Power and the Feminist Critique   Leave a comment

Trigger Warning: Domestic Abuse

As left as I’ve gotten, I still believe that the moral system I was raised with, a conservative version of Catholicism, was basically good. Where I differ is not so much rejecting the general rule, so much as rejecting completely its application to all cases.d I have always thought that either a loving committed relationship between husband and wife or a life committed to growing closer to God through exclusive commitment to prayer and works of charity (when I was still Catholic, “the religious life” as practiced in Catholic Orders like the Franciscans or Dominicans). I still think either of these options are fantastic (though I must confess a preference for the married life). I differ from my past views only in that I reject constraining everyone, especially GLBT people to these two options.

In that spirit, I have revisited thoughts that I had developed in high school regarding the concept of control and feminist critiques. When I was in high school, I read (at second hand, of course) some critiques arising out of the feminist movement. I can’t really pinpoint what I was reading more specifically than that, but I do remember quite clearly the impression that I got from what I read. In short, I was disgusted by the focus on control. The entire argument seemed to me at the time to consist of the assertion that men had all the power and thus control in relationships between men and women. In order to fix this imbalance, women needed to seize some of the power/control from men.

I was simply frustrated by this view. To me, it missed the whole point of relationships and degraded the people involved. Asking who has more power in a relationship was rather like asking which of two great classic works of English literature was written closer to the city of Tangier in Morocco. Yeah, I guess technically there’s an answer to that question but what does it have to with these great books. I had in my brain an idea of what a romantic relationship should look like. I am happy to say that my old idea looks a great deal like my current marriage. There is mutual trust, love, and respect. We communicate our concerns and try to take the concerns of the other person into account in all major decisions. We not only love the other person for who they are, but actively try to help that person be more who they are.

In that kind of dynamic, asking who holds more power is really an irrelevancy. We both use our power in the service of both.

So while I think my memory overstated the case (I have read no feminist who thinks that the power of women must come at the expense of men), I do still think that something has gone wrong when we start talking about power dynamics in romantic relationships. Power dynamics simply shouldn’t be important.

But I have learned since high school that what should be and what is are two very different things. Power dynamics are frequently vitally important in the real relationships of a great many real people, and its no shame to the feminists for pointing it out. Power is an issue when a woman is stuck with an abusive husband because she does not have the financial resources to get away. Lack of power quite literally kills women in this situation every year (and probably a number of men, as well). That is why we need to talk about how to deal with stay at home parents with no financial resources of their own. That is why we need to talk about power dynamics between men and women.

That is of course, an extreme example. Power imbalances in relationships can harm people in a million smaller and larger ways. But the point remains that power in relationships is fair ground for feminists to critique. My initial objection to defining relationships in terms of power was a good one. It was based on truths about relationships that I hold dear to this day. But my objection was directed at the people who pointed out the problems caused by really existing power imbalances, rather than the sources of the power imbalances themselves.


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