Exactly 365 days ago (Thanksgiving 2013), my dad poured Cabernet Sauvignon into my mom’s crystal glass. She had been sitting there with an empty glass for over five minutes, waiting passively for him to pour it, without saying a word. When he finally realized that she was waiting for him, he apologized for not noticing earlier.
“What the hell, Mommy, this is ridiculous. Pour your own wine. Stop being passive and subscribing to such patriarchy,” I angrily spouted at my mother at the dinner table in front of our guests.
She retorted (in a much calmer voice) that she finds solace in such traditions.
Should tradition be forsaken in the name of feminism? Is my mom personally guilty of perpetuating patriarchy?
Some feminists, including John Stuart Mill, would probably answer both of these questions in the affirmative. In Mill’s chapter on individuality, he argues that “the despotism of custom is everywhere the standing hindrance to human advancement, being in unceasing antagonism to that disposition to aim at something better than customary.” In other words, he thinks that resorting to what is customary limits both an individual’s and humanity’s development as a whole. Without deviance or risks, he argues, we fail by robotically imitating what those before us have carved out for us as “normal,” “typical,” or “correct.”
Despite being a feminist, my hypocrisy quickly emerged as my relationship with my partner became more long-term. I found myself loving surprise gifts, being paid for, having the small of my back held, and receiving an amount of affection many would find exhausting or, at the very least, superfluous. Regardless of whether or not I have come to love these things because I’m a feminine girl or just because these are adorable perks anyone would love in a relationship, what doesn’t change is the fact that these are things that make me happy in a romantic relationship.
Social construction or not, I gain happiness from some stereotypical “girl” things in the same way my mom does. The issues feminists should have is that this results in power dynamics and roles that men and women are expected to take on. While my dad pouring my mom wine does stem from patriarchal etiquette, it’s okay that it makes them happy. The issue is when someone criticizes a woman for deviating from her ascribed gender role and admonishes her for pouring wine at the table.
Instead of pointing fingers at people who are “complicit” in following stereotypical gender roles, energy must be diverted toward eradicating gender roles entirely and eliminate the stigma of breaking from one’s ascribed role.
After ruminating on last year’s Thanksgiving, I have come to realize that though tradition and feminism often collide, they can co-exist. Is my mom personally guilty of perpetuating patriarchy? Absolutely not. She is not blindly imitating past customs; she finds happiness and feels like she gains from certain patriarchal rituals. She does not feel oppressed or passive in having her wine poured for her. And that’s okay. Tradition does not necessarily need to be forsaken in the name of feminism.
This year, my dad poured wine for us all at the Thanksgiving table. And I shamelessly enjoyed every sip.