My corner of Twitter has been talking about women, typing books.
Not their books.
Their husbands’ books. Often when they’ve also just had a child, and also had an academic position (sometimes at the same damn college), they were expected to type up their husbands’ notes into manuscripts as well. Because, well, that’s what wives did back then: clerical work.
Which has sparked a discussion among my writer-buddies about how often, the wife is expected to do the housework and take care of the kids if she’s a professional writer – there’s a fair number of working examples of that in the field – whereas if the man becomes a Writer, the default is that he is cleared space to Do Important Writing.
This is actually true in our house.
Basically, for about two hours a night, I head downstairs to the word mines. My wife does more of the cleaning because it’s understood that I am trying to make a career out of this, and so she takes on a disproportionate brunt of the housework. She runs more errands, because she has more free time. She cooks the meals so I can get three hours in if I have to. And my God, does that poor woman have to endure me yammering on about how this plot point doesn’t make sense, I’ve written myself into a corner, what do I do, let’s go for a walk and try to hash this out?
My wife works a lot more to support me at being a writer. That’s just how it is. We didn’t discuss it, we just settled into that mode.
When she was going to law school and working full-time, I did all the cooking. (In fact, I taught myself to cook nice meals to make things easier on her, but that’s a separate story.) I did more errands back then, because I had more free time. Looking back at our history, if something’s been important to either of us, we’ve made the necessary sacrifices to try to make it happen for each other.
And if I weren’t conversant with how privilege ought to work in the field, I would scoff loudly and go, “See? There’s no privilege here! Look, we are equals, pass by, we have done it correctly!”
But the truth is that the fundamental nature of understanding privilege – in this case, the male privilege of “Men’s work is generally considered important, women’s work is generally considered less so” – is that you’re not supposed to flog yourself with guilt for it.
You’re supposed to use it as a corrective lens to consider.
Because the deeper truth is that one of the reasons our household works is because I am, in fact, aware of traditional gender roles, and I am aware that I’m leaning on Gini heavily to make my writing career easier. If I see a mess lying around the house, I go, “I’ve been acculturated to let women handle that, but I should really take care of that for her if I have the time, just to make things fair.” I make sure to thank her profusely for sorting my pills and doing the laundry.
I don’t lean on privilege – I interrogate it. Is what I’m doing actually fair, or just a decision I’ve sleepwalked through? If it’s not that fair, what can I do to even the scales?
And in this case, the personal scales are “We both make time for each other’s dreams.” That’s a healthy dynamic. But underlying that is a quietly sexist assumption of “The wife does the housework” that could actually undermine that healthiness, if I didn’t work to combat it.
That’s what privilege should be, if you could acknowledge its existence. Privilege often winds up being a club because folks don’t want to admit that any portion of their good luck might have come from millions of people lining up and quietly deciding you randomly benefited…
….Because my wife has “assumed she’ll do the housework” as one of the minor dings of being woman, but she also benefits from being born white. Privilege isn’t The One Benefit To Rule Them All, as it often gets argued by mooks, it’s a complicated intersection of identities, some of which are helpful, others are not. Privilege often gets dumbed down a game of playing Identity Uno, in which everyone’s trying to score the most points instead of working to see who can learn the most.
As I’ve mentioned before, I had a lot of privileges in being able to publish my first novel by being physically healthy, by having solidly middle-class background that helped get me a desk job so I had time to write, by having the wealth to attend the writers’ workshop that unlocked the stall I was in.
None of that takes away from my relentless work ethic, or the mental illness that makes it harder to write. It’s just something I consider as I write: Wow, I benefited from that. Is that something everyone gets? If not, is there something I can do to make it easier for those people?
(Hint: Even if you can do nothing else, acknowledging “Wow, that’s hard for you” usually helps people by letting them know they’re not deluded for seeing a division in circumstances.)
In my case, there’s covert sexism threaded through my marriage. We work to examine that, to pluck out the threads and sew those gaps up with healthier patterns. If I didn’t, I’d probably just quietly go, “Yeah, that’s what she does, she’s a good wife” whenever Gini picked up my slack, and Gini would actually be more overworked, and our marriage would suck a lot harder because I’d be bellowing at someone in an online forum that I don’t ask my wife to type, I worked hard for my novels, I don’t have any privilege.
I have privilege.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing if I use that privilege to examine why I’m privileged, and to make my world as fair as possible.
That’s what it should be for, in an ideal world.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.