I've been thinking about this post for most of today. I wondered whether I should write it. I thought to myself, "Self, if you write this post, you're probably going to end up in the middle of a shitstorm when that's not your intention." I thought to myself, "Self, seriously? You need to unpack! You've got other things that are so much more important to you right now!" But. It's still on my mind, and so I'm posting.
Let me back up a bit. In a class that I teach that relates to issues surrounding sexuality and its representation, I spend the first few class periods dealing with definitions. Some of the definitions are necessary because of the essays I have them read at the beginning (words like "onanism" and "ontology," but also things I'm shocked they're not familiar with, like "vanilla" and "queer" and "sadomasochism"). But we also deal with other things. Like the difference between "transgender/transexual" and "transvestite," for example, or the difference between "sex," "gender," and "sexuality." And finally, I make sure to define for my students the terms "heteronormativity" and "patriarchy."
Those last two are especially important, even if students have taken courses in women's and gender studies previously. A lot of them come in thinking that "heteronormativity" means "heterosexism" and that "patriarchy" means "misogyny." In other words, that the perpetrators of heteronormativity are straight, conservative people, and that the perpetrators of patriarchy are woman-hating men. I spend time on these definitions because I want to make it clear that some "evil other" is not the source of either heteronormativity or patriarchy, but rather that both of these things are something in which all of us participate and in which all of us are complicit. And yes, I really do believe that. I really don't believe that anybody alive today could claim that they are outside of heteronormativity or patriarchy. I think people can legitimately claim to resist those things, but resistance isn't the same thing as being outside of those things or beyond them. In other words, even if we don't embrace homophobia as a worldview, even if we are feminists, we still participate in heteronormativity and patriarchy. There is no outside of power. (Insert Foucault Here.)
So ok, let's start with very basic definitions for heteronormativity and patriarchy. Both of these terms are inclusive: one can be heteronormative and identify as queer; one can participate in patriarchy and identify as feminist. Again, this is not to say that individuals might not tactically resist heteronormativity and patriarchy - they might and they do. BUT. We cannot (I don't think) deny that resistance to those structures does not equal their eradication, nor can we pretend that those structures don't inform our experience of the world.
Thus, I might identify as GLBTQ, and yet I may still participate in an economy of heteronormative privilege. I might be a woman who nevertheless participates in patriarchy.
This all makes sense, right? I mean, we all have the best intentions, but we live in the world in which we live.
But so. Let's return to the issue of "spousal hires." Or let's even expand it to "partner hires" (in other words, we're not requiring legal marriage for the perk.)
What does a partner/spousal hire include?
- Commitment to the partner who is "really" hired, at least at the time of hire, for life
- "Commitment" to partner that apparently without dissonance translates into commitment to institution and its surrounding community, as if a lone person couldn't commit to the institution and surrounding community in the way, forever
Item the second: Um, academics, even those who don't cheat, get divorced too. The effects within a department, if two tenured people get divorced? AWFUL.
Item the third: Just because a spousal hire works out it does not mean that one or both partners will actually commit to the institution or the place. Lots of times they will suck it up (without grace) in order to remain together in the same place, but this doesn't necessarily equal commitment to the institution or the place. Lots of the time, it might just mean commitment to getting two salaries and to live together. Neither spouse will look for another job because "we'll never find another place that will hire both of us." Which sticks a department for 30 years with people two people who aren't into the job, or the place, or the students, but who are willing to put up with all those in order to be together. AWESOME.
Here's the thing: saying that "oh, but at my shop we offer 'spousal hires' to same-sex partners" makes it no less discriminatory. Ultimately, spousal hires, or partner hires, work within a heteronormative economy of privilege, in which we offer institutional endorsement to those employees who are in monogamous, committed, socially sanctioned relationships, and we give those people benefits that we don't give to other employees. Now, you might say, "those other employees don't have people who are as super-special to them as my partner and so they lose nothing!"
I also know some readers will say, "but this lets women into the profession!"
Here's what I say to that. It does. But it, at least in my world and at my institution, lets them in as second-class citizens. It sets up a two-tier system of professorship, which weakens the faculty as a whole, in terms of shared governance. It means that "feminized" departments (like Women's Studies at my institution, which has not a single tenure line ever but which has housed many a spousal hire in its day to serve now defunct general education requirements) are cut more than others when budget cuts come down the pike. It means that women in those "second-class" departments, whether spousal hires or not, are treated like they're not "real" professors. Even if they published a motherfucking book before tenure with a 4/4 load.
Here's the thing. Hiring legal opposite-sex spouses to ease their burdens or hiring same-sex partners - it's ALL heteronormative. And it all SERVES patriarchy. I'm not saying that there aren't ways in which I could approve of these practices - there are. But let's not kid ourselves that anything in this arena is somehow outside of heteronormativity or patriarchy, or that it doesn't exclude people who are not in monogamous, long-term, committed sexual relationships. And if we don't kid ourselves about those things, how can we talk about such practices as liberating or supporting women as a group? I don't think that we can. I think any claims to such provisions as supporting women are revealed, if we really think about them, as reinforcing the systematic dominance and subjugation of women. But maybe that's just me.
**Note: In saying this, I'm not saying that marriage/partnership with another person is bad, nor am I saying that I don't understand why people take the opportunities/advantages presented to them. I'm ONLY saying that we need to recognize certain kinds of privilege that exclude other people, and, in this case, women as a class.