Quick note: I am writing this post as part of the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network. I'll be writing a few more posts in the coming weeks that bring feminism and fashion into conversation with each other, so be watching for those. And for more information on the Feminist Fashion Bloggers network, click here.
If I learned anything as an English major, it's that you've gotsta have an opening paragraph with a thesis, and here's mine:
In religious and political rhetoric, women are often subjected to Single Standards -- codes of behavior that are meant to apply uniformly to all members of a certain group. Single Standards might include regulations of dress, proscribing the length, color, or other characteristics of clothing items. They might also extend to the realms of family and parenting. Plentiful though they may be, Single Standards are often ineffective and unreasonable as they overlook individual diversity and personal biases.
(Man, my opening paragraphs are boring-sauce.)
So there's this county commissioner in Maryland, and he (along with some other elected officials, I assume) voted to reduce the county's Head Start budget by half. His reasoning was that the children who attend Head Start shouldn't be there, because they should be at home with their mothers, because a mother's place is in the home. And I quote: "The mother's role is primarily in the home and my wife happens to agree with me, as do many people, and so do my kids." I'm glad he and his wife (and many other people) are on the same page, and I'm really glad that this setup worked for their family, but not every family is like his.
(Before I go any further, I should note that I'm getting all of my information on this from an article in The Washington Post. I had to do a fair bit of deducing from the article; if you read it and find that I've deduced incorrectly, please accept my sincerest apologies.)
I don't live in Maryland or work for Head Start, so it might seem kind of strange that this minor news story came to my attention at all, until you know that this commissioner, Paul Smith, is Mormon, and I'm Mormon, and I read my fair share of Mormon-run blogs that feature Mormon-related factoids from around the globe.
Sexism annoys me, so insofar as Mr. Smith's vote was motivated by his personal beliefs about gender roles, I'm annoyed. But what further gets my goat (please tell me that's the right expression ...) is that he's using a document from the church - his church and mine and millions of other peoples' - to justify his vote to the media. His interpretation of that document is really different from mine (he seems to think it supports the idea that a mother's place is in the home; I find no such sentiment), so of course I feel like he's representing Mormonism poorly. That said, I make my own mistakes and stupid comments, and I'd hope that no one evaluated my religious community based on my personal failings, so I'll resist the urge to travel down that judgmental road in this case.
What I do want to discuss is this idea of a Single Standard - a standard like "Mothers should stay at home with their children." As I see it, there are two main problems with having a Single Standard: (1) it doesn't acknowledge the diversity of people that are being held to that standard; (2) the person setting the standard might very well be doing so based on his/her own biases.
Does this relate to clothes? Maybe not at first, but give me a minute ...
Applying this Single Standard idea to clothes might illustrate what I'm getting at. I grew up in a church community and in a family that put a big emphasis on modest dressing, i.e. choosing clothes that cover the body to one extent or another. It was a HUGE deal when I was a teenager and continues to be a huge deal for young Mormon women of today. The church's leadership does give guidelines for dress and appearance, mostly broad, and those guidelines seem reasonable to me. It would be very different for a church leader (or other authority figure) to hold up a piece of clothing - a skirt, let's say - and impose a Single Standard. In this case, a Single Standard would boil down to "This skirt is appropriate" or "This skirt is not appropriate." The problems with this kind of labeling are the ones I mentioned earlier:
(1) It doesn't acknowledge diversity. Our bodies aren't identical; that hypothetical skirt might be loose, long, and flowy on a petite person, but put that same skirt on a taller woman, and the "modesty" factor would necessarily change. It's the same story with shirts, shorts, jackets, and all the rest. Personal application: I'm a woman with a very small bustline and very small breasts. Shirts that are "fine" on me would be cleavage-baring for my bosomy friends, which they may or may not be okay with. In this case, applying a Single Standard to me and to curvier women would be ludicrous. The broader guideline is to "Dress modestly," which leaves room for diversity of bodies; the Single Standard interpretation of that guideline assumes sameness, both ignorantly and incorrectly.
(2) The person setting the Single Standard is doing so with bias. The accusation of "bias" is not meant as an insult. We've all got biases, and they don't make us bad people; they just mean that we grew up in a specific world and that we perceive everything in a specific way because of it. The problem comes when we don't recognize our biases and when we rudely, unapologetically try to impose them on others. In the example of the person holding up a skirt and proclaiming its level of appropriateness, that claim comes from a very specific background. That background wouldn't account for people from other cultures (cultures where the ideas of dress are completely different), and it therefore doesn't work across the board. Look, I am not going to adhere to a Saudi Arabian standard, an Orthodox Jewish standard, a Brazilian standard, a French standard of modesty, because those standards don't match my perceptions; it would be similarly ludicrous to expect that people in those cultures would adhere to my standards. Setting a Single Standard is simply ineffective and inapplicable to so many people.
Now that we've covered clothes, let's migrate back to the afore-mentioned situation in Maryland ...
The church document that I mentioned and linked to earlier is called "The Family: A Proclamation to the World," and it's a staple of modern Mormonism. One of the things I love about this document is that it follows the pattern of setting out guidelines and acknowledging the need for adaptation, and I see this pattern as vastly superior to proclaiming a Single Standard.
Among the guidelines set forth in the proclamation is that, "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners."
That's the guideline, like it or lump it. I've certainly got my issues with the sentiments expressed and the wording used (what does it mean to "preside" in a relationship of "equal partners"? Still trying to sort that one out ...). I'm not here to defend the guideline, even though I do believe in it to an extent. What I am here to celebrate is the sentence that immediately follows: "Disability, death, or other circumstances may necessitate individual adaptation." There. This acknowledgment is humongous. It says that diversity exists, and it supports the ways that families respond to their own uniqueness. It combats a Single Standard by saying, "Hey, this method is preferable, but it doesn't always work out, and we get that." (And by the way, "disability, death, or other circumstances" are often the motivation for seeking out daycare and Head Start enrollment for one's children. So it's odd to me that this county official is using the proclamation to disparage Head Start, when the proclamation seems to leave sufficient room for just such an organization, tax-funded or otherwise.)
And so, Mr. Paul Smith, county commissioner in Frederick, Maryland, please stop making unwavering statements and setting forth a Single Standard about what women should do and how mothers should behave. I will wear the clothes that are modest by my standards, and I will care for my future children in the way that is best according to my understanding, and I will not bow to someone telling me I'm wrong on either count.
It's certainly within your rights to believe and say what you wish, and I support those rights, but dude, I was bothered by what you said. Blanket statements -- "Women should _______" and "Mothers should ________" -- ignore the diversity that's out there, as though all women are the same and come with an identical set of needs, opportunities, interests, obstacles, and experiences. Vote to decrease Head Start funding if you wish, but as a personal favor to me, please stop evaluating mothers' choices based on your own biases and ignorance. Contrary to what you imply, children are not attending Head Start because their parents are materialistic and seeking an unreasonably-high standard of living, because they're trying to "move into a mansion." Come on, dude -- get real. And a last request: stop misrepresenting the proclamation and, by extension, the church we both belong to. Pretty please.