Something to Consider – Chelsea Clinton and Male Ownership

From what I’ve been told (I was too young to really know), Chelsea Clinton grew up awkwardly, never really comfortable in the spotlight. Well, duh. If reporters had been viciously analyzing my every move when I was in high school, I wouldn’t have fared so well, either.

But damn, is that woman successful. She excelled in academics in high school, went to Stanford and Oxford, and proceeded to kick ass afterwards. This with all the negative attention as the daughter of an awkward, not-so-monogamous presidential couple.

After the break, why I care!

Now, Chelsea Clinton is marrying a Jew.

Win. I’m pretty proud. Welcome to the tribe, Chelsea!

Apparently, people are starting to wonder if she’s going to convert. Her fiancée, Marc Mezvinsky, is a conservative Jew, and the conservative movement definitely frowns upon intermarriage, to say the least. In fact, most popular movements of Judaism frown on intermarriage, and all, at the very least, encourage Jewish education and a Jewish upbringing for the children of parents who don’t share the same religion.

David Gibson, a religion reporter at Politics Daily, wrote an entire article about the implications of Chelsea Clinton’s pending conversion, or lack thereof, at one point adding:

It is telling that nowhere in the speculation among Jews is there any consideration that Marc Mezvinsky might become Christian.

I agree: not speculating that Mezvinsky might convert is telling of something, but it doesn’t say anything particularly surprising about Jews, in particular. Of course we’re speculating on Clinton’s conversion – we don’t even remotely want to think that Mezvinsky might consider himself happier in another religion.

But underneath that, some of the speculation about Clinton, among Jews and non-Jews alike, may stem from our understanding of marriage. Ah, yes. That lovely institution in which a woman takes her husband’s name, symbolically leaving her own family and joining his while he has to do nothing of the sort.

I obviously don’t know if Chelsea Clinton intends to change her name, but think about it in terms of religion, for a moment: do we ever expect men to convert? Why are we so fixated on Chelsea’s conversion?

What would your first thought would be if a Jewish woman married a Christian man? Because when it happened in my family, my first thought wasn’t, “is he converting?” I wonder if our perceptions of marriage, and of the way husbands and wives relate to each other, are influencing our expectations of the passage of a religious tradition. I think it’s pretty clear that despite all our best attempts to change it, marriage has an ownership element to it – instead of taking a common name, we take the man’s name; instead of asking Mezvinsky whether he’s going to convert, we ask Chelsea.

It’s also possible that this is just a function of Jews being concerned about Jewish lineage being pass down matrilineally, but I don’t think that’s at the core of the speculation.

It’s just something to consider. I don’t really have an answer. It strikes at two issues of great importance to me; the first obviously being gender equality, the second being the supposed decline of American Jewry. I just wonder if this particular permutation of both of these things combined epically failed and we’re left wondering about a strong, independent woman solely in the context of her husband.

I think it’s also important that we recognize this little bit of trivia/poor grammar:

…in 2002 Ari Fleischer, former spokesman for President George W. Bush, married Rebecca Davis, who is Catholic. (Rabbi Harold White, senior Jewish chaplain at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school, performed the marriage with a priest in a ceremony that included a chuppah, or canopy, which is customary for Jewish weddings, a traditional glass-breaking, and a marriage contract, or ketubah.)

Go Hoyas, and go Rabbi White!

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    • Eileen
    • July 19th, 2010

    I think it’s more of a Jewish thing, myself.

    As a nonreligious, don’t-care-either-way kind of person, I’ll probably convert to whatever religion my husband is on the basis of “It’s more important to him than it is to me.” From what I’ve seen in my own family (a bunch of don’t-care-either-way types), this seems to be a pretty common belief.

    My uncle, for example, is technically an Episcopalian but married his wife in a Catholic ceremony and raises his daughter as a Catholic. My other (father’s side) uncle is technically Buddhist, but his family is some kind of Protestant – he never went to church on Sundays, but religion was important to his wife, so they raised their kids in her church. My great-grandfather skipped his eldest son (an Episcopalian)’s wedding because the bride was Catholic – so are their children. And my great-grandmother on my mother’s other side (also an Episcopalian) cried when she found out that her son was marrying a Catholic, and that’s what the children are. My aunt, on the other hand (once again, an Episcopalian), married an Orthodox Jew, converted, and though she is now divorced, still lives in Jerusalem with their Orthodox sons. In the Clinton-Mezvinsky case, I think the fact that he’s Conservative seems to imply that he takes his religion fairly seriously, whereas she is the daughter of a Southern Baptist and a Methodist (notably, the Clintons were married in Hillary’s church, and Chelsea is a Methodist) and has never given any indication that religion was all that important to her.

    So, really, I think men convert just as much, if not more than, women – but that the conversion question comes up a lot more when Judaism is introduced, and it’s the non-Jew who’s expected to convert. In a humiliating admission I make only to give a pop culture example, I used to watch Seventh Heaven, the most goody-goody, Christian television show in recent history. Matt Camden, the Protestant minister’s eldest son, married a (Reform) Jewish rabbi’s daughter, Sarah. She changed her name. He changed his religion.

      • Mara Alyse
      • July 19th, 2010

      As a Jewish woman who takes her religion rather seriously, despite not being conservative or orthodox, I have no expectation of conversion. As I said in the post, I don’t think it’s primarily a Jewish thing, and if we’re going to make assumptions about that, I’d rather hear from people who identify as Jewish.

      It’s interesting that your family doesn’t have an expectation of conversion from one side or another; I wonder if that’s unique to your family. Or I wonder if we use different standards on our families versus the rest of society? Especially with people who are famous, who we constantly judge and for whom we have higher expectations (see: my last blog post).

        • Eileen
        • July 19th, 2010

        Yeah, I don’t really know very much about being Jewish – it’s probably just an assumption I made based on the fact that the family members/friends I have who’ve married Jewish people all converted to Judaism. Sorry about that (the assumption, not the conversions, that is).

        I’d be more likely to say that what one’s family does affects how one expects famous people to behave, actually. You grew up expecting to keep your religion and to have your spouse keep his, so that’s what you expect from Chelsea Clinton. I grew up thinking religion wasn’t a big deal and that conversion was just one more compromise people make when they got married, so I remembered that Marc Mezvinsky works for Goldman Sachs before I remembered that he is Jewish. It’d be interesting to see which publications bring up conversion, especially in the earliest articles.

        • Melanie
        • July 19th, 2010

        Hm, I don’t think that it is necessarily a Jewish thing, I would say it comes down to which of the people in the relationship values their religious beliefs more heavily. However, that said, I could see how that could put a Jewish leaning on things. A) Judaism is a culture along with being a religion, which often promotes stronger feelings towards it, even if the person doesn’t consider him or herself that religious. Personally, I would say I am not heavily religious, but feel strongly attached to the culture and would definitely not be willing to convert or raise my (potential) children entirely in another religion. I also wouldn’t expect whoever I married to convert unless they genuinely wanted to and wouldn’t prohibit them from teaching our children equally as much about their own religion. Anyway, point B) we are still only a couple of generations removed from the Holocaust. I would think that many Jews with relatives with direct ties to the Holocaust might feel a bit more strongly about not converting.

        In my own family, I have a cousin whose father was Jewish, married a Christian woman and converted and raised the children Christian (I don’t know specifically which denomination.) In this case, it was because his beliefs mattered less to him than hers did to her, so he converted.

        As far as the sexism, I’m thinking that might be part and parcel with the inherent sexism in which people automatically think of the mother as being the primary caretaker/influence on the children. This could then bleed over into the debate on conversion, simply because people often assume the mother is the one who is going to be in charge of really passing down the religious values and teachings. Honestly, it would be an interesting study, if someone really did examine which gender tended to convert more often in interfaith marriages and to what religion.

  1. GG, this is a terrific question, and your analysis points out so many additional assumptions about who converts and why. I’ m adding this one to my consciousness. click.

    • Henri
    • July 20th, 2010

    Nice post. I do have to take issue when you say that women convert more frequently than men. I believe it is about equal. Both of my mom’s cousins – raised Jewish, bar mitzvahed, practicing – married Catholic women and both, while not converting, have taken to raising their children Catholic with a hint of Jewish on the side.

    Just some data for you! :)

      • Mara Alyse
      • July 20th, 2010

      I don’t actually say that women convert more frequently than men. I’m suggesting that due to stereotypes our expectations are that they should/would.

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