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Elizabeth Lesser

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Full-Time Daddies, Women in the House and the New Kitchen Wisdom

Posted: 05/24/10 10:40 AM ET

Recently, voters in northeastern Ohio received a flyer in the mail with a line straight out of the 1950's: "Let's take Betty Sutton out of the House and send her back to the kitchen." Betty Sutton has served in the US House of Representatives since 2007. She sits on the influential House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and serves on the Subcommittee on Health, the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, and the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Before becoming a congresswoman, she was a labor lawyer and a state senator. Nowhere in her biography do I read anything about her being a cook, so banishing her to kitchen doesn't really sound like a good idea.

Rep. Sutton called the flyer (funded by her opponent, multimillionaire Tom Ganley) "an insult to all women regardless of whether they work within the home raising families and managing households or work beyond the home, providing for themselves and others." I agree with Rep. Sutton; the line about sending her back to the kitchen is offensive to women. But I think it is even more offensive to kitchens, and to what I call Kitchen Wisdom.

By Kitchen Wisdom I don't only mean cooking and cleaning (although I do think if you dissected a brain, you'd find those skills in an area somewhere between higher mathematics and rhetorical debate.) Kitchen Wisdom is a high art, a spiritual path, and a human necessity. It is the genius that many women have honed over centuries. It includes emotional intelligence, psychological insight and social conscience. It's a witches' brew of qualities and aptitudes like compassionate listening, communicating instead of grandstanding and cooperating instead of battling. It shows up in well-loved and responsible children, acts of neighborly kindness, beautiful spaces and comforting places.

Throughout history these capacities have been the backbone of society and primarily the domain of women. Which doesn't mean that all women are Kitchen Wisdom whiz-kids. Nor does it mean that some men have not excelled in the nurturing arts. But the sad fact is that Kitchen Wisdom has been judged an inferior form of intelligence, and boys and men have been discouraged from developing it. And the whole world has suffered.

I once heard Gloria Steinem tell a group of women leaders "We've taken one giant step forward by convincing the majority of the country that women can do what men can do. But the next step is convincing the country that men can do what women can do. So far, we don't believe it ourselves." For years I did not believe it; I did not believe that men would ever want to "do what women can do," meaning to develop a different part of themselves--their Kitchen Wisdom part. I thought women would just continue to knock themselves out doing what women have always done, while learning to do what men do, AND trying to create an entirely new form of doing--a hybrid form that leads toward wholeness. I longed for a time when both men and women would strive for well-balanced psyches, because I sensed that the healing of our world depended on it. But I didn't think I'd see it any time soon.

Good news! Recently, I have become aware that men are making some startling evolutionary advances into the wise territory of the Kitchen (with a capital K). Now granted, I have not made an over-arching study of this phenomenon (readers: please share your stories and maybe together we'll publish our findings.) My study involves one family. A year ago, my oldest son and his wife welcomed to the world little Will--my first grandchild. Soon afterward, my son--along with many others in the building trades in California--lost his job. Much to my amazement, my son decided to combine his newfound status of unemployed architect with that of first-time father. He became the stay-at-home parent for baby Will. My daughter-in-law, whose internet company was eager for her to return to work, did so after a few months. Soon my son was calling me during the day, asking if I thought steamed squash would be a good first food for Will, or if there was a relationship between diaper rash and teething. He strode around town with his baby strapped to his chest, shopping for groceries, taking Will to his pediatrician appointments, meeting other parents in the park.

On a recent visit, I watched my son perform the morning nap ritual: change Will's diaper, read him a few books, give him a bottle, kiss his little face and put him in the crib. After the baby had fallen asleep, I told my son he was being "such a great Mommy." He corrected me. "I am not being a Mommy," he said. "I am being a Daddy." I was humbled, proud and excited for humankind.

Which is why a sentence like "Let's take Betty Sutton out of the House and send her back to the kitchen" is so dangerous. It doesn't only threaten Rep. Sutton's campaign in particular, or women's progress in general. It also threatens to set male evolution back decades. There are millions of men like my son. I've met them--in the park with their babies; in meetings where I work; in the images we are beginning to see on television and in the movies. These men believe that they should be able to do what women have always done--nurture the kids, take care of the house, communicate more fluidly, practice empathy. They know that a man is still a man if he does "women's work," just as a woman is still a woman if she brings home a paycheck, competes in a sport, takes risks, shoulders responsibility. These men know that true gender equality goes both ways.

So, let's send all of us proudly into the kitchen and out to work; into the nursery and onto the playing fields; into the halls of power and back home again. Let's help each other learn and respect the full range of human intelligences. We'll all be better for it--the men, the women and the children.

Postscript: Rep Sutton won against her opponent in the recent primary. Guess she's not going back to the kitchen!