Sandra Bem’s book An Unconventional Family is an interesting look back on attempting to live a feminist life back before such things were taken for granted, but it could have been much better organized, and sometimes I feel like the book would have been stronger with more real life stories and less theory.
There doesn’t appear to be much of a reasoning behind the chapter orders of the book with perhaps the exception of the last two chapters (or rather the last chapter and the epilogue) as they both contain the points of view of people other than Sandra Bem. Timewise, it jumps around too much, and it makes it hard to place when events happened in relationship to one another, which prevents the reader from getting a large-picture view of Bem’s life and their decisions.
Some of the best writing in the book are Bem’s personal stories. When she recalls her memories of growing up in an emotionally-tumultuous home, the writing shines. Likewise, she later tells stories about her son Jeremy’s gender non-conformance which are a delight to read. However, Bem often turns to dive into theory or psychological discussions that, while they aren’t bad, just don’t seem to fit with the tone of the writing. I guess my gripe was that the book couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a psychology book or a cute parenting memoir.
Nevertheless, the book contained some interesting ideas. Specifically, I was really interested in how Bem’s definition of an equal marriage involved emotional labor and remembering things, not just splitting chores, how they attempted to raise their kids with ‘sex positivity’, and the way that sex/gender was so intimately tied up to bodily definitions in Bem’s book.
What is an Egalitarian Marriage?
In her book, Sandra Bem explicitly says that she and Daryl Bem were attempting to have an egalitarian marriage. One thing I found particularly interesting about her discussion of this was that her definition of an egalitarian relationship didn’t only mean splitting equally who did what in terms of chores and breadwinning, but it also meant that each person should be responsible for approximately half of the cognitive and emotional labor. On pages 99 and 100, Bem describes what she set out as steps for people who were hoping for an egalitarian marriage to follow, and her advice includes relinquishing not only the chores, but also responsibility for remembering to do them and deciding on the quality level desired. She and Daryl also followed this rule themselves when they exchanged being the ‘on-duty’ and ‘off-duty’ parents: Being ‘on-duty’ didn’t only require doing the lion’s share of the parenting tasks, but also making parenting decisions when necessary (p. 95-97).
That the Bems were aware of this aspect of a relationship and explicitly incorporated it in their desire to be equals in their partnership is all the more fascinating since this aspect of their relationship was responsible for the end of their marriage. In the last chapter of Bem’s book, Daryl describes in an essay that he and Sandra essentially fell into the myth of the ‘Super Relationship’ as described by Helgeson in Chapter 9. Daryl writes on page 208 that he thinks he and Sandy, “were both victims of the naïve view that one person can fulfil all of another person’s needs.” He then goes on to discuss how that viewpoint directly caused the emotional fractures in the relationship: By being isolated from others, Sandy became more and more involved with the children emotionally, which resulted in an imbalance between the two of them not only with respect to investment in the children, but also with regard to what they needed from each other. With more external relationships than Sandy, Daryl needed less from her than she did from him, which caused friction.
The Bems try the best they can to give their children a feminist upbringing, and two ideas that Bem brings up repeatedly are the ideas of ‘anti-homophobia’ and ‘sex positivity’. Between pages 120 and 125, Bem discusses being sexually open with her children, going so far as to declare that she expects both of them to experiment sexually as adolescents and saying that she would rather they do so in the house. Bem also makes certain that both of her children grow up with the idea of same-sex attraction as normal and attempts to make both of them aware as soon as possible that sex is more than just penis and vagina intercourse. However, despite working to make sure homophobia has no place in their home, Bem also rejects the idea of encouraging her children (or herself) to confine themselves to a sexual identity.
What was interesting about this to me was the difference in how Emily versus Jeremy turned out identifying themselves sexually as adults. Jeremy, on page 186, describes himself as “mostly straight”. Emily, on the other hand, on page 197 says she, “is not straight. Even though I do mostly date boys, I’ve definitely been aware of being attracted to women, too.” Both adult children appear to mostly be attracted to or date the opposite sex and have some smaller same sex attraction, but one declares himself ‘straight’ and the other says she is ‘not straight’. This is interesting because in Sabra Katz-Wise and Janet Hyde’s exploration of sexual fluidity, they find a difference between the sexes when it comes to identifying as bisexual, namely, that females are twice as likely to identify as bisexual (p. 1467), even among a population where everybody surveyed experienced both same and opposite-sex attractions. Bem’s children follow this pattern despite their gender-neutral, egalitarian parenting.
What Determines Sex?
Throughout the book, Bem equates having a penis with being male/a man and having a vagina with being female/a woman. On page 107, she writes, “That is, we provided a clear and unambiguous bodily definition of what sex is. A boy, we said again and again, is someone with a penis and testicles; a girl is someone with a vagina, a clitoris, and a uterus.” Later on, Jeremy, her son, makes a joke a ‘male head’ and the joke revolves around them not knowing if the person is male because the head doesn’t seem to have a penis.
In 2017 in the United States of America, Bem’s ‘clear and unambiguous’ definition would indeed be seen as radical in some circles, but as radically conservative. The recent rise of the transgender rights movement has led to the idea that genitals don’t determine gender or sex becoming more popular and accepted. To use Bem’s definition in 2017 would get you accused of being transphobic and you would most likely need to issue an apology. It is fascinating how the same movement can end up reversing ideas in such a short period of time.
Was This A Good Idea?
Like most things, raising children in a non-traditional way with regards to gender has both positives and negatives. An untraditional upbringing may make children more comfortable with themselves (particularly if they’re gender non-conforming) and helps move society towards a more equal future for men and women, but it can also make the children uncomfortable with the parts of themselves that conform to gender stereotypes and alienate them from their more traditionally raised peers.
In Bem’s book, the interview with Jeremy states that he both appreciates his ability to express his gender non-conforming traits and laments his inability to accept the parts of him that are more gender conforming. The latter point is also mentioned by Emily (though in the opposite direction). Jeremy also mentions always being seen as a bit weird and a bit ‘outside’ of things. On a larger scale, Bem mentions in Chapter 2 that when she and her husband were lecturing, there were people who thought it couldn’t be done until the Bems started doing it.
I think that whether the pros outweigh the cons regarding gender-neutral parenting depends on the family in question. Some children might be okay with people thinking that they’re weird, but for other children it might make them really unhappy. And if part of gender-neutral parenting is sharing chores and money making between parents, that could be good if that’s what the parents want to do, but also really bad if they don’t.
I am glad that I read Sandra Bem’s book. It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it got me to think about a lot of things that I hadn’t thought much about before, like what being ‘equal’ really means. It also got me to think a lot about how I would want to raise my own kids with respect to gender, and what raising a gender-neutral kid in 2017 or beyond would look like since our current ideas of gender are so much different than Bem’s.