Being Married, Doing Gender is a little-known book with a decidedly Radfem feel. Dryden illustrates how marriage has been ignoredin mainstream psychology to a suspicious degree. The field has traditionally been dominated by behaviorism, namely the study of rats, followed by cognitivism, the study of innate differences between the sexes. And that’s about it. Emotional experience has been completely overlooked and in her 1999 research she set about changing that.
When she embarked on her degree in the early eighties, she noticed that bizarrely, ‘the history of Western psychology this century can be seen as the history of the exclusion of emotions from the research agenda.’ She believed emotional experience was of central concern to the discipline, and created her own conceptual framework based on two facets: Gender power relations and marriage–the way that a man always belongs to the dominant caste “male”, and a woman to the subordinate caste “female”, no matter how they each behave as individuals, and Interpersonal and intergroup relations, defined broadly as the reluctance with which women will make connections between the subjects of gender inequality and the relational aspects of marriage i.e love, affection, companionship.
Armed with this new conceptual framework she interviewed 16 married couples, with a follow-up interview 18 months later. Excerpts of the interviews are transcribed in each chapter.
The book was very illuminating. There were many ideas and concepts I had never heard of before, but the main emotion I experienced was sadness. Gender roles had crushed these women’s lives. I was angry at the way their husbands conspired with society, ascribing to gendered expectations of women in order to keep their wives’ lives small, circumscribed and full of hard-labour. I felt frustration at the women’s innocence and their inability to catch on to the manipulations of their husbands, whose deliberate gaslighting (dressed up as the “masculine gender role”), was laid bare for the reader to see.
It became obvious that husbands constructed masculinity through the basic human traits of: selfishness, distancing, minimizing the concerns of their spouses and self-aggrandizing speech (men would talk at length about their work). But what I found remarkable was that femininity was hardly constructed at all. Feminine traits such as domesticity, self-blame, unassertiveness and passivity seemed to be foisted upon the women by virtue of their husband’s masculine “acting out”. Judging by the interviews, femininity could easily be described as women “striving to do the best they could under abusive circumstances, of the kind their husbands would never experience.”
Almost all of the men were keen to portray themselves as promoters of gender equality, or “liberated” men. This had the effect of creating cognitive dissonance in some wives because what the men said, and how they actually behaved was so very different. Take the example of Cathy:
“With two young children, highly restricted earning potential for self and a husband who was showing no signs of wanting to change, what were the realistic options for Cathy? A daily ‘realisation’ that your husband is behaving in a ‘chavinistic’ way is a ‘realisation’ that someone in Cathy’s position may not be able to do much with. In this analysis, self-blame starts to look like a eminently sensible strategy for traversing an emotional minefield–“
Dryden touches upon the cultural practice of woman-blaming, reminiscent of the witch-dunkings, where no matter what a woman does, she is always found to be guilty or inadequate. For example, men’s activities were constructed as being crucially important for the family, whereas whatever women did was regarded as vicarious leisure. Husbands often constructed wives as personally inadequate by subtly suggesting that stories of work overload from women must be related to a wife’s incompetence rather than the demands of the work itself. Also, comparative processes were used by the couples, depicting the husband’s contribution to the relationship as excessive in relation to the wife.
“Male sacrifice for the family is a phenomenon on which other researchers have commented. For example, Hunt (1980) argued that women’s work tends to be rendered invisible by being treated as an expression of love…
Other constructions of reality included the notion of The biologically driven wife (“My wife with the little extra something“). Women were seen as being better at domestic work for biological reasons. If they managed to step up to the plate, their efforts were dismissed because it was assumed that biology gave them an advantage. But if they couldn’t keep up with their domestic duties, they were regarded as failed women. Their efforts were always undermined.
Constructing Women’s Insecurity
Of all the abusive behaviour cited, I found the construction of women’s insecurity to be the most disturbing. Husbands used a variety of behavioural tactics such as “distancing” in order to construct insecurity in their wives. One man went to remarkable lengths. Richard spent many evenings down the pub, claiming he needed time to himself. But when his wife went on holiday for a week with her mother and the children, he found he couldn’t stand being alone so he took the train down to meet them. As soon as he arrived Richard said a quick “hi” then disappeared off fishing, leaving his wife alone.
Dryden analyses this bizarre behavior and concludes that this husband found it impossible to create insecurity in his wife, when she was not around. Though he was now free to go out to his heart’s content, it transpired that this was not actually what he wanted. In order to undermine his wife’s confidence—the hidden agenda behind his disappearing acts—she needed to be present.
I have chosen one interview, where we learn about the (typical female) life of Rachael. In a previous chapter we learned that Rachael had been hospitalized for depression after the birth of her second child. The discussion moves onto her mother:
When her father died her mother’s mental health deteriorated rapidly, and she soon became unable to look after herself. In the joint interview with Rachael and Gordon, they told me how the problem came to a head when Rachael’s mother had a fall, and had to be taken to hospital with a head injury. Since that day, she had very little memory and most of the time does not even recognize Rachael. Rachael and Gordon told me that Rachael was granted power of attorney over her mother’s estate, and they sold her rather large house and bought her a small flat close to their own house (her mother didn’t want to move). Rachael’s mother cannot do anything for herself. Rachael has to go round to the flat each morning and get her washed and dressed. Fortunately, the Social Services now provide transport each day to take her to a local day centre. She is then dropped off back at Rachael and Gordon’s house in the afternoon. She stays and has tea with them and at 8 o’clock, Gordon takes her home (Rachael cannot drive), puts her to bed and locks her in until morning. When they had told me this, Gordon made the following comment:
GORDON: One of the things we were—we were quite concerned n— n— you know, w— wouldn’t happen. W— w— we didn’t want her to go to a home, because if she went to a home, what they would do, what the state would do, would be to confiscate all her [pause] her property and assets—sell them, fund the home until there was less than $3000 left and then, you know, that would be her, well, all the things [pause] that er, her husband had, had built up over the years, would be forfeit, and we were quite determined not to let that happen. So there was, you know, a l— a number of reasons why we [pause] were prepared to put the input in. You know, we live in er, uncertain times [laughing]. Like,we, we’re blowed if we’re gonna see it all sort of bl—/
CAROLINE: Blown down the
GORDON: Blown down the—you know, down the drain.
CAROLINE: Yeah, right. Gosh, that’s quite a handful.
[Gordon laughs, Rachael doesn’t say anything]
Then, later on, Gordon and Rachael are talking about their crippling schedule at the moment, with Rachael’s mother and the two children:
GORDON: But, as, as I keep saying—it’s the [pause] I appreciate—we appreciate this is perhaps one of the busiest times of our lives [pause] because we’ve got lots of people to look after.
GORDON: It won’t always
RACHAEL: There’s a lot of people depend on us
GORDON: Yeah, we got—we won’t always be like this. We appreciate that. But in working hard now, eventually we will—gain—a certain degree of financial security. Um, and also, we are young enough at the moment and we’re heal—sort of fit enough—we’re young enough to carry it off, to do it. And I, I’m quite prepared to put the input in, you know.
All the way through the above dialogue, although Rachael has said virtually nothing, Gordon has been using ‘we’ to describe the decision that was made to put Rachael’s mother in a flat. However, later on in the same interview, Gordon has just been talking about the fact that although Rachael now gets her mother up in the mornings, he had to do it for a whole year. Rachael and Gordon then have this exchange:
RACHAEL: Yeah, I, I couldn’t. That’s why I was taking these tablets, you see. I couldn’t. When Mum went senile, you know, I mean, I just couldn’t. As I went into her flat, to get her up, you know my heart rate would go up, and I’d, not be getting panic attacks, but that sort of road, you know, that kind of avenue I could think, oh my goodness, a few more months of this and I, I, and I resented the way that I could feel that—I consciously resented the way that um [pause] you know, my, my response to Mum. I couldn’t help my response to her at the time. And it was undermining me. I could feel it was undermining me and that irritated me. I thought oh I’m going down this particular road, and I—the only way I can do it is to avoide the situation. I mean, the old fight or flight thing.
GORDON: I resented that a very great—greatly at the time though because I—when [pause] when [pause] her mother did fall over in 1985, Rachael was saying oh well that’s it, you know. Find her a home sort of thing. And we had quite a serious, difference of opinion, but I was absolutely adamant that the [pause] the estate—should not just be, sort of wiped out….
Here is a woman struggling a great deal with her assigned gender role as caregiver, living with a man who ignores that struggle to further his own ends.
As Dryden records and analyses the subtle, almost imperceptible, abuse of wives, we find that superficially a husband always comes out smelling of roses–but the emotional impact of his words, actions or behavior is devastating to his wife’s mental health. Women’s isolation from other women in nuclear family units compounds these problems.
Gas-lighting wreaks havoc on a woman’s self-esteem. Eventually she may lose confidence in her ability to gauge reality. Depression ensues. It bears repeating: Marriage supports men and destroys women. Married men are the happiest group of people, followed by single women, then married women, with single men coming in last, as the group most likely to commit suicide (Greer, 1999)
After reviewing Dryden’s research, I would like now to add a final ingredient to the mix. The concept of transgenderism.
I suggest that the feminine gender role of subordination is based on little more than the silent suffering of women. Gender depends–for its very existence– on the annihilation of women’s will. It is rooted in female pain; in women’s fears of losing their children, the roof over their head, or their sanity. Most women cannot identify the source of their suffering until it’s pointed out to them, whereupon something inside them wakes up and they think, “Yes! that is it.”
This buried pain and fear is what keeps women–Adult Human Females–firmly boxed into femininity. Gender is pernicious and serves to reinforce the suffering of women like Rachael. No male, trans or otherwise, would carry out the gendered work that has been assigned to this woman via her sex: that is, of full time caregiver to two small children plus an elderly parent with dementia. And what is often overlooked is that she is doing it all FOR FREE, with the added bonus of zero social status, unless we’re counting her derivative status of “wife” and “mother”. Depression is her mind’s way of protesting. Before women can ever be free, gender, in its current form, must be destroyed .When the enforced feminization of all females has been eradicated, transgenderism will no longer exist.
When women spend time together without men, there much less “doing” of gender and lot more just “being”. But masculinity requires a feminine “opposite” as a yardstick to measure itself by. Heterosexual marriage serves this purpose well. As we saw in the example of Richard who needed his wife next to him in order to hurt her, the “othering” of women is often a necessary prerequisite to masculinity. Women, on the other hand, are just trundling along trying to survive. That so many women are miserable in their marriages is a testament to the fact that women’s well-being and their gender are diametrically opposed.