Role obligations

Daughter, wife, mother — with bonus cannibalism

In Already Toast, Kate Washington uses the story of the Donner Party to illuminate the ways women’s role obligations have shifted since the mid-1800s.

Tamsen Donner went from being a daughter to a wife. Her responsibility as a wife had priority over the responsibilities she had as a mother. She turned down the opportunity to be rescued, because her husband was too ill to be moved. She sent her children off with strangers, to live. She stayed behind, to die, with her husband.

James F. and Margaret (Keyes) Reed, who were members of the Donner Party. Margaret died about 1862, and James died in 1874. The original photo is at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. The photographer is unknown. Scan from Ethan Rarick's book, Desperate Passages, via wikipedia.

Most of the people reading this with an experience of womanhood have an experience that’s different. We were people first, above our role obligations.

Which is perhaps why it can be such a difficult transition when our status as a person becomes suddenly subservient to our role obligations as a mother, a daughter, a wife.

This is still unique to the roles of women. Men are sons, fathers, and husbands. Those roles may lead them to prioritize different things at different points in their lives. However, it lacks the coercion of women’s role obligation.

A man may choose to prioritize his marriage over his career or not. A woman is rarely given that choice. There are structural, practical, and social aspects of coercion in the decisions women make.


This is the message we get:

If this bothers you, if you are a woman distressed by the shuffling of your priorities without your consent, it’s…

…because you’re not taking care of yourself.

…because you’re not working hard enough.

…because you’re selfish.

It’s certainly not because we are living in an age where most women face conflicting role obligations. An age with no right answers, where we lose no matter what.


In Sex Changes: A Memoir of Marriage, Gender, and Moving On, Christine Benvenuto recounts her experience of having her husband become her wife.

She accused her spouse of not truly being a woman — of not understanding what it even was to be a woman — because if she was a woman she would understand that her obligation was always to her family and her community before she had any obligation to herself.

Thus, if she was truly a woman in her heart, she would never come out as transgender because of the disruption it would have on her family and community. To believe you deserve to be true to yourself — never mind happy — is an entirely male impulse.

I was taken aback by how convincing I found her argument.

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I’ll let NPR’s Fresh Air sum it up:

As [Gabrielle] Burton wisely says, talking about emotional cannibalism: "The nicest husbands and children will eat you up alive if you offer yourself on the plate, and they'll ask for seconds."


In My Life on the Road, Gloria Steinem suggests women who we might assume would have supported Hillary Clinton instead vehemently disliked her. Steinem muses that strong, highly educated women resented how Clinton’s husband supported her career. Women who were trapped in toxic relationships resented her for staying when she had the ability to leave.

She chose herself. She chose her role obligation. She chose.


It took me a long time to articulate why certain organizations that also advocated for caregiving support rubbed me the wrong way. Why they felt like the opposition, rather than allies, even when we ostensibly were fighting for the same thing.

Then I happened to read an article on the history of the Equal Rights Amendment and it clicked into place. Some organizations fighting for increased supports for caregivers are simply the modern version of Phyllis Schlafly’s movement against giving women full citizenship.

The current movement working to restrict the rights of trans people is part of the same movement. The goal is to compel women to fulfill their role obligations. To be women. To be heterosexual. To provide unpaid care to children and the elderly.

As they view it: You cannot opt in. You cannot opt out. You can only be born into your role. To choose another life for yourself — to be a wife and a mother and a daughter and a person, equally — is to shirk your responsibilities and deny your fate.

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Our life experiences are influenced by gender roles. That’s why we have a daughter’s community and a son’s community in our private Facebook groups. You’re welcome to join the group you identify with. If you’ve experienced life as a daughter and a son, you’re welcome to participate in both if that’s what feels right for you.



I’ve mentioned before how big a fan I am of Creative Mornings. This month’s theme is resilient, a topic that feels particularly relevant. Check out their free (mostly virtual) events and this month’s playlist.


If you’re in the US, you’ve had insurance claims denied arbitrarily or due to clerical errors. Triage Cancer has tips on how to get insurance to provide the coverage you’re paying for.

I haven’t had to get anything preapproved or fight denied claims since I moved to Canada in 2016 and it’s a wonderful feeling.

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