The Ethical Dilemma: Gender Equality, Bigoted In-Laws

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Special Place in Hell: Recently there was a dust-up regarding some remarks by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler about Taylor Swift, inspiring Swift to quip, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I really don’t care about the specifics of Swift’s complaint, but I do care about the idea that an injury to one woman by another is somehow worse than one perpetrated by a man. What difference does it make which gender does it?

—Don’t Do Me Wrong, Whatever Your Gender

Dear Gender,

There certainly is a school of thought that considers a crime against one’s own kind to be worse than one committed by some kind of “other.” It has to do with disappointed trust and loyalty expected within a clan. That’s why wars pitting brother against brother, betrayals by family members, trade secrets leaked by a colleague, a best friend who runs off with your spouse, are all considered worse than the same transgressions committed by recognized enemies or total strangers.

On the other hand, if a man had made the same comments about Swift, she might have played the chauvinist card instead of the feminist card. When Kanye West publicly dissed her, she didn’t have to say or do anything other than stand there and look like a stunned young woman to win universal sympathy for herself and disapproval for him. And of course, she’s made a career of singing about mistreatment from former boyfriends so her fans can try to guess the ex-, creating a special place in hell-on-earth for those men while requiring a special place on her shelf for more Grammys.

Many feminists believe that because females have traditionally been kept isolated from and in competition with each other, there’s a heightened imperative for women to join forces and support one another. But it can also be argued that even worse offenders are the fathers, brothers, husbands, sons and other men in positions of power who consciously or subconsciously keep women (including their own wives, mothers, sisters and daughters) down. Maybe hell has special places for everyone.


Living with Bigoted In-Laws: My husband and I have been out of work for eight years. We tried applying for every kind of job but just couldn’t get hired. Now my husband has stage III cancer and I was diagnosed with several autoimmune diseases, so neither of us can work even if we could land jobs. We are on welfare and food stamps, and we lost our home and had to move in with my husband’s parents (my parents are deceased and I’m an only child).

If all this isn’t bad enough, my in-laws are right-wing bigots. Every day, especially when we are all expected to sit down together for dinner, my father-in-law has the TV on Fox News, Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. Whenever a news story comes up about gay and lesbian rights or African-Americans or Latinos, my in-laws start making horrible comments against anyone who isn’t a WASP Republican.

I’ve been married to my husband, who is nothing like his parents, for six years. But I think that if my in-laws found out that I’m registered as a libertarian and a member of the American Humanist Association, and that I have cousins who are gay, lesbian and African-American, they might throw me out.

The last thing I want to do is cause more family friction, but when my in-laws start in on all the horrible  comments at the dinner table, I can’t help but politely point out that it’s not very “Christian” to hate anyone, especially for things they can’t help. Their response is, “Just shut up or get the hell out of this house. If it weren’t for us, you’d be living in a homeless shelter.” What can I do about this situation?

—Frustrated With the Bigoted In-Laws

Dear Frustrated,

You don’t mention how long you’ve been living with the in-laws, or what—if anything—your husband contributes to these enchanting dinner conversations. But clearly the first answer is “too long” and the second answer is “nothing that helps.”

There probably isn’t anything you can do to change your in-laws. As they so clearly pointed out, it’s their home and they truly are doing you a huge favor. But you don’t have equal rights or freedom of speech on their turf. It sounds like they may be as unhappy about you living there as you are. In fact, they may be doing their best to drive you out. So you need to focus on changing your living situation ASAP. Contact Social Services to find out what your options are. You may qualify for some kind of subsidized housing, especially now that you are both disabled.

Until you can move out, try to keep the peace. Make pleasant conversation if you can, but steer clear of or just don’t comment on hot-button topics. Do you really all have to eat dinner together every night, or can you serve your in-laws, so that you and your husband can enjoy a private, Fox-free dinner before or after? Make sure you are contributing members of the household. Even if you can’t contribute financially, perhaps you can take over the cleaning and other chores, whip up the in-laws’ favorite foods, chauffeur them around (ideally to dinners out without you), etc. Hopefully, you can make yourselves so useful and delightful that they’ll miss you when you’re gone.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.