Stop Telling Women They Are Exceptional

Drawing by Estee Klein

“My wife is so amazing…I would never be able to do what she does.”

How many of us have heard some version of this from our husbands or other men when they are talking about the women in their lives? When recognizing how much these women do, how much responsibility they undertake and how much sacrifice they undergo, the common sentiment is praise and adoration of their wives’ superhuman ability to do so much more than they themselves would be able to achieve. In fact, the accolade of “superwoman” or “supermom” will often be bandied about in a way that is much more common than hearing a woman refer to her husband as a “superman”.

In theory, the idea that women are exceptional sounds like nice praise and something that women should welcome and appreciate. This idea of female exceptionalism—the belief that women are wired to be able to do more (as it relates to homemaking and childrearing) and to tolerate more discomfort than men—pervades general society, but is especially prevalent in the frum community.

In June of 2017, an article was written in a frum magazine titled “In Her Place”. In it, the author discusses what it had felt like to be regarded as “the other” in a graduation which he had attended for his daughter. Being forced to sit on the other side of the mechitza, where he could only get a mere glimpse of his daughter, had made him feel “demeaned” and like a “second class citizen”. Realizing that this is what frum women go through all the time, he then embraces this idea of female exceptionalism. He couldn’t deal with being treated this way, but women “embrace their destiny” because they are “made of special stuff”. He concludes with a message to his graduating daughter that she should take her place among these self-sacrificing women with pride.

The reactions came fast and furious. In comments, private messages and articles written in popular Jewish blogs, women protested this message. There was something particularly galling about a man not only declaring that women don’t mind being treated as less-than, but actually explicitly sending the message to his daughter that this is what it means to be a woman.

In loud and clear voices, women declared, “We do mind. We have always minded, but no one ever asked our opinions, and we never had a choice.” The author of the original article wrote a response saying that he was shocked and genuinely had no idea that “true, ehrliche, frum” women felt this way. On the surface level, his shock, and the fact that so many frum men shared in this same reaction, was itself sort of shocking. After all, women were merely stating that they also disliked being treated as less-than, were also bothered that their presence was often viewed as less important, that they too felt bad when they were treated, well, badly. In short, they were simply saying that they were human, just like men. That the things which would bother any human bothered them too, that there is no “female exceptionalism” which makes women delight in suffering.

Although this seems like an obvious reality, the fact that it comes as a shock to many should not surprise us. The world, both secular and frum, has always depended on female sacrifice, on women being willing to do more with less, on women being the martyrs who take one for the team. As society progresses toward what we would like to believe is equal opportunity, the idea that this level of sacrifice is being put upon women unwillingly is uncomfortable for many to tolerate. No one wants to be a freeloader. No one wants to feel that someone else is struggling because you are not pulling your weight. Hence, female exceptionalism arrives to save the day. Women do more because they are more capable, society assures itself. They make do with less because they are stronger. “Women are simply better than us (in the home),” men declare (and perhaps add in a #science for good measure).

Women, too, get in on this action and often adopt this perspective. They have been taught since they were young that they are wired for this, and they have seen their mothers modeling superwoman behavior throughout their childhood. Being “exceptional” sounds like a good thing to a girl, and it is only years later, when life piles many loads upon her, that she becomes confronted with her own humanity. A tiny voice may speak up within her that perhaps, despite what she has been taught, she is only human after all, and it is all too much to handle alone. And then another voice responds that it is only she who must be broken, that the world is full of superwomen, and if only she were less lazy, she could be one too. After all, if you have no choice but to do more work with less rest, and to put up with inferior conditions, then wouldn’t it be nice to believe that you were wired to handle it exceptionally? It is easier to be told that the reason you do it is because you are superior rather than because you have no choice.

The female claim of humanism in place of super-humanism is a quiet voice, a voice of protest which has started small, but is growing louder. It is a truth which must be faced, uncomfortable as it may be. We will have to think of things in new ways and start asking ourselves some tough questions. Instead of hiding behind beliefs such as “Well, I wouldn’t be able to stay up all night with the baby, but my wife is just made of special stuff,” men will have to face a troubling new truth that “If I would suffer as a result of sleep deprivation, then my wife is suffering too. Now what do I do about that?”

Instead of touting that “I would never be able to keep track of all the kids’ appointments, commitments and the details of their lives, but my wife is simply more capable,” men will be forced to realize that if they would feel overwhelmed by that mental overload, then their wives are feeling that way too. Now what? Do they ignore this truth, shrug their shoulders and go back to the way things were, or do they say, “My wife is not exceptional. If I would struggle with this, then she is likely struggling too, and I have a duty, now that I know this, to step up.”

It is a truth which impacts the home, but also impacts our institutions and communities, as the article “In Her Place” shed light upon. It is time for men to realize that if they find something demeaning, dehumanizing or unpleasant, then women feel that way too. Touting female exceptionalism as an excuse to make ourselves feel better for putting women last is just that—an excuse.

Society is slowly starting to realize this. Anxiety and depression rates have risen, particularly in pregnant and postpartum women, and mental health experts have noted that stressors from holding an unequal burden of responsibility are a contributing factor. “Self-care” has become a very popular concept amongst women, as people are starting to realize that mothers cannot live indefinitely without taking care of their own needs.

Self-care is nice, but we also need to dig a bit deeper. We need to stop indoctrinating both men and women into believing that women are somehow superhuman, and that taking care of their basic needs is an optional luxury. It is time to stop telling women that they’re better and superior—and therefore wired to handle the “lot” which we have hoisted upon them—and to simply accept the stark reality.

Women are just human—now what are we going to do about it?