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Do Not Tell Women They Will "Make Good Wives"

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Last week, the Conservative Party of Canada's Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, Keith Ashfield, improvised some lines in an otherwise scripted event staged to cheerlead the 2013 federal budget. At the Morena family home in Fredericton, he complimented eldest daughter Grace, observing that she is "a great cook" who will one day "make a wonderful wife for somebody."

The indignant response suggests that the Minister's title, which rendered in French includes the term pêches, ought now be revised to péché -- if you follow my meaning. At present more noticed for his transgression (péché) than for his work among the fisheries (pêches), he stands accused of sexism. No wonder so many politicians keep to the focus group tested, neatly bulleted, sleep-inducing script.

No one, so far as I know, mentioned Mr. Ashfield's "no" vote last week for Bill C-279, an NDP amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to include gender identity and gender expression as prohibited grounds of discrimination. The bill passed, despite much Conservative opposition -- some of it, as in the case of Rob Anders, rather demented opposition.

The lunatic fringe caucus, of which Anders is a member in good standing, had long ago taken to calling C-279 and its precursors "the bathroom bill." Unable to separate the real-world effort of gender recognition and rights from the gay rapists of their febrile imaginations, the more militant opponents of the transgendered spread a film of disgrace even where it perhaps doesn't belong. It's getting tougher, this being-a-Conservative stuff.

Why do I mention Ashfield's C-279 "No" vote? Not to claim his opposition was of the Neanderthal variety. It happens that I've no idea if Ashfield is a sexist so-and-so. But I do know as certain that the world into which he was born is not the world in which we live today.

For some it's not the least bit difficult to leap from the 1950s mental atmosphere of great-wives-in-the-making into the 21st century, where men are men only until a personal decision to the contrary. Hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery and all manner of medical miracle and social progress have changed everything, where gender is concerned.

Again, the purpose here is not to ridicule or to judge Keith Ashfield. My purpose is to observe that there is a universe of easy assumption packed into that little phrase, "You'll make a wonderful wife for somebody." For example, Ashfield's casual comment assumes, at the very least, that:

  • the young woman wants to marry, when in fact a growing number does not
  • the young woman wants to be a woman, and not a man
  • the young woman is sexually attracted to men, and not other women or even neither men nor women (asexuality)
  • even if the young woman is indeed a woman, and not transitioning to become a man, and even if she is heterosexual, and is inclined toward marriage, the quality of her marriage can be safely inferred from her baking
  • it is not rude for passing acquaintances to freely speculate on the above topics

One can deduce from the above the vast distance travelled in the past half-century. In my own lifetime we have gone from an era in which your biological nature at birth was a destiny of a kind to an era in which an uncomplicated, if lengthy, procedure may make a woman of a man, and vice versa. Furthermore it happens that marriage is an avoidable arrangement, but that in any case men may marry men and women, women. On every front and in every respect, sex and gender are in transition, and so be it.

There is a temperament which for whatever reasons has a built-in resistance to change, and which will therefore cling to ideas even in those cases where they are objectively outmoded. The usual term for this temperament is "conservative," but it is not the case that all conservatives nor all conservatisms may be reduced simply to reactionism and obstinacy.

In most instances, commonplace human traits like habitualism, inertia and laziness can be pressed into an accounting of anachronism. This leaves for consideration the important distinction between those who fail to keep up with the times as against those who wish to prevent the times from ever changing in the first place.

It is much easier, because it is a matter of habit, to say "Someday you'll make a great wife" than it is to parse in one's mind the potential, offense-giving assumptions, thereby to come up with something better. And it is almost certainly the case that to be a good wife is the chief aspiration of at least some women, a fact which will provide refuge to the careless and reactionary alike.

The rub is that this is likely to be less so as time advances, and that the full range of human aspirations and of the human condition is being realized as we blast down the walls which until now have contained us. The times are indeed changing. Fall behind at your own risk.

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