A man I know stopped me the other day as he walked by. ‘Why you always bad-talking Stone so in de papers?’ he asked. I laughed it off as male picong made partially in solidarity with and in defense of Stone’s masculine honour, but it is a question that needs to be answered.
I actually don’t bad talk Stone in the newspapers. What I do talk about, with clearly god-forbidden honesty, are the negotiations of marriage, motherhood and career. These are all spaces shaped by ideas regarding masculinity and femininity and how they connect to labour, power, decision-making and responsibilities in and out of the home. These ideas are inescapably shaped by the privileges that masculinities and therefore men still have in terms of doing fewer hours of unwaged and uncounted work in the home, earning higher pay for work of equal value to women’s, accessing the highest paid sectors of the legal (and illegal) economy, and benefitting from familial support that enables them to more easily manage the lengthy time demands of the workplace.
Now, not all men actively mobilize these privileges and many, including Stone, strive for relationships with equality that acknowledge the work of each partner and the extent to which both need to share the care. Nonetheless, all negotiations and positions, resistances and transformations within woman-man relationships take place within this institutional and ideological context of male privileging, and not all women can negotiate it well nor do all have access to the kinds of power and partners that would enable them to do so. Even in an especially egalitarian relationship such as mine, those negotiations take place in relation to who sacrifices their work time to care for the baby, who gets to sleep in or get up to care for the baby, who does what tasks in relation to the household and care of the baby, and what sacrifices are made overall and by whom. This reality is not singular to us. It’s pervasive and shared in all its complexity and diversity by literally billions of working and loving women and men over the entire planet.
Why then can’t one simply speak about these negotiations without being accused of shaming one’s man, failing to be properly mannersed as a wife, and revealing private secrets that must never be publicly admitted?
Despite the fact that seemingly everyone from religious leaders, teachers, politicians and people on the radio have plenty to say about it, this wholly invented division between private and public sets up the family – and wifehood and motherhood – as a sacred and silencing domain. The family is completely interlocked with the economy and the law, with societal views and with politicians’ patronage. It is in fact a very public institution, except when women need to speak out about what they experience there and, in particular, the injustices they experience there: sexual and other forms of abuse, an unequal division of labour, the obviously unjust injunction to honour and obey rather than honour and lead, and expectations that make career-family dilemmas an issue for far greater numbers of women than men.
There isn’t anything private about this stuff. All of it is shaped by governmental policies, school curriculums, legislation (and its lack), administration of social services, an absence of 24 hour state-provided day care, socialization processes that teach all women to learn to fear unspecified potential male violence, a status quo where having three women in a thirty-six member 2012 T and T Cabinet provokes no widespread outcry from all fair-minded citizens regardless of their sex, and a society where it is women who experience shame for admitting to being raped, sexually harassed, abused or victimized.
Women know that the one thing they should never do is embarrass or dishonor men because damage to the male ego can (and does) lead to any result, including violence, often widely considered to be deserved. Whose benefit does women’s silence serve? Not women.
Funny how women are pressured to keep family secrets private when making them public would enable women to see that these are widespread experiences requiring widely collective solutions. Funny how men and masculine status and pride get to set the terms of what women experience publicly and privately as well as what they are allowed to articulate about their experiences publicly and privately. Funny how it’s those exact aspects of men’s privilege that women are not allowed to simply describe for fear of shaming themselves and, worse, their men.
Funny how sometimes picong isn’t funny at all.