Defining ‘Submissive’ in the Vocabulary of Women’s Choices



Glenn Beck recently called me “one of the bravest people alive.” At the same moment, I felt as if the Internet unleashed a tidal wave of fury on me. People were up all night on Twitter, telling me I’d set women’s causes back 50 years.

It was an extremely odd turn of events for someone who has built a career on being a strong woman. As a former beach volleyball star and fitness expert, I’ve fought for equality in sports for decades.

What had I done to provoke so much passionate intensity?

On Page 162 of my new book, “My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper,” I deployed the word submissive to describe my commitment to my husband and my kids.

Before you hate me, hear me out.

When I was younger, I used to say I placed no one above my own survival. That attitude no longer served me once I became a wife and mother. But nurturing my family did not come naturally to me. It was something I had to learn through hard knocks. I had to ask myself what I wanted and how I thought I was going to create that environment.

Ultimately, I found that especially in rearing young children, it’s been useful (and rewarding) to approach my life with a sense of service, of “How can I help?” And I’ve actually found a lot of strength in this role. I’ve found a lot of happiness.

In discussing what works for me in my home life, I used the word submissive. I did not say, “Don’t go out in the world and be a woman who puts herself in a position in which she can thrive and be personally and professionally respected.” When I used the s-word, I was talking about the way many couples divide labors and roles irrespective of gender, and I was talking about what’s been true for me in my own relationship.

This honest look at my dynamic was meant to shed light on a learning curve I went through from my mid-20s to my 40s.

But, of course, the book came out, and some morning-show producers plucked the sentence out of context, and there I was staring into a TV camera while hosts said to me, “So you almost got divorced a few years into your marriage and you found out that by being submissive you could make it work.” And suddenly I was accused of setting back women’s causes.

I understand that the word submissive conjures all kinds of awful servile situations: a woman chained to a hot stove all day, tending only to the care and feeding of her man. Perhaps because I grew up in an era after the hardest battles for women’s liberation had been fought, I took it for granted that it would be self-evident that this was not the kind of “submissive” I meant.

I am married to a very loving and respectful man, who by the way is incredibly Alpha. Can he organize dinner? Of course. Does he? Absolutely. But he just isn’t going to be thinking ahead to needing snacks on the road trip or planning to get that dolphin cake our 7-year-old wants for her birthday party.

The reality is that I do most of the things that are traditionally female. Why? It’s my choice. It’s what works for us in our partnership.

Whatever the idiosyncrasies of my own relationship, I bow down and honor all the women before me who opened the road for the comparative amount of liberty women have today. We’ve achieved a lot. And now that we are here, isn’t there room to do an assessment of how it’s going? How is “having it all” working for us?

One of the cornerstones of feminism is that women should have the freedom to make choices. We should be able to define for ourselves what makes us happy. Single. Married. Kids. No kids. Whatever.

In the end, what’s surprised me most about the backlash I’ve experienced is that it indicates there’s only room for a narrow conversation about women’s roles in society. I believed until the book came out that we were beyond that.

Clearly we’re comfortable talking about leaning in and sitting at the table in the workplace. That’s a real stride forward. But true liberty means there’s room in the dialogue for multiple points of view. Women have a spectrum of choices, and we should be at ease talking about works for us with candor, without fear of incurring wrath for stepping outside the sanctioned vocabulary of how women should live their lives.

Gabrielle Reece, a former beach volleyball star, fashion model and fitness expert, is a New York Times best-selling author. Her new book is “My Foot Is Too Big for the Glass Slipper.”