How to Marry a Mill … Er, Feminist Man.

So, the Washington Post has an article by Lisa Bonos on how women can find themselves a feminist boyfriend. She says this:

Few guys will proudly say no when asked if they’re feminists.

Well, I’m a guy who will, in fact, say “No”, not proudly, but because it seems to be true. I was described as an anti-feminist who doesn’t seem to believe that women are inferior to men, and that’s pretty much true for me. I believe that men and women are equal, but think that feminism is either explicitly a women’s movement and that movements of that sort aren’t the way to promote equality unless explicitly balanced by movements aiming at representing all other sides, including those that are considered dominant, or it is a movement that claims to be for equality but that generally only looks at the world from the perspective of women, making it flawed. Either way, I don’t care much for the feminist movement and even a fair bit of its philosophical underpinnings, and so can’t call myself a feminist in any way … but I do think that women are equal to men and that a relationship should be between equals. So I’d like to analyse her suggestions from that perspective. And, given that, the two main issues I have with it are:

1) I think she has a limited idea of what it means to be feminist.
2) I think she has a limited idea of what equality means.

Let’s start from the beginning:

‘I find it really attractive how successful you are,” my date said, leaning in for a kiss.

Sure, it sounds like a line. But it also sounds like feminism. It certainly made him more appealing than the guy who said, “Wow, you’re really ambitious,” like he was surprised. Or the one who asked, “Why do you work so much?” and “Why would you want to work even more?” when I was angling for a promotion.

Her implication is that the person attracted to her success was more feminist than the other two, except that there’s nothing in what they said that indicates that. While the first guy’s comment at least gives an indication that he isn’t intimidated by her success — which might be an issue — for the others the one might find that she has a lot of ambition even when compared to most people, and so his surprise and statement doesn’t come with the rider for a woman as she implies, and for the latter maybe he just isn’t that ambitious, and so really can’t see why anyone would want to work that much or work more. I, for example, often get comments about the hours I work, and I only do that because I’ve made a commitment to the job and working those hours often makes my life easier. So none of these things really indicate anything about feminism, as someone who didn’t find success attractive while not being intimidated by it would still believe in equality.

She gives a lot more advice than that, though:

Here’s how I’m defining it: Feminist daters — male or female, gay or straight — aren’t constrained by gender roles. Anyone can do the asking-out, the feelings-confessing or the initiating of any kind. (As for who picks up the check on a first date, let’s obliterate the gender pay gap first, then put that one back up for debate.)

Let me start with the check. The issue is that the gender pay gap has nothing to do with the incomes of an individual woman and man who might be going on a date together. Okay, sure, on average it might mean that the man earns a bit more than the woman, but since that’s an average there’s no reason to think that there won’t be a significant number of couples where the woman earns at least as much if not more than the man does, unless they’re selecting for that (which then leads to the bad idea that men choose women who make less than them and women choose men that make more, which leads into all sorts of issues around social classes and the like. If we assume that men and women are choosing based on interests and the like, then in general the incomes ought to be reasonably close much of the time). So the general advice that the person who initiates — ie who asks — pays is a fair way to decide who pays for the date without getting into issues of social class or calculating who makes more and has more disposable income and so ought to pay for the date based on that. Yes, it might mean that some women don’t approach men only because they can’t afford to pay for the dates, but in general asking means that you get to select the place where you go, men are less likely to care about how expensive it is — sexist men don’t want a woman that earns more than they do and so aren’t impressed by demonstrations of financial success, feminist men really shouldn’t care one way or the other if she’s a financial success — and this is something that men have had to worry about for ages, and still would. So worrying about the gender gap seems to be nothing more than an excuse to absolve women from having to pay on dates, even if they ask.

But a man could indeed be intimidated by a woman that initiates without being sexist. They may prefer someone who is more passive and less aggressive generally, either because they are aggressive themselves and know that in a relationship someone else who is aggressive will result in them butting heads all of the time, or because they are shier themselves and know that someone who is aggressive will just annoy them. Given that, right now, women generally aren’t encouraged to approach and know that if they do they do risk scaring some men off — although it’s getting better — a woman who makes the first move is going to be seen as a more aggressive woman than a man who does, because in general men know that they have to in order to succeed, while for women it can make things easier for them — or potentially harder — but is far more optional. For men, it’s a way to get dates, and for women it’s a way to get better dates, or get dates faster. So, in this culture, it might say something about her personality, and as seen there’s nothing sexist about preferring one type of personality over another. A woman may want a more aggressive man, or a shier one, simply because that personality is more compatible with them, and men have to have the same considerations without being considered sexist for them.

(Let’s put aside the idea that some men may not like a more aggressive woman because of internalized sexism. It might be true in some cases, but it doesn’t mean that they are themselves sexist men, unsuitable for dating if you want a man who thinks of women as equals, nor does it mean that that possibility would overrule their actual believed reasons. In short, you can’t say that a man is sexist if he doesn’t alike aggressive or even ambitious women.)

A true male feminist is supportive of, interested in and enthusiastic about his partner’s career. He might not expect to earn more than his partner or think that his career trumps hers; a feminist couple might relocate for the woman’s career.

Well, personally, I don’t expect any of that … but this always suffers from vagueness and issues around feminist theory. Let’s take the moving specific example as, well, a specific example. For me, relocating for the career should be decided rationally and practically, considering all of the practical considerations. So, let’s imagine that a man and a woman are in a long distance relationship, and are trying to decide if he should move to where she lives or if she should move to where he lives. Under the traditional view, the choice is obvious: she’d move to him. In the modern view, things get more complicated, as you have to consider who makes more, how easy it is for a partner to get a job in that area, cost of living, and all sorts of other considerations. But one of those is not going to be the need for her to maintain her choice or desired career, or else fall under the oppression of patriarchal expectations. While her career should not be considered inferior to his because she’s a woman, it can’t be considered superior to his either. This is something that has bothered me about feminism before, in that it seems that sometimes the only way to demonstrate that you respect a woman’s choices is to always accept that choice no matter how impractical it is. That can’t be done in a relationship; we cannot let one partner’s preferences and wants determine the outcome, whether that one be a man or a woman. So a feminist couple might relocate for her career … but only if it makes sense to.

So we need to define what it means for a man to be supportive of, interested in and enthusiastic about his partner’s career. There are a number of things about someone’s career that a person might rightly be unenthusiastic about, including a perception that the person isn’t actually suited for it and is tilting at windmills. Ultimately, this starts getting into a ton of personal perceptions and unique, subjective attributes which means that it’s pretty hard to say when a man isn’t supportive and when he is, beyond someone who thinks that she should just give up her career and stay home with the kids … and even that can sometims be argued for on a pragmatic level (a belief that, say, the costs of day care overwhelm the income that say, a waitress makes and so it isn’t worth her working when she could stay home with the kids and provide a lot of support for them while they actually end up better financially over that).

I think what should be obvious from the first two examples is this: It’s not what you do that determines whether someone is sexist or not, but why they do it. Intent … matters. Without knowing the reasons behind their comments or beliefs, one can easily judge someone feminist who isn’t and sexist who is. Which means that in order to determine if you have a properly feminist boyfriend, the way to get there is … to talk to them, find out what they think, what they feel, and why. Proper conversation and communication. T’is a radical idea, but I think it might work.

When it comes to that attraction, a feminist man makes sure — verbally — that his partner is on board, rather than just forging ahead. “Never assume I’d like it there,” as Annie Werner, a 25-year-old who works for Tumblr in New York, says when talking about the importance of sexual consent.

“If you’re a woman who wants a man to grab you and kiss you because that’s what sweeps you off your feet, realistically, a feminist man is not going to do that,” says Rita Goodroe, a 38-year-old life coach in Northern Virginia who works mostly with singles. “He’s going to ask for permission.”

This is, I think, a prime example of the issues around sexual harassment in the world today. So, the expectation here seems to be this: that a man who believes, reasonably, that certain actions that many if not most women find appealing and romantic, and then proceeds to do them, can’t be a feminist man if he doesn’t in some way explicitly ask first … as if she is somehow incapable of telling him “I don’t like that”, or making that clear to him. I mean, while some have denied that you need explicit verbal consent, Bonos here does say verbal consent. So imagine two people having sex, and the man trying a technique that works in the past, and it happening to not work for her, and her getting mad because he didn’t ask. Or, conversely, his explicitly asking about every single step, and think about how a woman is likely to react to that. It ain’t likely to be good.

A non-sexist man cares about his partner being on board, which means that he will watch for signs that she isn’t and will definitely stop if he’s doing something that she makes it clear that she doesn’t like. Just as signs of consent don’t have to be explicit verbal acceptance, signs of a lack of consent don’t have to be that either, although you definitely want to make that clear if something really bothers you. But that doesn’t mean that someone has to act so completely solicitous that they essentially deny the woman her ability to be reasonable expected to let people know what does and doesn’t bother her. Truly equal women, women who might even initiate, have to be able to express their own desires, without having to have the man ask her constantly what she wants like a parent to a small child.

A feminist dater or boyfriend (and yes, feminists have boyfriends) is aware of the ways women have traditionally been held back, by others and by our own accord, and actively pushes against that. He’s sensitive to the fact that women’s bodies are frequently judged, abused and legislated, and takes no part in that. He gets it.

Note that she says earlier:

Does he need to be actively fighting for social, political and economic justice for women — and for all people, really — to identify as a feminist? (Not necessarily. But if he’s doing that, great.)

But what, then, does she mean by “actively pushes against that” if not that “actively fighting” bit that she says he doesn’t need to have? And, again, reasons matter. For example, can a man be pro-choice and still be non-sexist? What if he has a solid — if potentially wrong — philosophical argument for his position? Again, discussion finds out what his ideas are and might possibly convert him if his arguments are demonstrated incorrect. It’s not a good thing to end up defining it simply by the things you believe, as even if he’s wrong that doesn’t make him bad … just wrong. Maybe.

The on-line dating part is generally aimed at finding people that share your political views, and so is fine … an I’ve already pointed out the issues with relying on the word “feminist”, especially if that’s the only thing you say, so let’s move on from there. Let me just note in passing that if you make feminism out to be your primary interest, I personally will not be interested because it suggests that you’re an activist … and I’m not one. I gripe about things in blog posts … even the things that directly affect me. Don’t expect me to become an activist or find appealing someone who is; there’s nothing wrong with them, but it’s a good sign that our personalities don’t align.

Sometimes the signs of a person’s worldview are more subtle. When I spoke to Samhita Mukhopadhyay, a former executive editor of Feministing.com and the author of “Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life,” she complained about men’s online profiles that list their favorite musicians and writers, but don’t include a single woman. “Everyone loves Thomas Pynchon,” she said. “It’s like: Do you know that women make art, too?”

Feminists have long complained about the lack of female representation in things like the arts because it’s harder to women to relate to the life experience of men. If this is true, then we’d expect that women generally prefer female artists to male ones. And, also, if we treat men and women as roughly the same, then we’d expect men to feel the same way and have the same preferences. Additionally, there is a common feminist complaint about how women are under-represented in many artistic fields, which means that if a man happens to like that field it is indeed likely that if he likes the standard and common best examples they will be dominated by men. So this indicates, well, very little.

I’ll leave the vulnerability point aside, because in truth I don’t know what her point is, beyond that, well, it’s hard to know where that line is.

Her last point is this:

Which brings us back to that elusive feminist boyfriend. If the feminist man is all about blending strength and sensitivity, balancing traditionally masculine traits with traditionally feminine ones, it’s a balance women are also trying to navigate.

True. Which means that women ought to be able to understand the conflicts that this might create for men and so be forgiving when something doesn’t seem to align perfectly with a perceived feminist ideal. There is little consideration for non-sexist reasons for seemingly sexist behaviour in her article, let alone leeway given for old attitudes that they can and will change when it is pointed out to them. Ultimately, my advice is for women to stop looking for a “feminist” man, and look for a man that is compatible with them. The attitudes that they are so worried about will shake themselves out as part of that.

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5 Responses to “How to Marry a Mill … Er, Feminist Man.”

  1. malcolmthecynic Says:

    (a belief that, say, the costs of day care overwhelm the income that say, a waitress makes and so it isn’t worth her working when she could stay home with the kids and provide a lot of support for them while they actually end up better financially over that).

    As well as the belief that economics isn’t the only thing worth looking at here.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Sure, but I didn’t want to bring that up because it gets into the whole idea of careers and fulfillment, which certainly can be factor but right now tends to fall on the side of women maintaining a career because it is fulfilling for them, even if it is impractical. Fulfillment should not trump practicality, and economics is directly practical, most of the time, so it makes a good example.

  2. Héctor Muñoz Huerta Says:

    The fulfillment of family life and the importance of the first years of children is greatly underestimated in modern life.

    My wife was quite reluctant to stop working when we had our first child, she was resentful to the idea. She had a couple of personal problems with a director in her company so she left the job any way.

    Now that we had our second child she is considering returning to work half time after three years. She is quite happy she took the time to enjoy mothering. It has been a bit stressful for me since I had to take some late night freelance work to cover the bills but I wanted to.

    Infancy is a very special time in a family and it will only last a few years, then we are back to work for the rest of our lives, it’s wise to take the time to enjoy it.

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