Man of the House

The caller ID was unfamiliar, reading only the phone number and “Windsor VT.” But I answered. The Jack Webb voice on the phone was brusque and authoritative:

Can I speak with the head of the household?

I laughed, and said, “Well, that depends on what you mean.”

He sighed, impatient, and said, Can I speak with the man of the family?

No, I replied, and hung up.

Two weeks later, another call, from the same number, and the same voice.

Can I speak with the head of the household?

I figured this time, I’d let him go through with his spiel, so I said, Sure, go ahead. And sure enough, exactly what I’d expected, a call from some law enforcement benevolent association, asking me to donate to the families of officers killed in the line of duty.

Why is it that we can predict some things on the basis of others? That is, why is it that some traits so often seem paired? An impulse toward authoritative control seems to be linked to the assumption of male dominance. That of course a household has “a head,” rather than being collaborative and fluid in its operation and decisionmaking. And that by definition the head of the household would be “the man.”

Aside from the fact of the caller leaving out any mode of untraditional family—gay couples, lesbian couples, non-binary couples, polys, singles, on and on and on…—there’s just this assumption of the rightness of male leadership that makes me so disappointed in my colleagues and so concerned about our future.

The linguist George Lakoff once wrote that the core metaphor of our contemporary political life wasn’t the bifurcation between parties, or between “left and right” more broadly, but rather the bifurcation between the strict, disciplinarian father and the generous, ever-forgiving mother. The difference between “everyone deserves opportunity” and “you got what you deserved.” The difference between justice and mercy. The difference between welcoming newcomers and defending our own kind. Individuals holding one position or another can’t be perfectly correlated to sex, but they are gender roles, learned from and reinforced by a sad, patriarchal culture.

I’m about to step down from our town’s Selectboard after six years of service. During those years, even with shifting individual participation, the Board has comprised four men and one woman. Most often in our town’s history, it’s been five men, so I guess we’re making progress…

The term “old boys’ club” has two defining terms: they’re old, and they’re boys. What would a board of five women do differently? Why would that seem like some kind of artifice, as opposed to an all-male board, which would go unremarked?

We are not stick figures. We can learn to become new. At least, I hope that we can.

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