Feminists in our own House

Scanned photo 001This August Lisa and I will celebrate 20 years of marriage.

When I look back, the strongest memory I have is of looking into her eyes as we made our vows in the presence of so many friends and family.

There are other memories, too. My parents striding purposefully into the church and both heading into a one-person washroom so that my father could apply some just-purchased static cling spray to my mother’s hand-made silk dress. My friends stealing our canoe from the roof of our car and making us follow a trail of clues to discover its location – a trail that ended with a note sewn into the hem of the wedding dress. My friend whose day started at CFB Petawawa with scrubbing the camo off his face and putting on the only non-combat clothing he had in his car (his PT gear – shorts, t-shirt and running shoes) in order to get to the church on time. Dressed as he was, and clutching a rolled up piece of Bristol board, with the words from the note that accompanied the flowers Lisa sent me after our first date, the ushers were convinced he was a crazed ex-boyfriend determined to disrupt the proceedings.

Those are only some of the highlights. It was such an extraordinary celebration that the stories seem endless. Only one sour note stands out.

As Lisa and I arrived at the hall for the dinner and reception, Lisa was intercepted at the head table by her second cousin, a freelance journalist with a passion for gender issues. Lisa was confronted about her choice to take my last name. The tone was strident, the feeling was one of judgement and we were both taken aback.

What this cousin didn’t know, and what her approach left no room for discovering, was that Lisa and I had spoken a number of times about this decision. We were both agreed that hyphenating our names wasn’t a great option, and I had offered to take Lisa’s last name as mine. In the end, Lisa made her own free choice about what she was going to do. Given our shared values, nothing else would have been acceptable.

My practice of psychotherapy is heavily informed by feminist therapy, which teaches us to deal with cultural, societal and relational forces that disempower individuals. Indeed, the only couples counselling situation that I have wrapped up in one session involved assessing that the way the couple was dealing with a difficult situation had thoroughly disempowered one of them and suggesting a way for mutual accountability to exist. The couple followed up a month later to say that that one intervention had allowed a destructive dynamic in the relationship to become entirely manageable.

The world desperately needs the feminist critique of power dynamics. It’s essential to our capacity for reworking social structures and relationships.

What we don’t need is a war between genders, and for too many, that is what feminism has come to mean. The actions of people like my wife’s cousin mean that I can’t hold myself out as a feminist. Too many people would be rightly concerned about what sort of bias that would mean I was bringing to my work. And not all of those people would be men. The most scathing critique of feminism I have ever heard was made by a 20-something female in a session in my office.

It angers me that the term feminist is so utterly wounded and broken, because our need to assess, critique and transform power dynamics is as great as it ever has been. When a couple walk into my office I do everything I can to ensure that in the therapeutic space they are equal in power to one another and with me. That is fundamental to the work I do.

It’s also been fundamental to my marriage. I may not be able to be a feminist in the public arena, but thank you, Lisa, that we are both feminists in our own house.

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