian (Another). You jumped over from Denny Burk’s blog, I presume? :)

    do you truly feel it’s liberating and you (do?) should embrace feeling like a sex object (I realize that is rewriting what you said, but is it off the mark?)?

    My problem wasn’t with her belief that women were portrayed as sex objects – that’s true and I believe that it’s a very bad thing, both as a feminist and a Christian. Analyzing adverts that make women out to be sex objects, to me, is important because it reveals lies that are told about women by the media and advertising industry.

    My chief problem is the nurturing/maternal perception of women, largely because it just doesn’t apply to me very much.

    As for what I said about “sexualizing” women, it has to do with the Victorian idea of women as asexual/sexually disinterested/sexually purer than men, which lives on in some Christian subcultures today (i.e., that guys are raging carnal animals and that girls have no sexual desires whatsoever because they’re too pure). I don’t think that’s true. As a woman, I have sexual desires and interests, and I don’t appreciate it when they are ignored or downplayed because someone who doesn’t know me (or, apparently, women) believes that women couldn’t possibly be interested in sex – or must just be in it for the emotional connection – or if women do have sexual desires, they must be “slutty,” or something. I believe that God made us, both men and women, sexual creatures and to either ignore that aspect of women, or to overplay it to appeal to teen-boy fantasies, is a sin.

  3. brian said

    “The problem is, I believe, that they are socially constructed. There are obviously people of both sexes that do not fit the mold (in fact, I think all of us don’t, to one extent or another), but then there are people who hardly fit them at all. What are we, as exceptions, to do?”

    This is true for certain people of course. But when we do macro-analysis, we see traditional gender roles as corresponding to reality. Women and men usually do fit the traditional molds, and I believe that God has designed women and men differently to “fit” certain gender roles (as evidenced over and over again by many passages in the bible which differentiate women and men).

    Also, this is a funny line: “Unfortunately, according to the society I live in, I have two life options: be a stay-at-home mom of four, or be a power-crazed executive bitch.” I laughed for awhile when I read it.

  4. That’s where we will agree to disagree. However, assumptions based on macro-analysis are, I think, faulty to some degree, for a couple of reasons.

    1. Macro-analysis studies people who have already been socially conditioned to play certain roles in society; it does not tell us what the “essence” of people are, but what they have become because of their environment. From infancy onward, we are told what we should do as women or men, and are shamed or embarrassed if we deviate from that norm (even if the shaming/embarrassment is not intentional); shame is a powerful motivator for children to look and act in a way that garners approval from adult authorities in a person’s developing years, which means that girls will act feminine and boys will act masculine, in most cases. You could say that I fall pretty heavily on the “nurture” side of the nature-nurture debate.

    2. Studying what the “Average Woman” is like tells you nothing about any particular woman. The “average” statistics for how nurturing, feminine, maternal, compassionate, emotional, submissive, (insert feminine stereotype here) do not represent any Actual Women. By that I mean – a woman who exactly fulfills the statistics about the Average Woman probably has never been created. The Average Woman herself doesn’t exist; all women are different from her in some way (the same, of course, can be said about men). Therefore, I don’t think it’s fair to judge women by an “ideal” that doesn’t materially exist.

    I’d say, too, that there are not very many passages in the Bible (certainly I haven’t encountered them “over and over again,” unless I reread the few a lot) that differentiate men and women in role alone (and, as we’ve seen on Dr. Burk’s blog, even that is reasonably contestable). And there are none that tell us what femininity is and what masculinity is (i.e., what it is to be a woman or man, in terms of personality, characteristics, or desires). There are many descriptions of ideal character, some separated by sex, but they are often not sex-specific.

    Even this passage from Titus 2: “Aged men [should] be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity [love], in patience. The aged women likewise…[should] be in behavour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things” does not point toward what an ideal woman or man should look like, but addresses particular sins that each sex participates in (because, IMO, of social conditioning). In this passage, we see that no more are “masculine” qualities (like aggression, assertion, impatience, etc) to be valued; neither are the “feminine” qualities like gossiping, being given to excess, and downplaying female intellectual ability.

  5. kriegeritaville said


    Yes, that would be me (or that is I?), from Dr. Burk’s site. I try to keep the same pseudonym. Thus expanding what little accountability the internet offers. Which, in essence, is none. But that’s an entirely different story.

    As a woman, I have sexual desires and interests

    Saying that God made women more caring and nurturing (though, I’m not sure if that is something your student was saying) doesn’t negate desire for your husband. Just as the opposite holds true for me and I care for my wife (in non-sexual ways).

    … if women do have sexual desires, they must be “slutty,” or something.

    In then end, to me it sounds like you’re saying (in a generalized manner) men get to be worldly carnal, I should get to, as well! It sounds like you want a large part of your appeal to your mate to be sex or based in sex. Some, I understand. As husbands and wives, our desire should be for our spouses. But it should definitely not be a primary basis for a marriage, and, by extension, should not be the primary reason for “attracting” a potential spouse. The latter of which, it appears, is what you are advocating. The bible speaks on putting your worth in the temporal (beauty is vain, etc.). I guess I would say that sexual appetite (extremes excluded) should not be a factor in courting. Once in the marriage, though, neither husbands nor wives should seek to “push the envelope”, nor should either ignore the needs of the other or ridicule the other.

    As far as the populous goes, I generally don’t make broad brush statements, but I will make one. I have never known a married woman who enjoys sex with her husband as “slutty”. Never. Not even alluded. As a matter of fact, a funny story that surrounds that (too long to write) refers to that kind of a wife as a “prayer request”. Sex, outside of marriage, is sin. Period (I don’t think you disagree with that, though). I would say that sexualizing one another outside of marriage is “slutty” regardless of man or woman, and is sinful (see Jesus’ words in Matthew) and only leads to disaster.

  6. Brian (Another) said

    Whoops. That last comment was me. Wasn’t paying attention that this site has a login name. D’oh!

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