My mother-in-law once asked me disapprovingly, “Why are you so direct and confrontational with your husband? You should know by now he doesn’t like it. It’s no way to get what you want.” She added with a twinkle in her eye, “You know, dear, I have everything I always wanted in life — but I always made sure it was my husband’s idea!” I laughed a troubled laugh, wondering which of us followed the better path, reluctantly noting her long, successful marriage of more than 55 years.
“Who am I to refuse my lord? Whatever is pleasing to him I will promptly do. This will be a joy for me till the day of my death” (Jdt 12:14).
My preference for directness with my husband originates in the theories of 20th-century radical feminism, which vehemently rejects “the melancholy science” urged by my mother-in-law — “to use trickery, to play on the vanity and the weaknesses of a man, to learn to thwart him, to ‘manage’ him” (The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir). Even though I no longer subscribe to most of radical feminism’s aims, I still believe that this rejection of manipulative, adolescent strategies as an operating standard for wives to control their husbands remains a great contribution to both sexes.
The New Feminism does not differ much from radical feminism on this particular point. Indeed, to the extent that it relies on traditional Christian moral standards, the New Feminism might fairly expect women to eschew half truths and crafty omissions to manage men to a desired result.
Yet I know many faithful women who steer, lure, and outwit the men in their lives regularly. It’s a strategy that seems to come naturally to my gender, married or single, and traces of it appear at startlingly young ages. And, much to my own chagrin, I’ve caught myself in the same act. Indeed, it was not my intention to teach my only daughter how to manipulate her father — but it came so naturally, the lessons were done and mastered before I realized the subject.
I still remember my miserable 13-year-old beauty, twirling in a dress of lace overlay with a pink bow, moaning, “Mom, this costs too much. Dad will be ticked.” We were shopping for her father-daughter dance at school; and as I watched this blossoming child watch herself in the mirror, I suddenly heard myself say, “Honey, don’t mention the price to Daddy. Just put on the dress and show him first — and if he asks, we can tell him the price later.”
Of course, it worked perfectly.
Women manipulating men has a long Judeo-Christian history. The story of Judith of Bethulia remains one of my favorite.
She took off the sackcloth she had on, laid aside the garments of her widowhood, washed her body with water, and anointed it with rich ointment. She arranged her hair and bound it with a fillet. . . . She chose sandals for her feet, and put on her anklets, bracelets, rings, earrings, and all her other jewelry. Thus she made herself very beautiful, to captivate the eyes of all the men who should see her (Jdt 10:3-4).
Combining her beauty with “words well spoken” (11:23), Judith won her way into the tent of Holofernes, the general-in-chief of an Assyrian troop to whom her own leaders in Bethulia proposed to “deliver the whole city as booty to the troops of Holofernes” (7:26). Outraged at their lack of valor and failure to trust God, Judith took matters into her own hands. Wiling her way into drunken Holofernes’s sanctuary, she saved the people entrusted to her by God:
She went to the bedpost near the head of Holofernes, and taking his sword from it, drew close to the bed, grasped the hair of his head, and said, “Strengthen me this day, O God of Israel!” Then with all her might she struck him twice in the neck and cut off his head (13:6-8).
My husband presented me with a bronze statue of Judith as an anniversary gift one year. “Which do you prefer,” I asked my spouse, as I puzzled over the gift. “Being tricked and beguiled as your mother does your father, or my direct, to-the-point style?”
I watched him ponder my question, apparently confused and uncertain. He looked long at the full, bared breasts and long, flowing hair of the Judith dominating the table space between us. His eyes fell upon the unsheathed sword dangling menacingly from Judith’s hands.
“I suppose,” he finally concluded, “that I don’t mind your manipulating me, as long as your objective is good and I don’t know about it.” He absentmindedly rubbed his neck, as if to verify that his head remained in place.
His response irritated my feminist sensibilities — managing him to my own ends, no matter how beneficent, seemed undignified at best. His apparent consent to such an arrangement only deepened my discomfort. And yet, just as his own father no doubt conceded to his wife’s management, my husband, too, was offering himself to me.
He looked at me silently, and in that moment, I was overwhelmed by his utter trust in me. The words of New Feminism made sudden sense: “The man was entrusted by the Creator to the woman . . . . [T]his entrusting concerns women in a special way — precisely by reason of their femininity” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 30).
New Feminism reaches beyond and around the “melancholy science” of managing men, focusing instead on the proper “moral force of women, which draws strength from . . . this entrusting,” as expressed “in a great number of figures of the Old Testament.” This is what made Judith strong — what makes women strong in their vocation:
A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting. Thus the “perfect woman” (cf. Prv 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit. These “perfect women” are owed much by their families, and sometimes by whole nations” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 30).
Being a perfect woman, I finally grasped, may well mean managing my man. I yet have much to learn from my mother-in-law.