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  • Writer's pictureSusan Howell

Breaking the Rules

by Susan Harris Howell

"Do something outside the norms of your own gender.” Those were the instructions for students beginning a gender studies course at the small liberal arts college where I teach. “Notice the reactions of those around you, ” I added.

I was unprepared for the creative ways my students completed this assignment. One female student parked in the lot of a local department store, opened the hood, and began looking for “the problem.” She assured each would-be helper that while she appreciated their offers she had it under control. Most believed her; one argued the point.

One male student paid for his purchases at a local store out of the purse he was carrying, handing the cashier the money with perfectly polished fingernails. The cashier refused to make eye contact.

My personal favorite came from a young woman who strolled into a jewelry store and told the sales clerk she wanted to see engagement rings. She announced that she would soon be asking her boyfriend to marry her and wanted to give him a ring if he said “yes."

Then came the deer-in-the-headlights look with the crickets chirping in the background while the clerk assessed the situation. “Wait a minute. I’ll be back,” she said as she scurried to the back room. Whispers were heard from behind drawn curtains.

When the clerk reappeared, her professional face was on. “Are you thinking a diamond?” “Does he prefer white or yellow gold?” “Will this be worn with a wedding ring?”

Evidently, the prospect of a sale took precedence over the oddity of the request. As my students processed each of these experiences in class the next day, we all realized that more stereotypes for gender-appropriate behavior exist than any of us had anticipated. Who is competent to fix the car? Who wears nail polish and carries a purse? Who buys the engagement ring for whom? These questions and many others are answered in ways that depend a great deal on expected roles, presumption of ability, and tradition.

It’s good to occasionally stop and think about our culture’s rules for gendered behavior. It’s good to ponder which rules have value and which do not. Sometimes we find that it makes more sense to break society’s rules than to continue a tradition that no longer works.

Beginning with something rather small prepared my students for more significant questions about our culture’s gendered rules: Who makes the decisions in a relationship? Who is allowed to pastor a church? Who takes off work when one of the children is sick?

The answers to these questions also depend a great deal on expected roles, presumption of ability, and tradition. Whereas who fixes the car or buys the ring might not be of ultimate importance, who is allowed to share God’s word or how a couple makes decisions together most certainly is.

It’s good to occasionally stop and think about our culture’s more serious rules and to ponder their value. When those rules aren’t in line with our abilities, when they no longer make sense, it’s time to break the rules to and to create new ones based on God’s call for us.

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