Article - Spring 2022

Women’s Burden

We like to think the painful sacrifices our mothers made are in the past. But are they?

By Garry Wills | March 1, 2022
Classicstock/Alamy; Photo-illustration by David Herbick
Classicstock/Alamy; Photo-illustration by David Herbick

“… the acute burden of being female”
—Michelle Obama, Becoming

Since I was insomniac in my early teens, I heard my parents quarreling at night. It took a while for me to puzzle out what was causing these arguments: my father Jack’s philandering ways. My mother, Mayno, I would later learn, had long been so tolerant of his ways that she offered to raise, along with my younger sister and me, one of his children from an unmarried woman. Nothing came of that, but I was up late one night when my father was absent on a hunting trip, and I heard my mother sobbing deeply during a long phone call. I finally went out to the living room, where the phone was, and I kept listening while she continued to cry and comment on what she was being told. After she hung up, I asked her why she had said something or other. She saw that I had guessed enough of the truth that she might as well tell me the whole of it.

The mother of a young woman who was a hostess at the hunting lodge where my father was staying had called Mayno and said that Jack (then in his early 30s) was asking her daughter (then in her teens) to carry on their affair after he left the lodge. The young woman’s mother was tearily begging my mother to stop this, even though Mayno told her she did not know what she could do in this case, as in similar ones that had earlier (and often) happened.

But after that painful phone call, and when she saw that I was aware of what was going on, she resolved to tell my father when he returned that she was going to divorce him. He thought he could survive this, as he had other affairs, and he did not want to leave us. So when he learned that I would not back up his bid to remain, he told Patsy, my younger sister, that her mom was driving him away for no reason. I thought it was noble of my mother not to tell Patsy the truth, which could curdle Patsy’s love for her father. I thought I should follow her example and not tell Patsy what I knew. This was probably a bad decision, since it made Patsy resent our mother for years after this—so much so that when at last she learned the truth, that Jack had been lying to her, it made her so angry at him that, later on when he died, she refused to come to his funeral. I had to plead with her, through several phone calls, to show up, however briefly, at the cemetery, where she said nothing to anyone about Jack.

When Jack’s pleas with Mayno did not work, he went to our parish priest (though he was not a Catholic), since he thought rightly that the church of that time did not recognize any justification for divorce. Couldn’t Father Sullivan, a crusty old Irishman, plead with Mayno, a devout Catholic wife and mother? Father Sullivan certainly could. He came to our house to tell Mayno that it was the duty of a good Catholic woman to pray for a husband’s reform rather than to divorce him. I did not like Father Sullivan. When I was serving as an altar boy at one of his High Masses, I entered the sanctuary beforehand to light the tall candles with a long metal taper-holder, and then forgot to put down the latch when I returned the holder to its slot on the wall in the sacristy. It clattered noisily down during the Mass, and Father Sullivan ferociously screamed at me, after we had returned to the sacristy, that I would never serve at his altar again.

In dealing with my mother, Father Sullivan said that if she divorced Jack she could never marry anyone else. If she did remarry, that would entail immediate excommunication. Though she was still a young woman (in her early 30s), she did not question this version of the church rules. (Although she could have, had she known more, since she had been married not in the church but in a civil ceremony, because my father was not a Catholic. So the nonsacramental marriage could have been annulled.) She did not want to be excommunicated, unable to celebrate the Eucharist with her children. She accepted what she believed were church rules, so after divorcing my father, she never remarried.

When I was still in grade school, I had reason to admire another woman who stood up to Father Sullivan. The father of a friend of mine went to prison for some financial crime. The prisoner’s wife, a member of our parish, got her children off to Mass one Sunday, and then she arrived late herself. No matter what part of the Mass Father Sullivan had reached, he made a point of expressing his displeasure at people who arrived late, and he was most energetic in his frowns upon a woman whose husband had disgraced our community. Despite all this, Mrs. Jacobs strode defiantly down the center aisle to the front pews (always almost empty because slackers like me crowded at the rear of the church). The expression “hold your head high” always calls to my mind this woman striding down the church aisle.

I do not know what divorce law was like in Michigan, where we lived during the 1940s, but I know my mother got no child support. Jack left her with two houses, both heavily mortgaged (he was often in debt, juggling investments in risky things). She sold the house that was more in debt (the one we had lived in) and paid off the mortgage on the other one, into which we moved. She would have to find a job, though that would be difficult, since she had no high school diploma (having had to leave school when she was pregnant with me). She got a job as a dentist’s appointment secretary while studying for her high school equivalency, after which she went to work for the Michigan welfare office. She made enough from this to send my sister and me to private high schools (Patsy to Dominican nuns, me to Jesuit priests).

Even women with college diplomas were regularly educated to be homemakers, steered into home economics classes.

I first began to see what sacrifices she was making for us when she drove me to the Jesuit school (Campion) in Wisconsin, with a stopover at my grandparents’ home in the Chicago suburb Oak Park. While we were staying at their house, the College All Star game of 1947 occurred at Soldier Field. Mayno knew that Jack had promised to take me to this game before he left for Los Angeles with the hostess from the lodge. Not wanting to disappoint me, she drove to a hotel near Soldier Field and walked over to the stadium’s ticket office. Since there were no tickets left, she asked around to get one from the scalpers outside. Then she told me to go into the stadium with the (no doubt) expensive ticket, see the game, and meet her afterward in the hotel lobby, where she sat several hours waiting for my return. I was too young to appreciate what devotion she was showing. She was just as generous with Patsy, though she met with continued resistance from her.

As difficult as it was to be a single parent with two children entering high school, it would have been even harder if she had had to support five or more children, as was common in Catholic families, to whom contraceptives were forbidden. Fortunately, she could not have more children. My birth certificate (which I still have) says I weighed 10 pounds, seven ounces when I was born—and Mayno was a small 17-year-old. At my sister’s birth my mother lost so much blood that my father, who hated hospitals but had the right blood type, had to give her blood for a transfusion in the delivery room. The doctor said she needed a hysterectomy. That, too, was forbidden by the church back then, though she did not know it (having never been to Catholic schools).

My mother was not typical of what other women were going through in her time. Not all women were Catholic, with no high school diploma, no work experience, and no child support, left alone to support two children. But all women had similar difficulties. Even women with high school or college diplomas were regularly educated to be homemakers, steered into home economics classes instead of “hard” math or science. Cultural studies were encouraged, to make the home dignified with music or tasteful art. If women had more education or wider experiences, they were treated as intruders into areas not “natural” for them.

To go back to that era, think of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1956. She was well educated, with fine prospects before her—she entered Harvard Law School that year, one of only nine women in a body of 552 students. The dean of the school, Erwin Griswold, invited the nine women in first year to have dinner with him. They might reasonably have expected that this would be an occasion for congratulating them. But it was far from that. He asked each of them in turn, “Why are you here occupying a seat that could [by which he implied should  ] be held by a man?” She may have wished (as we do) that she could shoot back her own query: “How do you justify keeping women out for 200 years, and then letting us enter, grudgingly, in this trickle?” But social pioneers have to be minimalists until they get a foothold from which to make larger demands. She answered in terms a man of Griswold’s position could understand, saying that her husband was in the second year at Harvard Law, and she wanted to understand his work—that is, she justified her advance in terms of better serving a man. She had to undergo other humiliations from the law school of the 1950s—only one women’s bathroom, restricted use of the library, no invitation to the law review dinner.

The presumption that places of honor in society are primordial possessions of males, and that females must earn permission to intrude, is a common one in most societies. Some earlier feminists used to suppose that there was some earlier period when women ruled men. That is a forgivable form of wishful thinking. When we think of what ought to be, it is easy to assume that once, in a better time, it was. The Bible, after all, begins in Eden, from which we are fallen. Greeks like Hesiod thought that the world began with a Golden Age, which slipped down to a Silver Age, then a Bronze Age, then, eventually, an Iron Age (Hesiod’s own debased time). The good old days is a persistent illusion with no basis.

Evidence now gives us an evolutionary, not a devolutionary, view of history. We had to struggle up out of the slime toward the sublime, and men ranked higher than women in the earliest, the underdeveloped, state. After all, one thing can be ranked above or below another thing only if there is a significant difference between them, and the most obvious difference between human persons at the outset is the one between male and female. The man is on average bigger and stronger than the woman, more equipped to acquire and defend vital resources in a primitive world. Aristotle, in Animal Conception, thought that this difference made man the archetypal human, of which a woman was only a botched attempt at replication, making man by nature the ruler of woman. In Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas accepted this philosophical view of women and added the biblical claim that Satan tempted Eve in the Garden rather than Adam because Eve was the intellectually weaker partner, more easily bewildered with false promises. The early Christian fathers generally treated Eve as the cause of Adam’s defection from God, what Tertullian called “the gateway through which the devil enters.”

Her fear that the importance of his work would outrank hers seemed confirmed just after they were married.

Starting from the insight that the most basic initial ranking of human beings is based on the physical head start men have over women, three political scientists—Valerie M. Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen—judged the world’s governments by their advances beyond that model of primal male dominance. Their book, The First Political Order (2020), opens new ways to compare political systems. The initial advantage given to male rule tends to entail one of many corollaries. To maintain male supremacy in any realm, other regimes must reciprocally allow the means of maintaining that supremacy—what the book calls the patrilineal/fraternal principle. What does any one government do to keep women subordinate? There is a vast range of choices. A patriarchy can control the market of female inferiors—by early claims made on them (childhood marriage), by financial control (the dowry or “bride-price”), by multiplicity of wives per man (polygyny), by licensed violence (wife beating), by sequestering them from outside influence (patrilocation), by reducing female sexual gratification (genital mutilation), and by religious role assignment (priestess or nun), among others.

After describing this arsenal of tactics for buttressing male rule, the authors of The First Political Order do a dazzling statistical review of all current governments to track remaining forms of such dominance. The comparative suppression of such tools marks society’s advance away from sheer male force. In her 2009 book, The Means of Reproduction, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg in effect gives human faces to these future statistics in her world tour of obstacles to feminist reform:

There is one thing that unites cultural conservatives throughout the world, a critique that joins Protestant fundamentalists, Islamists, Hindu Nationalists, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and ultramontane Catholics. All view women’s equality and self-possession as unnatural, a violation of the established order.

Women have had to fight their way onto turf previously held by men. This is the deep historical presumption that was still motivating Dean Griswold when he asked Ruth Bader Ginsburg to justify her presence at his table. Traces of that order are still with us, even where we might think they have been eliminated. Take as an example what looked from the outside like a picture-perfect marriage, of two people with high intelligence and ideals, clearly loving and protective of each other. They are African Americans who have experienced attacks of prejudice; but the wife, in her autobiography, does not so much complain about racism—she complains, on many counts, about … her husband, Barack Obama. Other first ladies have prettied up their marriage for public consumption, making their books mere propaganda for their husbands. But with almost painful honesty, Michelle Obama tells us in her book Becoming that their marital harmony was so threatened that she had to steer her husband to repeated sessions with a marriage counselor. She reflects on the unfair balance of a wife’s tasks and her husband’s—for instance when she and Barack did not succeed in having a child at first and had to seek in vitro fertilization (IVF):

I sensed already that the sacrifices would be more mine than his. In the weeks to come, he’d go about his regular business while I went in for daily ultrasounds. He wouldn’t have his blood drawn. He wouldn’t have to cancel any meetings to have a cervix inspection. He was doting and invested, my husband, doing what he could do. He read all the IVF literature and would talk to me all night about it, but his only actual duty was to show up at the doctor’s office and provide some sperm. And then, if he chose, he could go have a martini afterward [she could not have a drink throughout the process]. None of this was his fault, but it wasn’t equal, either, and for any woman who lives by the mantra that equality is important, this can be a little confusing. It was me who’d alter everything, putting my passions and career dreams on hold, to fulfill this piece of our dream. I found myself in a small moment of reckoning. Did I want it? Yes, I wanted it so much. And with this, I hoisted the needle and sank it into my flesh.

Her fear that the importance of his work would outrank the importance of hers seemed confirmed just after they were married, when he went off to Bali for five weeks to finish his book, “a beach vacation—a honeymoon with himself (I couldn’t help but think in my lonelier moments) to follow his honeymoon with me.”

She went along reluctantly with Barack’s political aspirations, from the time when he won a seat in the Illinois State Senate. That required him to drive four hours downstate to the capital in Springfield on a Monday night and return the same distance on Thursday evening. By then they had two daughters, and Michelle feared he would not see them for most of the week, and then, when he got back for the weekend, he would be too exhausted to pay full attention to them. He assured her he would return in time to have dinner with them on Thursday, but something often came up to delay him. She held dinner while keeping the girls up to see him, but she often had to put them to bed before he finally arrived.

As a working full-time mother with a half-time spouse and a pre-dawn wake-up time, I felt my patience slipping away until finally, at some point, it just fell off a cliff. When Barack made it home, he’d either find me raging or unavailable, having flipped off every light in the house and gone sullenly to sleep.

When Barack’s political aims went even higher, the demands on her became greater to subordinate her own career to his:

I worried that as my visibility as Barack Obama’s wife rose, the other parts of me were dissolving from view. When I spoke to reporters, they rarely asked about my work … speculating that I’d been promoted at the hospital not due to my own hard work and merit but because of my husband’s growing political stature.

When she did not contrive the dutiful political wife’s “painted-on smile and adoring gaze,” writes Michelle, she would find New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd accusing her of “emasculating Barack when I spoke publicly about how he didn’t pick up his socks or put the butter back in the fridge.”

It is true that the wrongs Michelle cites were not on a heinous scale. He did not beat her. He was not unfaithful to her. These were just the little annoyances of a spouse’s everyday life—that her husband comes home too late, does not take out the garbage, leaves clothes strewn around, does not spend enough time with her or with the kids. But these minor things become cumulatively more than negligible irritants. Many wives might just bear them as a requirement of their love. It is a tribute to the Obamas that they aired all the petty problems in their way before a marriage counselor. The counselor did little but listen, but they listened to his listening and saw themselves in a new light. Barack heard what irked her in a complete and explicit way, rather than in hurried and unfocused remarks. She learned that she could do more on her own to cope with such problems: “This was my pivot point, my moment of self-arrest. … Calmness and strength, two things I feared I was losing, were now back.”

Barack Obama, in his own book (A Promised Land, 2020) does not mention the fertility treatments or the marriage counseling, but he admits his wife’s disgust with politics. When he was often absent as a state senator,

we began arguing more, usually late at night when the two of us were thoroughly drained. “This isn’t what I signed up for, Barack,” Michelle said at one point. “I feel like I’m doing it all by myself.”

After he had appointed a team to explore his running for president, he finally told her he thought “we could do this”:

“Did you say we?” she said. “You mean you, Barack. Not we. This is your thing. I’ve supported you the whole time, because I believe in you, even though I hate politics. I hate the way it exposes our family.”

That women have a starting place behind men is something all women have to face. That it could affect people as different as my mother, Justice Ginsburg, and Michelle Obama demonstrates that the thesis of The First Political Order still holds. There are still great pressures on women to “stay in your place.” Shakespeare dramatizes that lesson in The Taming of the Shrew, and later stories have reemphasized it. Consider George Stevens’s 1942 film Woman of the Year, where Katharine Hepburn is a successful international affairs commentator who neglects her sportswriter husband (Spencer Tracy, of course), leaving him to care for her politically correct adoption of an orphan. She is made to crawl back to him, trying to use neglected skills in the kitchen, with spectacular ineptness. In the end, Tracy gives her permission to stay at her own work, so long as she observes her subservience to him—a point emphasized when he knocks her former secretary-enabler down the kitchen-door steps.

The same point was emphasized by G. K. Chesterton, who satirized the women’s movement, claiming that the feminist stands up in her home and says she will not be bossed around, only to sit down in an office to “take dictation.” He also made the more valid point that in some ways the home is a bigger world than “the world,” a view that journalist Caitlin Flanagan promotes over and over again in her articles and her books To Hell With All That (2006) and Girl Land (2012). But the spouse makes the home bigger if she asserts her own independence within it, as Michelle Obama did. There are many ways to be a feminist. My wife, Natalie, expected payment for some of the work she did for me, and she used the money in ways she did not let me know (and certainly did not ask me to “approve”). She also counseled our daughter to keep her own business income separate from her husband’s—which turned out to be exceedingly good advice when the couple parted. Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew was satirically refuted by John Fletcher in The Tamer Tamed (c. 1610). That play is being reenacted all around us as the human rights revolution rolls on. As a cousin of the husband-tamer cheers her on in Fletcher’s play:

All the several wrongs
Done by imperious husbands to their wives
These thousand years and upward, strengthen thee!

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