Last year I started an individual blog which is currently defunct, and this is a repost of a post from that blog. I wrote it nearly a year ago, but it’s an issue that’s been on my mind lately, and our conversations about presiding reminded me of it again. It’s just a few thoughts on the difficulties of trying to negotiate feminist ideals in one’s life (in this case, when it comes to relationships). I’ve made no alterations to the original post.
I get frustrated by the disconnect I see in my life between how I act in relationships with others (especially those of the male-female variety) and how I ideally see myself acting in my head. Maybe that’s why the article “Radical Heterosexuality” by Naomi Wolf that my Women’s Studies students read this past semester (and that I hadn’t read before) struck such a chord for me.
Admittedly, it’s a dated article; it speaks to some debates in feminism that aren’t dominant issues anymore. For example, once of Wolf’s central questions is whether or not you can simultaneously love men and be a feminist. She answers “yes” (and then writes about how one goes about doing that in the rest of the article), but I think that most feminists these days would not disagree with her on this issue. We’ve moved from painting men as the enemy to recognizing that both men and women are caught up in societal institutions that create inequalities and shape our behavior and choices.
The parts of Wolf’s article I did find compelling were the moments where she detailed how feminists should act in their relationships with men. Instead of merely critiquing men for the ways in which they end up dominating relationships, she points her fingers at feminists and critiques them for the ways in which they allow their own behavior to be dictated by socialization and gendered expectations.
At one point in the article, she humorously narrates how she often will stand by while her partner “wrestles with a stuck window, an intractable computer printer, maps, or locks” because “people are lazy–at least I am–and it’s easy to rationalize that the person with the penis is the one who should get out of a warm bed to fix the snow on the TV screen.” One issue she spends a particular amount of time on is the way in which feminists have been socialized with an “antifeminist erotic template” (i.e. knights on white horses with damsels in distress), and that we need to acknowledge that this socialization exists and do our best to unpack and understand it, and afterwards, strive for equality in our relationships.
The past few months, I’ve been thinking about my own struggles with this issue. I think I worry about this more on a communicative and interactive than on a practical skills level (I’m not good with computers and fixing things, and if the person I’m with is much better than I am at it, I think he should do it by virtue that it’s going to take him about 1/10 of the time that it will take me). However, there are areas of my relationships where my ideals of equality don’t match the reality.
For instance, to what extent do the ways in which I demand emotional sensitivity and empathy from others produce these desirable characteristics, and to what extent do they place me in a protective emotional bubble where everyone around me has to step carefully lest I get upset? The latter puts me in a position where it 1) becomes increasingly difficult for me to take responsibility for my own emotional reactions and 2) doesn’t enable me to participate as a full equal in a messy-yet-hopefully-joyous emotional relationship.
To what extent is my tendency to look at things from multiple perspectives and validate the perspectives of others a good quality, and to what extent do I take this too far and allow my own visions, thoughts, and opinions to be subsumed into the thoughts and opinions of others? The latter puts me in a position where my unique perspective is not equally heard and valued in my daily environments and interactions.
I find the whole issue immensely tricky. My socialized/innate (it’s some of both) behaviors don’t fit the ideal in my head, and it’s difficult to change. Also, sometimes you want to take advantage of the benefits of inequality because you don’t get the benefits of equality; you’d rather have the latter, but if you can’t, the former is better than no benefits at all. But then you end up reinforcing dynamics of inequality that are making you unhappy.
I do think women are repeatedly silenced, demeaned, and oppressed in subtle ways that are often difficult to pinpoint. I think it’s important to look at how institutions and socialization reinforce these tendencies. However, I think each woman needs to look at the ways in which she allows herself to be silenced. We need to look at the ways we take advantage of unequal gendered positions rather than demanding equality in all its beauty and difficulty.
(I took the quotes from Wolf’s article from the anthology “Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives,” edited by Gwyn Kirk and Margo Okazawa-Rey, and published by McGraw-Hill in 2004).