Lately I’ve been feeling like nothing screams “I hang out with women who believe God wants us to wear hankies on our heads” like admitting I’m a stay-at-home wife who likes staying at home. I’m sure I’m being irrational, but I’ve been defending homemakers from accusations ranging from “lazy” to “anti-feminist” since college (I remember a particular argument in which a girl practically screamed at my roommate for saying she wanted to take a break from her job when she had children – as if the feminist movement was in vain because we didn’t want to spend our whole lives in the workplace). Combine that with my ability to stumble onto every P31 Woman** site on the internet when searching for household tips, and I’ve become shy about telling people I’m a stay-at-home wife for fear of what else they’ll assume.
And that’s gotten me thinking about the assumptions we make about other people based on a few words. The labels we give ourselves — Pagan, Christian, atheist, Muslim, homemaker, professional, artist, engineer, soldier, feminist, gay, straight, liberal, moderate, conservative — should serve as descriptors, a way of framing something specific about a person. But all too often they get used to divide us up, declare the whole package of who we are, what we think, what we do, and what we’re capable of in a word or two. Male artist? Clearly he’s gay, liberal, and agnostic, with a great hair cut, great dance moves, and a long list of sexual partners. Catholic? Poor, lots of kids, pacifist, pro-life, votes Democrat (when s/he votes), and under-educated. Conservative? Hard-hearted, old, male, watches Fox News all the time, hates gay people, and goes to church every Sunday.
Or maybe not.
There’s a distinction, I’ve noticed, that a lot of people make between decision-based labels (Democrat vs. Republican) versus born-with-it labels (black vs. white). I know people who find it appalling that anyone would judge someone based on skin color labels (and I agree with them), but see no problem with their prejudice regarding chosen-labels (I completely disagree). A few years back I met somebody for the first time and within five minutes of the introduction, she’d managed to say, “I hate Republicans because Republicans hate people.” Needless to say, we didn’t hang out much. I recently wrote a “cease and desist” request on a pagan listserve requesting people quit trash-talking Christians for being too narrow minded and controlling. (Seriously? Kettle? Pot? Hello?) I have a friend I don’t talk to about how proud I am of my dad’s military career because she has such strong anti-war feelings she can’t see past the soldier to why my dad did what he did. (Want to talk about a loaded label? I can’t tell you the number of times people have been shocked to find out my easy-going, über-friendly dad is a Colonel and a Vietnam veteran.)
I understand the argument that I made a choice to be pagan, he made a choice to be a military pilot, and we all choose to vote the way we do, so it is something we can “help” doing/being… but this neglects the incredible internal variety that contributes to each choice.
I’m a feminist and a homemaker, a pagan who’s a fan of Jesus, and a Libertarian who thinks Ayn Rand is a nut (but I love her play The Night of January Sixteenth). I have Christian friends who fight for equal rights for all faiths. I know pagans who are Republicans. We are, all of us, a compendium of seeming contradictions because human beings are not symbols. We are creations – through divine creation, through our life’s experiences, and through our own actions – and that means one label cannot possibly encompass the entirety of a person.
I don’t mean to get lecture-y. I guess finding that the “religious” section of the craft store assumed all people seeking religious themed items were seeking Christian themed items was the tipping point for my building frustration regarding assumptions. (Seriously… just label the section “Christian.” I’m sure you were trying to be all-inclusive with your label and then crosses were the only thing selling enough to keep in stock, so the section dwindled to nine-million crosses and one dreydl for “variety…” but please, just call the section what it is: “Christian (and a dreydl)”.)*** But I think the world would be better off if we all (yes, me too) would spend some time every now and then examining our assumptions and separating our associations from what a label actually means. We’ll never get away from labeling (I don’t think we’d even want to; we’re humans, we like descriptors), but with work, we can get away from the prejudices we associate with each label.
I’m proud to be a stay-at-home wife. I’m working hard to learn how to run a welcoming household – a task I’ve never been good at. And someday (hopefully soon), I’ll be proud to be a stay-at-home mother. But don’t make that handkerchief assumption. I’m also proud to be pagan. And an artist. And many other things.
How does the handkerchief assumption apply to you?
** I actually think Proverbs 31 is a beautiful poem and pretty strongly feminist considering when it was written, but that doesn’t seem to be the part that get emphasized on a lot of sites as much as the “pleasing your husband” and “working all hours of the day” parts.
***On that note, does anybody know where I can get pagan scrapbooking supplies?