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The Matrix: Victorian-style Gender Norms are Still Doing a Number on Us All

By Robert Hurst, Athena Global

As a husband, father, son and brother (and now working for a small woman-owned agency focused on gender lens investing), I am only now beginning to realize the extent to which we humans are continuously pushed and pulled, tossed back and forth as if caught in an invisible net of gender norms. Women and girls are the primary targets, but men are often at odds with this system too, in interesting ways that aren’t always obvious.

Looking back on it, I can now see that an old-fashioned, almost Victorian-style matrix of patriarchic norms and unspoken rules has been draped across my life the entire time, influencing all my decisions and actions, all my perceptions, and everybody else’s too. Showing me “what it means to be a man.” Back in my formative years we felt we were liberated from it, that it was a remnant of history, but on reflection it’s clear that the matrix was doing a number on us then and continues to warp our lives to this day.

Until you inadvertently step over the line, it can be difficult to see just how narrow the boundaries of acceptability really are. When I married a woman who made more money than I did—well into the 21st century mind you—I was surprised to find that the salary difference was still a socio-cultural no-no for me as well as her. The man is supposed to have more money. That’s it. Women aren’t supposed to marry guys with less money, and when they do the alarms go off. Here the matrix is pushing to maintain a basic hierarchy, under which men have the money and women are dependent on men, and working-class dudes aren’t really supposed to be able to do anything cool at all anyway.

The matrix will keep pushing a non-conforming couple in strange ways. Rather than pool their resources, like the vast majority of traditional married couples, couples with a money imbalance in the woman’s favor are much more likely to keep separate bank accounts. (See Huang et al, 2019.) Despite the financial disadvantage for him, maintaining a separate account and unambiguously writing checks for mortgage and bills gives the man a chance to preserve a sense of independence and equal “voting rights” over household affairs (some vestige of traditional manliness for the battered ego). The woman probably wants to keep separate accounts anyway for the sake of her own autonomy and finances.

My wife and I have never seriously considered pooling our money, as it seems like an express train to disaster. She would resent my dirty paws anywhere near her hard-earned cash and would frown over every purchase I made, particularly the stupid, ill-advised ones I enjoy most; and I would suddenly have standing to object to her curious spending habits, for example, the $37,000 she transfers to Sephora every 4 days on average for her dizzying barrage of face serums.

The joint account paradigm is a leftover from the 1950s. It emerged as a sort of compromise after it became clear that the older, even worse paradigm would no longer stand up to the slightest scrutiny—husbands had been more like sugar daddy lords of the manor, doling out allowances to their wives (or not) at their sole discretion. In practical terms the joint account still functions to hold power on the side of the primary breadwinner, usually a man. While often associated with less committed relationships (that’s the matrix talking again, ignore it), arrangements with separate accounts in which both partners contribute more or less equally promote independence and mutual respect in salary-mismatched couples. But this arrangement poses disproportionate financial difficulties for the partner with less money, who is often going to be a woman. So I doubt we will see separate accounts put forward with much energy in gender equity activism, unless specifically for women who have more money.

A few years after getting married we stepped over the line big-time. We had a child together and decided that it would make more sense for me to quit my day job and stay at home with the baby instead of paying for daycare. Again this felt like a piano of failure dropping on my head, like I wasn’t fulfilling my expected role as a man. Hints, suggestions and outright proclamations were coming from everywhere to confirm this view, telling me that becoming a full-time parent was a bad idea and that I would do a poor job. This was something for wacky movies and sitcoms, not real life. Messages of encouragement were few and far between. There were many uncomfortable conversations with friends and family, a lot of dire warnings, and actual winces on people’s faces. Frankly, there was a sense of impending doom. I could feel it in others and it was inside myself too.

I didn’t realize at the time, but all that nonsense was the old system working overtime to push us back toward those old-fashioned roles. Thankfully it failed. The next years as a “stay-at-home”—or more accurately, “stay-at-park-and-zoo”—dad were amazing for me and my daughter. I got to be pretty good at it, with all that practice. What a gift those years were! I even managed to write gainfully during that time, particularly since our kid was a solid napper most afternoons. I recommend it wholeheartedly to fathers everywhere: embrace the role of full-time parent. This is not failure, this is winning. You are equipped for this, despite everything you’ve been told your entire life. It’s maddening to think of the families that will miss out, shuttling their kids to expensive daycare centers for a degraded form of substitute parenting while the fathers struggle at lower-wage jobs for no net gain. And for what reason? Nothing more than a putrid set of obsolete cultural expectations.

Soon enough our daughter went off to pre-school to begin her educational journey and we’ve been slipping back toward something more closely resembling the Cleaver household ever since. I just watched my wife strap on a backpack loaded with snacks and water bottles and leave for the park with our daughter and 2 other very strong-headed kids, a scootering screaming whining circus of chaos on a Sunday afternoon, while I sit in a very quiet house writing about gender norms. The irony is not lost on me. The old matrix is still there greasing my man wheels every day in myriad ways.

It’s made to anchor women to the past but men and children also get caught up in the system of gender oppression. Most likely, we won’t realize the many ways the matrix is shaping us and working against us now, until we are someday able to reflect on it from a distance. All of us would benefit from finally tearing it down.

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