The fall-out from Monday’s post about last names continues. I’ve gotten almost 100 comments on the post, almost all of them negative. I’ve also received private emails from six different regular readers, all taking issue with the argument I constructed to defend the notion that it could be a "feminist choice" for a woman to take her husband’s last name.
I appreciate that so many folks feel that they can openly and sharply disagree with me. I’m glad that so many have written to me. Frankly, I feel honored that they consider me worthy of their time. It’s also a clear indication of just how "out of character" and surprising that post appeared. I’m going to take some time to reflect on what I’ve heard this week before I address the subject again. Though I remain delighted that my wife took my last name, I need to do more to consider how I can reconcile that delight with my pro-feminism — and whether or not I need to.
Reading through both the comments and the letters, one word appears more often than any other: "disappointing." In one way or another, a dozen people have expressed to me that they are deeply disappointed by my stance and by my poorly reasoned, sexist arguments. And of course, that word has the greatest power to shake me and get my attention. Like many people, I’d much rather have someone say "I despise you" than "I’m disappointed in you." I have never liked letting people down, though I’ve done plenty of it in my life. There’s something acutely painful about knowing that you’ve dropped in someone’s estimation, or, worse, that you’ve led them to question whether or not the other things you say and teach are really valid.
In my personal, professional, and blogging life I do set myself up as a role model. The blog is called Hugo Schwyzer for a reason — it’s about me, my life, my work, my views. In everything I write, I try and connect what I believe to how I live. If there’s one expression I use at least once a month, it’s "matching one’s language to one’s life." I make no secret of a complicated and turbulent past. I make no secret of the fact that I came to Christ as an adult, and that only in recent years have I gained the strength to live out my feminism in my actions as well as in my words. I share all of this because I believe that both feminism and Christianity are ways of life more than they are systems of belief. As a professor and a youth leader and a blogger, I’m trying to win people over to a certain set of views about faith, sexuality, gender roles, integrity, and so forth. And I know that in order to be convincing, I have to show folks that I’m living out what I’m professing. Young people in particular are quick to sniff out hypocrisy — and I owe it to them to do everything I can to avoid living a double life that contradicts my public pronouncements.
I tie my language and my life together publicly for a couple of reasons. The first is obvious — it helps to make what I’m saying more believable. Second of all, of course, I have a certain need "to be seen". I’ve always sought validation in my life, and for much of my youth, sought it in very unhealthy ways. Teaching and youth work and blogging give me an opportunity to get that validation in far healthier ways that do not involve deception or manipulation. And third of all, I appreciate the fact that living at least a modestly public life helps keep me on the "straight and narrow." I am acutely conscious, even when alone, of how it is that I claim to live. Though I live with far fewer temptations today than I did even a few years ago, thoughts of how disappointed others would be if I "fell" are a powerful reinforcement to stay on the path!
The great danger in all of this is grandiosity. So often in this work, I’m told that what I’m doing matters! So often, folks tell me that they’ve been inspired by me — and of course, I can’t help but find that immensely gratifying. And though I always try and point towards God as the real source of any goodness that appears in me, I confess I sometimes succumb to the dark temptation to believe that I’ve done all this by myself.
This is especially true around issues of pro-feminism. I am certainly not the only pro-feminist man in the blogosphere, or even the only pro-feminist evangelical in the blogosphere. (I think I’m the only pro-feminist evangelical who teaches gay and lesbian studies and advises Campus Crusade for Christ, however.) But for better or for worse, I’ve been really adamant about the importance of men becoming involved in feminist work,and I’ve linked my own story explicitly to pro-feminism. And so when I say or do something that seems utterly at odds with all that has gone beforehand, I let people down. I disappoint people who had relied upon me to be consistent about resisting sexism and tradition. And I can’t help but be affected by that disappointment.
Today in my women’s history class, we had "all-female day." Most semesters, I have one day each with my male and female students. (All-male day is next Tuesday.) We do it late in the semester, and it’s a chance to talk informally about the course in a single-sex environment (though of course, I’m still in the room as a man on all-women’s day). I give the students on each day a chance to ask me any questions they like. Today, as on other such days in the past, there was an intense curiosity to know how I got to be a pro-feminist, and how it is that I actually match my language and my life. I wrote in March that I sometimes get the "please be real" response from my students and from kids in my youth group. That’s a pressure I do a great deal to invite, but also one that I have to be careful with.
Experiences like the fall-out from Monday’s post remind me of how dangerous it is for me to set myself up to be "super feminist Christian man." It’s a mixture of narcissism, evangelical zeal, and the huge desire to be an agent of change in the lives of other people. I’ve got to remember that I am still human, still flawed, and still prone to contradictions. In my words and actions, I am going to surprise and disappoint folks. I’ve got to acknowledge that to some extent, that’s part of the human condition. I’ve also got to do what I can to become even more consistent, even more compassionate, even more determined to eradicate sexism and sin from my own life. I’ve got to balance a zealous desire to imitate Christ with a humble acceptance of my own brokenness and need for grace. That’s an ancient and difficult balance to strike. But for my sake, and the sake of those who rely on me, I need to keep at it.