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Why men still know 'Her Indoors' is the real boss of the family

By Mary Kenny

Published 12/10/2015

Domestic domination: the fearsome Mrs Brown is an Irish archetype
Domestic domination: the fearsome Mrs Brown is an Irish archetype

When I was growing up, our generation of feminists thought we were greatly oppressed by the law. And indeed, in many instances, we were. But later in life, it's often occurred to me that the letter of the law doesn't always accord with the reality on the ground - with real, lived experiences.

For example, the letter of the law in Ireland of old (and elsewhere) was that the man was the "head of the household". And yet, if I think of the experience in my own family, and in other families, too, this headship was merely nominal. Gay Byrne wrote in his autobiography that "Mammy was the boss", and that was very often - not always, but often - the way in households.

In comedy form, this is still borne out today with the egregious Mrs Brown and her boys: I sit through this show stony-faced, yearning for the sophisticated wisecracks of Woody Allen, but I recognise, all the same, that the awful Mrs Brown is an Irish archetype.

A common lamentation with my late mother and her sisters was that their brothers were slaves to their wives. They did their wives' bidding at every turn, and were terrified of being scolded, corrected or reprimanded by the said Missus. Not only were they utterly deferential to "Her Indoors" - as a popular trope in the 1980s TV series Minder had it - but the womenfolk were said to have "chased" these hapless men into marriage in the first place.

The law was one thing; the home was quite another. Of course, we know there were homes in which domestic abuse (then called 'wife-beating') took place. But this arose, I heard it said, when the women "allowed" the men to drink too much. A man who drank abusively wasn't sufficiently under female control - that was his problem.

The notion that women were commanding social and domestic life was prevalent not only in many an autobiography: it arises in novels, plays and fairy tales. It is a constant theme in the ever-popular stories of PG Wodehouse, where our hero, Bertie Wooster, lives in fear and trembling of his two domineering aunts, Augusta, who crunches broken glass for breakfast, and Dahlia, who simply tells him that he's a complete waste of space.

All the men in PG Wodehouse's world are constantly dodging control and domination by women, whether by being made to turn vegetarian - driven to stealing pork chops during the night - or being made to read Shelley and look suitably emotionally moved.

Fairy tales, which Jung believed would always endure because they speak truth to our unconscious, are replete with domineering stepmothers, wicked witches and magically endowed fairy godmothers who overturn evil. Dramas, from Macbeth to Big Maggie, show men in the emotional power of women.

So does child psychology. A baby in her mother's arms is utterly dependent on maternal and female power: that can be a template for life.

Not all of human experience is lived in accordance with the letter of the law. It is only because today we are ruled by lawyers that we tend to think that the law itself is the be all and the end all. If the law says that men and women are interchangeable, and if you're born a man you can legally alter yourself into a woman, then that is elevated into an irrefutable, and legalistic, truth. Although nature - which will not alter its chromosomes - may not quite agree.

Women were indeed unequal before the law for many centuries - they couldn't vote, and had limited property entitlements - although aristocratic women often managed to attain and maintain privileges through the use of dynastic power. This inequality was deliberate. For it was held that "as nature has given women so much power, the law has wisely given them little".

Obviously, all persons should be equal before the law: but sometimes we need to add the humdrum facts of everyday life into our perspective, just because the law is not the be all and end all of the human story. When a divorce, or the splitting up of a family, occurs, it nearly always happens that the mother of the children has more power, both in custom and in the law, than the father.

I have encountered more than one broken-hearted grandmother who never sees her grandchildren because her ex-daughter-in-law withholds permission. "Rights" can be invoked, but possession remains nine-tenths of law, and if a woman wants to keep her children away from her former partner and his family, she will surely have the ability to do so.

This can also happen when a husband or partner dies. When a father dies, his children are much more likely to lose touch with "the family constellation" on the paternal side. If the mother isn't minded to keep up that connection, it doesn't happen. After my own father died, I seldom saw my paternal relations at all: the maternal side of the family ruled. The matriarchal family dominance wasn't hostile - it was just automatic.

In all of human interchange, personality counts. There are men who are domineering and violent - the vast majority of violent offenders are male - and there are women who feel beaten into submission by custom and law.

But when looking at the wider picture, don't discount the "Her Indoors" characters who, whatever the law, were well able to make men submit.

Belfast Telegraph

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