Feminism (un)rules

The news, for the terminally declining population of women who identify themselves as feminists, is good. A study by researchers at Rutgers University, New Jersey, finds the classic New Yorker cartoon of two women discussing relationships in a coffee shop — “sex brought us together but gender drove us apart” — is plain wrong. Feminists are happier in love and better in bed.

I’m extrapolating a wee bit optimistically, but it’s cheering to come across a study about the f-word that doesn’t conclude that 99% of respondents think the women’s movement is about unshaved armpits. What the Rutgers researchers actually found was that, in a survey of college students and older adults, all in heterosexual relationships, men paired with feminist partners reported greater relationship stability and sexual satisfaction. In addition, there was consistent evidence that male feminist partners were healthier for women’s relationships, while there was scant evidence that women’s feminism created conflict in liaisons.

This will doubtless do little to dispel the popular myth that the majority of feminists are man-hating­ lesbians and, granted, studies reporting levels of contentment are subjective. But the question the study seeks to address is an important one: how do straight women distinguish genuine, positive intimacy and its attendant vulnerabilities from the self-defeating­ romantic discourses they are encouraged to buy into? It’s inevitable that feminism and romantic love have been set up as being mutually exclusive. From Betty Freidan’s evisceration of 1950s domesticity in The Feminine Mystique onwards, the women’s movement has counselled that romantic fulfilment should be a part of, rather than the sole measure of, a woman’s self-worth. Though we might have advanced beyond the stage when attracting a powerful mate is a woman’s only means of securing social status, the obsessive veneration of Wags (the so-called “wives and girlfriends” of England’s professional soccer team), as well as our addiction to the beauty industry and the content of every other self-help book, suggests that advance should be measured in metres rather than kilometres.

It might be a biological imperative for both genders to pair bond, but the romantic narrative of love/marriage/children is simply not inculcated in boys in the same way as it is in girls. It’s a narrative still closely associated with those traditional feminine virtues of vulnerability, passivity, nurture. And if feminism is considered incompatible with love, it is likewise seen as a threat to femininity itself.

But understanding our weaknesses and needs doesn’t preclude empowerment. It’s only anti-feminist if women believe those private needs underpin everything at all times of our lives, including the parallel needs for education, say, or economic independence or job satisfaction. And it’s worth remembering that the “now where did I put my lipstick?” version of femininity takes a whole lot of guile to pull off.


Still, some of the truest of feminist believers have attested to a suspicion that there is something, well, unfeminist about the pursuit of romantic love. Women spend a substantial amount of time on relationships, but in doing so do they distract themselves from worthier pursuits? Katha Pollitt, the award-winning poet, essayist and Nation columnist, ponders this in her recent memoir, Learning to Drive. “Perhaps the way women think about love is part of that slave religion Nietzsche talks about, a mystification of the powerless,” she writes. “What would the world be like if women stopped being women … gave up the slave religion? Could the world go on without romantic love, all iron fist, no velvet glove?” In an essay titled After the Men Are Dead, she asks: “Will it be restful, not having to think about love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at old jokes … Men take a lot of attending to and on; there’s a lot of putting down of books involved.” Or as Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com and voice of a fresh generation of US feminists, more succinctly puts it: “If I’d spent half the energy on my career and school stuff as I did on my relationships, I’d probably be the fucking president by now.”

That’s not to say that men don’t fret about their relationships too. But, from the highly unscientific sample of the men I’ve known as friends and lovers, they don’t to the same degree and, when they do, prefer to cast themselves as tragic hero or romantic lead rather than foil. This is why there will never be a market for a book of dating advice for men titled She’s Just Not That Into You.

Pollitt’s point that women’s desire for male approval — be that of how we look, how we have sex or how we love — is debilitating, but might be inescapable because of how forcefully and consistently it is reinforced by the structures around us, even when it is not by men themselves. So long as the withdrawal of male approval is used as punishment for women’s successes — consider the number of female politicians deemed unattractive — the notion that a woman is completed rather than complemented by the presence of a man in her life is a hard one to shake.

But that’s very different from suggesting that desire for a man is weakening, or that feminism and romantic love are indeed incompatible. All relationships involve a degree of compromise — the key is whether you are compromising with or for the other person. — Â

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