Sexless as the Bees? Complementarity and Country Life

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[Photo by Leann Mueller]

Over at Public Discourse, Susan Hanssen writes glowingly about the Vatican’s recent colloquium on complementarity, claiming that the lessons taught there echo the lessons found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classic 1932 children’s novel Little House in the Big Woods. Hanssen distinguishes between the roles that Wilder writes for “Ma” and “Pa” in the novel. “Pa and his gun are essential to the family’s survival,” Hanssen writes, while Ma is the novel’s civilizing moral influence. She is also the one who trains her family to recognize beauty, who “completes her useful work by making it beautiful.”

“The family is only whole and safe when it is founded on the complementarity of masculine and feminine,” Hanssen concludes, and worries that without the influence of voices like Wilder’s (and the Vatican’s), we risk becoming “sexless as the bees.”

By coincidence, my wife and I just started reading Little House in the Big Woods to our daughter at bedtime. I think Hanssen is misreading the novel, and I’ll explain why in a follow-up post.

For now, I want to focus on a larger issue at work in Hanssen’s post (and other posts I’ve seen lately): the idea that what she sees as “genderlessness” is a modern thing, and something very different than what we would see in our more rural past. Now, I don’t live in the past, but I do work in the country, and from what I’ve seen, gender roles in ranch and farm work are more fluid—not less—than they are in the average US home.

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[Mary’s cattle]

The first cowboy I met while working at the ranch was, in fact, a cowgirl. Her name was Mary, and she was probably fifty, and she leased some of my boss’s acres for part of her herd. She’s moved on since then, and now the same land is leased by an older married couple who have lived in the area their whole lives. Most mornings, I see the husband doing his morning chores in their red jeep, but it’s no surprise, either, to see his wife out doing the same jobs—with or without him. As Barney Nelson wrote in Texas Monthly in 2011:

Men, women, and children can and do cowboy. The word already mixes gender: cow (female) and boy (male). Within the ranching world, even cowboys are seldom referred to collectively as ‘cowboys.’ We just call each other by our given names: Jeff, Candi, Chris, or Liz.

“Historically,” Nelson writes, “women did anything they wanted to do—they went up the trail, rode saddle broncs, and owned ranches in their own names.” If that shocks you, it’s probably because you don’t really know what cowboys do. As Nelson puts it, “The job requires tenacity, not virility, patience rather than strength, and the willingness to do whatever needs doing, not heroics. All these qualities are as easily found among women as men.”

If you think about it, the tasks a cowboy might be called to perform are all gender-twisted anyway: he might spend an afternoon or an evening midwifing a new calf; his wife might spend her days husbanding a bean patch. He will probably be comfortable cooking for himself and cleaning his own clothes; she will probably know how to butcher stock and shoot a gun. Because just like he can’t escape the stereotypically feminine aspects of the job, a rural woman can’t avoid being called on to do “masculine” things. Men are better protectors than women? Maybe. But a woman needs to know what to do if she comes across a rattlesnake, too.

That’s why, from what I’ve seen, being a grownup is valued more out there than fitting into gendered roles. Which is not to say that you won’t sometimes hear rigid gender stereotypes among ranchers and farmers, just that those stereotypes fall away pretty quickly next to the practical necessities of country life. People are more concerned with what’s getting done, in other words, than with who’s doing it.

“This makes a woman of a man,” Wendell Berry says of farming, “… in the body’s pride and at its cost.” A rancher, farmer, or cowboy needs to be able to put aside pride in his or her masculinity or femininity and do whatever the hell is necessary to do to survive. But in return, Berry tells us, comes a new kind of pride, one a lot like what Joan Didion calls self-respect.

But what about the complementarity of Little House in the Big Woods? Doesn’t it matter that everyone in that family has an important role? Well, yeah, and I’ll talk more about that in my next post. But, basically, I’d say that the complementarianism of Wilder’s book is a lot less rigid than Hanssen imagines it to be, and that it can easily be used to describe families like Charity & Sylvia’s. Of course, that puts it at odds with the vision of complementarity that dominated the Vatican colloquium. Little House in the Big Woods, I’m afraid, doesn’t do what Hanssen says it does. Again, more on that soon.

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For now, I’ll leave you with another link to Barney Nelson’s essay, which I recommend highly—not just for what it says about gender, but because it’s a very realistic depiction of the types of people (men and women) I’ve met over the past few years. Also, don’t miss Leann Mueller’s photos, which accompanied the story when it ran in Texas Monthly.

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7 thoughts on “Sexless as the Bees? Complementarity and Country Life

  1. I’m not sure why she considers bees sexless. Bees are primarily females, the males are drones and do nothing else other than mate with the queen. Is it because the non-queen females are infertile?

    I’m probably reading too much into her analogy, but it bothers me when people use animal analogies that overlook key information about the animals. I remember someone posting on Facebook, “People should be like birds. They mate for life.” I was tempted to point out that birds actually have a high rate of infidelity, but I could imagine the response I would have received and did not find it worth the aggravation.

    • Ha! Thanks, emmasrandomthoughts! I think she’s quoting Henry Adams and I don’t really know the reference, but, yeah, that struck me as weird, too. Mostly I’m getting tired of this weird panic about “sexlessness.” If gender is natural, why are these people so scared of what will happen if we don’t police it relentlessly?

      Hope everything is going well with you.

  2. Sounds like Hanssen is doing what many other people (often Southern Baptists and staunch fundamentalist protestants of many denominations) do with Wilder. Clearly she missed the historical reality of life as a pioneer or homesteader. That reality was more all-hands-on-deck than male/female division of labor than many people today will realize. Any number of Wilder’s own writings, and thousands of non-fiction and forst-person accounts of the era will demonstrate just how many women were doing a “man’s job” on the frontier. (Remember, too, Wilder FICTIONALIZED her stories and used literary devices to enhance plot points as all writers of fiction do). Wilder’s own sister Carrie was a solo homesteader in the Badlands of South Dakota around 1907-8. Wilder’s sister-in-law, Eliza Jane Wilder, homesteaded solo in the warly 1880s, at various points taking on the responsobility of caring for her niece and nephew–children of her own sister Laura Ann Wilder, who was recently widowed and ill–juggling that with teaching school!

    As a historian who specializes in American cultural and social history and who has researched Wilder specifically for over 25 years, I am constantly appalled by the plethora of people who try to shoe-horn Wilder’s work into their own political agenda whilst knowing virtually nothing of her history, experiences, and writing process. Thank you for speaking out and being a voice of reason!

    • No worries about the typos, Melanie. I’m very excited about your contribution! I am by no means an expert on Wilder–just reading the books to my daughter, and Hanssen’s essay struck me as wrong. So I’m glad to have you corroborating my impressions. I’ve been flipping through her “farm journalism” in preparation for writing this and my next post, and “all-hands-on-deck” is exactly what I see in those writings, and in writers like Berry, and in my own (limited) experience working in the country. Please let me know if I get anything wrong about her work!

  3. Pingback: Sexless as the Bees? Part II: Back to the Little House | Letters to the Catholic Right

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