I have never personally met Mr. Peter Heck of Greentown, Indiana -- the man whose inflammatory comments on the role of women were reported in the Huffington Post recently. We live less than fifteen minutes apart, I in the city of Kokomo and he in the rural community on the edge of the county. I have heard his fundamentalist radio show and read the tirades on his website. When the high school teacher made waves by teaching the Bible as history, I even wrote a caustic response to Heck's class that the newspapers refused to publish. It's not surprising that I was denied a voice: Heck embodies much of the ultraconservative sentiment found in my county and state. Thankfully, as Valedictorian of Kokomo High School's Class of 2013, I was finally given a podium and license to speak. Unfortunately, it seems Mr. Heck didn't hear what I had to say.
As commencement approached, I thought of the students who made jokes about women's rights and the religious leaders who told me I belonged in the kitchen. I wanted to force every person in the gymnasium to face the hard facts about gender inequality. I wanted to liberate the little girls in the gym, who tell me that they want to be princesses instead of the President of the United States. I wanted to encourage the tired mothers to see themselves as individuals, not just a means of producing individuals. I wanted to tell my fellow female graduates to be unafraid of ambition. This is part of the Valedictorian address I delivered on May 31st:
We need female leaders. Out of all of the Fortune 500 CEOs, 21 are female; women hold only 16% of board seats. Women make up 18% of Congress, which ranks the United States 78th worldwide, behind countries like Ethiopia, Iraq, and Tajikistan. By the way, we're still earning 77 cents on a man's dollar... Girls, we have 7 billion people on the planet, so consider doing something other than parenting. The patriarchy must be dismantled.
Two days after my graduation, Heck also gave a commencement address on the roles of women. The two graduation speeches from two schools in the same county in Indiana highlight both sides of the national discussion about women in the workplace. We've heard Sheryl Sandberg encourage women to lean in. However, Heck found little redeeming value to powerful women when he spoke on June 2nd:
If you choose to have a career, God's blessings upon you, but I challenge you to recognize what the world scoffs at... that your greatest role of your life will be that of wife and mother. That the greatest impact you will ever contribute to our world is a loving and devoted investment into the lives of your precious children. To solve the problems plaguing our society, we don't need more women as CEOs, we need more women as invested mothers.
So, which plaguing problems of our society is Heck speaking about? Research indicates that the employment of mothers inflicts zero damage on children. Stephanie Coontz, in a New York Times Sunday Review, cited a plethora of findings on the outcomes of mothers going to work, including a review of 70 studies that shows "no significant negative effects of maternal employment on the intellectual achievement of young children."
While it seems Heck centers on the importance of childrearing, at no point in his commencement address does he attempt to refute the vast amount of scientific data that demonstrates the positive effects of maternal employment. Instead, Heck seems concerned only with the emotional state of husbands. Heck tells girls that "the greatest role of your life" will not only be that of mother, but wife. In a later part of the same speech, Heck says that "we need more men acting as fierce defenders of their wives and providers for their children." His desire for a deeply patriarchal gender divide was chronicled by the Huffington Post:
In a blog post from July 2012 in the wake of the Aurora shooting, Heck described the present day as "an age where we too often yield to the idiotic sniveling of modern feminism that suggests there is no place in our enlightened society for men to act as 'protectors' of women -- - indeed, they suggest that it is insulting and demeaning for [men] to do so.
Heck is not warning young women of the negative effect their jobs will have on their children; his primary concern is for their husbands, who will lose their roles as "defenders," "providers," and "protectors" if their female companions show any autonomy or financial freedom.
There is research that investigates this deep male anxiety and the problems it can cause in relationships. Although the Pew's recent statistic shows women are the primary breadwinners in 40% of households, 63% of those women are single mothers. The Atlantic published an article in May that deciphers The Hamilton Project, a study that analyzes the unhappy marriages in which women earn more than men: "Evidence suggests that couples are less likely to get married if the woman's income exceeds her partner's. Once married, a wife earning more than her husband is more likely to be unhappy in the marriage, more likely to feel pressured to take fewer hours, and more likely to get divorced." Wives who earned more also did more chores around the house. "The only way to make sense of it is compensatory behavior," said economist Emir Kamenica. "Maybe the husband feels threatened, so she does more of the cooking, even though she earns more."
Perhaps Peter Heck is not simply an ultraconservative rural voice, but an indication of the veiled, and even subconscious, distress of men who are encountering a growing number of financially independent women. When I had the floor, I attempted to introduce basic facts about gender inequality to the people in the gymnasium. If I ever do meet Heck, I hope that I can do the same.